After months of diplomatic delays, Sweden can now join NATO—a genuine triumph for the Biden administration.
This development has enormous geostrategic implications for the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
One is a direct reduction of Russia’s ability to project naval power. With Sweden as the last link in the chain, the entire northern coast of the Baltic Sea is now inside the NATO alliance. All of the Baltic’s southern coast, except for Russian-ruled Kaliningrad and a sliver of Russian territory near St. Petersburg, is already in NATO hands. For the first time, the Russian fleet must travel through a narrow sleeve of water, over 1,000 miles of NATO territorial waters, to reach the open ocean. It also means that Russia’s Arctic fleet will have to travel past the northern coasts of Finland and Norway—now all NATO allies. To reach the Mediterranean and the Suez, Russia’s Black Sea fleet must first thread through waters controlled by Turkey, another NATO ally. All three of Russia’s Western fleets can no longer move without allied surveillance and could, theoretically, be stopped.
Another implication concerns manpower and technology. Sweden offers a sophisticated military infrastructure, especially its attack aircraft and anti-submarine capabilities. Finland, which directly borders Russia for almost 1,000 miles, possesses extensive defenses and a well-trained army. Once Sweden and Finland’s considerable capabilities become interoperable with NATO, the alliance will be significantly more potent than it was on the day Russian tanks tried to seize Kiev in February 2022.
The Western powers are now more united with the Baltic nations than ever before. Even during World War II, Sweden professed neutrality, and Finland, for a time, allied with Nazi Germany against the USSR.
Undoubtedly, the implications are concerning to policymakers in Moscow.
And NATO is more focused than ever before. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg laid out a clear strategic direction for the organization: victory for Ukraine. “...if we don't ensure that Ukraine wins this war, unless we ensure that Ukraine wins as a sovereign and independent nation, there is no question of membership to discuss,” Stoltenberg said.
It is highly unusual for NATO officials to speak with such clarity, indicating unanimity between member-states.
Indeed, if President Joe Biden had not made it clear that Ukraine was not yet ready to join NATO, one wonders if the European allies might have voted to admit Ukraine now.
NATO leaders have long been cowed by the idea that admitting Ukraine into NATO would lead to a direct war with Russia. Europe would be wise to avoid an open, as opposed to a proxy war, with Russia. While European leaders are starting to realize that the Russian bear’s teeth and claws are not as sharp as they once feared, it would be a mistake to believe that the Russians can no longer wreak vast harm across Europe, even without resorting to nuclear weapons. Now is the time for realism about Russia, not over-confidence.
That said, Russia’s military weaknesses have been laid bare. Moscow has trouble supplying its soldiers in the field with ammunition, fuel, medicine, and spare parts—much of its military supply chains rely on railroad and convoy transport vulnerable to artillery bombardment and drone strikes. Manpower is another Russian weakness. Its troops are poorly trained conscripts or recently freed prisoners. They can man Russia’s extensive World War I-style trench defenses but usually lose men and materiel without gaining ground when they launch their comparatively rare counterattacks. The war in Ukraine is now more than 500 days old, and the Russians have suffered between 100,000 and 200,000 casualties, depending on whose estimates you believe.
By contrast, the U.S. lost 57,000 soldiers in more than 5,100 days of fighting in Vietnam. That’s a quarter of the losses in ten times the time period. Yet, the Vietnam War helped bring down two U.S. presidents. LBJ declined to run for reelection in 1968 on account of war-weariness, and Nixon’s failed “Vietnamization” project weakened the public support he would later need during the Watergate scandal. How can President Vladimir Putin survive an unpopular war when two U.S. presidents could not?
At the very least, the recent mutiny launched by mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin suggests that Putin's regime is growing fragile. Still, Putin’s great unknown remains China.
Chinese president Xi Jinping shares the same convictions as Putin: to create a non-Western-centric, multipolar world order. But his relationship with Russia is a product of interests rather than deeply held values. The two countries share a 2,672-mile border, the exact location of which wasn't settled until the start of the twenty-first century following generations of negotiations. China needs Russia for water and military equipment; Russia needs China as a market for hydrocarbons and other raw materials. This is a shotgun wedding, not a romance.
Being isolated from the West is not attractive for China, given its hopes of achieving a robust economic rebound after years of zero-COVID policies. As China's relationship with the United States has hit new lows, Chinese leaders want to avoid alienating the European Union, which is also one of China’s largest trading partners. Consequently, Xi and Chinese diplomats have been careful not to accept the Kremlin's talking points fully.
All of this leaves Putin in a quagmire. He cannot exit Ukraine without losing prestige and possibly power itself. Meanwhile, a newly enlarged and unified NATO presents Russia with its most powerful foe since Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century at the same time the Russian economy and population are shrinking. Nor can he hold ground in Ukraine during the warmer months, as demonstrated by the modest gains of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Putin, the purported grand chess player, cannot leave the game and cannot find a winning move. This week’s news of NATO enlargement continues to shrink his options.
Ahmed Charai is the Publisher of Jerusalem Strategic Tribune. He is on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council, the International Crisis Group, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the Center for the National Interest.