As siniristilippu (“Blue Cross Flag”) was unfurled in front of NATO Headquarters in Brussels on 04 April 2023 when Finland finally desquamated its so-called ‘neutrality’ by formally joining North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as its 31st member state, there was widespread rejoicing and a renewed sense of strategic accomplishment across the transatlantic security architecture currently set against Russia. Undoubtedly, NATO’s embrace of Finland, a hitherto neutral and non-aligned country since the 1948 ‘friendship agreement’ with the then Soviet Union, is no ordinary feat. Finland has a highly professional conscription-based military with a wartime strength of 280,000 individuals and around 900,000 in reserve. The country also boasts highly sophisticated weaponry with impressive artillery weapons, a range of McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets, as well as a formidable naval fleet of command vessels, minelayers, missile craft, minesweepers, and mine countermeasure vessels in stock. Finnish Armed Forces are also witnessing weapon-systems and equipment upgrades in the form of planned adding up of Parrot Anafi USA drones, Orbiter drones, ELTA counter-battery radar system, Rafael Defense Systems, Saab Dynamics, F-35A aircraft as well as multi-role corvettes to its arsenal.
In his remarks on the occasion of Finland’s completion of the accession process, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg remarked in a resounding manner that Russian President Vladimir Putin instead of being able to reduce NATO had “achieved the opposite” by having “more NATO”.
Russia’s initial response to the above development was as per expectations. Already back in 2016, when asked about the prospective joining of NATO by Finland, Putin had remarked that if Finland joined NATO; Russia “would not see a Finn but an ‘enemy’ across the border”. Accordingly, in response to Finland’s formal accession to NATO, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu linked it up with the ongoing war in Ukraine and stated that the above development had created “risks of a significant expansion of the conflict”. Russia also indicated that it would “strengthen its military potential” along the Russo-Finnish border in response. In its formal reaction to Finland’s accession to NATO, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that by joining the Western military alliance, Finland had committed a “dangerous historical mistake”. Russian Foreign Ministry argued that the above development would be judged in history as a “hasty step”.
Finland is now formally part of NATO, it is being assessed that Russia’s northwestern flank would become more vulnerable and therefore Russia would be compelled to take a number of counter-measures coupled with nuclear posturing of aggressive nature in order to combat NATO’s position in that region.
It is also being argued that Russia would take Finland’s membership of NATO as a threat to the country’s Kaliningrad exclave; strategically vital Kola Peninsula in the western Arctic region hosting its Northern Fleet and serving as a guarantor of Russia’s second strike capability; Arkhangelsk region where the country’s military-industrial complex is based; as well as Russia’s vital city of St. Petersburg. Western strategic and defense analysts however assess that as Russia is currently engaged in the Ukraine war, it would probably rely on cyber attacks as well as subversive activities against critical energy infrastructure in the short term, while seeking to beef up its conventional deterrence capabilities in the region over the long-term in order to counter the challenges posed by Finland’s joining of NATO. Russia is also expected to target Danish Straits, Gotland, Bornholm, and Åland Islands as part of its aggressive posturing against NATO in view of the above developments.
It may however be observed that the above assessment is premised on the conceptualization of Russian threat perceptions as per the threat perceptions of the Western and European analysts themselves. These assessments however unfortunately appear to ignore certain important elements of Russian geo-perceptions regarding the evolving transatlantic and European security architecture. While the above analyses may rightly envision certain short-term tactical aggressive measures by Russia, these do not critically examine what essentially guides Russia’s strategic maneuvers in the region or the core reasons as to why Russia is neither deterred by the tactical reversals in Ukraine nor is likely to be influenced by the joining of NATO by Finland.
In order to assess Finland’s joining of NATO and its likely consequences for the regional security architecture from the Russian standpoint, it is important to assess Russian geo-perceptions and how that country essentially perceives the above evolving strategic developments in view of its own role conceptualization. For this purpose, it is pivotal to have recourse to Russia’s concept of foreign policy published in March 2023 as well as its updated national security strategy in 2021. These are indeed the core documents that reflect Russia’s current mindset and social construct as to how it perceives its enemy ‘others’; conceptualizes its allies; identifies its role in the international system; and constructs the ideational premise that guides or motivates its actions and counter-measures against the Western powers.
To begin with, Russia visualizes itself as having a civilizational role in the modern world enjoying one-thousand years of independent statehood and being a “unique country-civilization” as well as a “vast Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power”. However, despite projecting itself as a global power, Russia’s approach towards other States and Organizations is not independent in character but rather reactionary in nature. As per the document entitled “The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation” (March 2023), Russian attitude towards other countries is “contingent on the constructive, neutral or unfriendly character of their policies with respect to the Russian Federation”. Accordingly, if in Russian perception a certain action by an adversary is perceived to be aggressive in nature, even if that adversary feels otherwise, Russia would orient its military response accordingly, guided by the element of preemption and expansion of the regional horizon of war with its adversaries (in this case NATO).
Another important element in the case of Russia’s geo-perceptions is the fact that it has evolved a new notion of ‘Greater Eurasia’ and gone to the extent of identifying it as a continent in itself. This new geographical perception, therefore, reduces Europe to a region of the Eurasian continent. This geo-perception of the Eurasian continent has therefore two main consequential elements. Firstly, as regards its actions in Europe, irrespective of whether military or economic in nature, Russia links these up with the entire Eurasian continent including even the “Asia Pacific region”. Accordingly, for Russia, any perceived aggressive actions or strategic maneuvers by NATO would not necessarily be countered within the geographical confines of Europe but across the wider geographical expanse of the Greater Eurasian continent by leveraging Russia’s huge geographical space and resources. This could therefore involve NATO in a war of attrition and stretch it across the entire Eurasian continent, thus seeping its ability of focused responses.
