Finland and Sweden are considering whether to apply for NATO membership in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a move that Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened would have nuclear consequences.
Both countries are slated to make a decision in a matter of weeks, as leaders say they are dramatically changing their security assessments. Russia has responded by saying a nuclear-free Baltic region would no longer be possible if Finland and Sweden become NATO members.
Harvard scholar Oleh Kotsyuba and Northeastern University professors Mai’a Cross and Pablo Calderon explained the implications Finland and Sweden joining NATO during an episode of NBC10 Boston's weekly series, "Russia-Ukraine Q&A."
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Moscow sees neighboring Finland's potential inclusion in NATO as a threat to its national security, as the U.S. could deploy advanced military equipment in Finland if it joined the alliance.
"Vladimir Putin was very, very clear that they will see this as aggression, and we've already seen what Vladimir Putin does when he feels there has been some sort of aggression against Russia," Calderon said. "So I think we have to be very careful here and we have to make sure that Vladimir Putin can see whatever he wants as an aggression but that doesn't mean that gives him the right to do whatever he wants to. And I think the next few weeks are very important in that calculation."
Sweden and Finland are members of the European Union but not NATO, and the latter shares an 830-mile border with Russia. Moscow's invasion of Ukraine has triggered a U-turn in Finnish public opinion on becoming a member of the 30-country military alliance, which it has refrained from joining since World War II in a bid to maintain neutrality.
"There was really no interest whatsoever in joining NATO. Finland had a very comfortable position, had a relatively friendly relationship with Russia, right? This is before obviously Vladimir Putin was considered the pariah that he is today," Calderon said. "For Finland in particular to shift and to really move toward joining NATO is a very significant development that really speaks of the fear that certain countries, or Western countries, are having in reaction to Vladimir Putin."
If Finland joined NATO, Sweden would likely follow suit. Finland and Sweden, as well as Ukraine, are already "Enhanced Opportunity Partners" of NATO, the closest form of partnership with the alliance, and partake in military exercises with NATO states.
"It is important for Finland and Sweden to take this stance. It signals that, you know, remaining neutral in a situation like this with this shift in the nature of the world order is not acceptable," Cross said. "And it is important to really draw a clear line and say that what Russia is doing is wrong. And this is important not only internationally, but also domestically."
But Russia has long warned against any enlargement of NATO, reportedly accusing the alliance of being "a tool geared towards confrontation." Ahead of its invasion of Ukraine, it demanded that the organization, which was created in 1949 in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union, return to its pre-1997 borders — something the U.S. and NATO refused.
Moscow blames Ukraine's pursuit of NATO membership, among other things, for triggering the invasion, saying it threatened Russia's security. NATO leaders have reiterated that they will not send troops into Ukraine to help in the fight against Russia, primarily because the country is not a member of the alliance.
"We are seeing the hardening of lines on both sides, right? This buffer zone that has existed there is basically disappearing," Kotsyuba said. "And the question is, if there is a new Iron Curtain emerging, where is it going to go, and I think that we need to do everything possible that that curtain doesn't go to the middle of Ukraine."
Meanwhile, after being thwarted in their push toward Ukraine's capital, Russian troops are now focusing on the eastern Donbas region. The Donbas has been torn by fighting between Russian-allied separatists and Ukrainian forces since 2014, and Russia has recognized the separatists’ claims of independence.
Military strategists say Moscow appears to hope that local support, logistics and the terrain in the region favor its larger, better-armed military, potentially allowing Russia to finally turn the tide in its favor. Moving the Iron Curtain over the eastern region would fulfill one of Putin's strategic goals, Kotsyuba said.
"In particular, to make that eastern part of Ukraine, you know, a certain kind of no man's land or like a border land where there is no law," Kotsyuba said. "There's just kind of a gray zone that will be a source of crime, exporting crime, exporting weapons, drugs, etc. to Western Europe."