Russia essentially does not envision any cooperative structure with Europe or the US anymore and considers the replacement of the current world order based on the Western value system with a more representative polycentric world order that draws inspiration from Russian ideals. For achieving this objective, Russia even contemplates supplanting the existing unipolar global order. Russia holds the perception that it is the ‘West’ that has actually been attempting to destabilize Russia and therefore as its response, Russia aims to “eliminate” the “vestiges of domination” by the US and other unfriendly states. For achieving the above ideal, Russia even goes to the extent of committing itself to militarily supporting its allies. In this context, Russia envisions reliance on the predominantly Asian security architecture, especially Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia now relies on collaboration with China, India, Latin America, the Caribbean as well as the Islamic world to achieve its ideal of putting in place a new ‘polycentric’ world order. In a nutshell, Russia considers itself a Eurasian center that is separate from Western ideology and intends to counter NATO across a wider horizon of the Eurasian continent.
The specific development of Finland’s joining NATO and attempt to visualize how Russia is likely to respond to this development based on its peculiar social construct.
In view of its peculiar conceptualization of sovereignty and territorial integrity premised on the notion of wider Eurasia, Russia would undoubtedly view Finland’s joining of NATO as yet another aggressive action by the Euro-Atlantic security architecture led by the US against its perception of sovereignty as well as territorial integrity and therefore respond to it on the frontiers where it feels that the NATO is more vulnerable. In Russian perception, buffer zones always constituted important safety valves in the past and are still relevant today. Accordingly, in the new situation where Russia feels threatened by the gradual removal of such neutral buffer zones as Finland, it would likely react in the short run by unfreezing certain frozen conflicts in Europe. These would likely include for instance Transnistria (an Internationally unrecognized statelet carved out of Moldova that is a non-NATO neutral country) where Russia could ramp up secessionist agenda vociferously in the name of supporting the Russian ethnic majority there and thus consequently instigate strategic volatility in the neighborhood of NATO’s Eastern Flank, especially Romania, and Bulgaria. Russia could also more forcefully support Serb ethnic minorities’ secessionist agenda in the strategic pockets of the Western Balkans such as Bosnia & Herzegovina or Kosovo, thus placing another divergence for NATO. As per its strategic document on the concept of Foreign Policy recently enunciated, Russia is committed to supporting its allies and partners in security terms irrespective of whether they receive international recognition or not. Accordingly, the possibility of Russia eventually supporting the secessionist elements involved in the above-frozen conflicts even militarily cannot be ruled out.
Russia could even progressively enhance its tactical and strategic nuclear arsenal’s positioning and posturing in its allied countries, in response to NATO’s further eastward expansion.
Elements of this aspect are already being witnessed as Russia has recently decided to place its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus bordering NATO. This development occurred almost parallel to Finland’s joining NATO.
Russia’s long-term response to NATO in view of Finland’s accession to the Alliance may not only appear in Europe but could be witnessed in Latin American countries as well as the Middle East. Russia clearly envisions militarily supporting Latin American countries that are “under pressure from the United States and its allies” while intends expanding “security, military and military-technical cooperation” with these countries. Resultantly, for attaining its “Strategic foreign policy goals”, Russia may not hesitate to expand military cooperation with its allies in these regions from tactical to strategic levels.
In essence, while in the short-term, NATO would feel well entwined against Russia; the alliance may trigger a more aggressive reaction from Russia in stark contradiction to its expectation of weakening Russia’s resolve. It is because Russia has evolved its social construct and geo-perceptions in such a non-negotiable manner; identified its adversaries in such tangible terms; assumed such an uncompromising role for itself as a formidable global security provider and architect of new multipolar political order that there is hardly any containment strategy that could deter it from hardening its approach towards Ukraine or attempting to militarily engage NATO across a wider geographical scale at least in the near future. For achieving its above-mentioned ideals, Russia is seemingly bent upon leveraging its geography as well as vast oil and gas resources because it perceives these aspects to serve as strategic vulnerabilities for Europe. Ironically, therefore, with NATO expanding its borders with Russia following Finland’s entry into the Alliance, Russia may perceive this move as an expression of NATO’s inherent sense of insecurity. NATO’s recent warning to China not to weaponize Russia against Ukraine and continued call upon its members to increase defense spending may rather lead to the strengthening of Russian perceptions that not only NATO is wary of Russia-China ‘No-Limits partnership’ but also remains internally fragile owing to less than required defense spending commitments by its member states. Resultantly, Russia may rather feel compelled and encouraged to not only continue enhancing the scope of its military operations in Ukraine but also take steps towards consolidation of its achieved geographic gains in that country. This is evident by the recent promulgation of Laws on the integration of the Kherson region, Zaporozhye region, Lugansk and Donetsk into Russia’s judicial system as well as Russia’s recent strategic gains in the town of Bakhmut in Ukraine. NATO therefore may need to reassess if it is entwined enough against Russia and its allies based on its current strategy of expansion in hitherto neutral European countries or if is it risking itself by getting bogged down in a milieu where its competitors and adversaries envision a polycentric world order that is neither defined nor governed by western value system or ideational paradigms.
Dr. Iffat Naheed is a “Visiting Researcher” at the Balkan Studies Centre, International University of Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina. She holds a Ph.D. degree in Political Science from the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration, Bucharest, Romania.