Vladimir Putin’s gamble that invading Ukraine would undermine NATO unity appears to have backfired spectacularly.
With a clear and present danger to unite them, the member countries of the military alliance are more committed than ever to deeper security ties and the principle of collective defense.
Finland will soon be followed by Sweden in applying for membership, expanding NATO’s presence in the north of the continent.
But the move also highlights a problem that predates the war in Ukraine and will exist long after: the proximity of the Kremlin’s war machine to European territory.
Russia’s western flank, already facing NATO in Estonia and Latvia, is heavily fortified.
Soon the new outer edge of the alliance, stretching 800 miles across eastern Finland, comes within a stone’s throw of even more of Russia’s vast military.
The Severomorsk naval base, the heart of its northern fleet, is now just 115 miles from the NATO border.
From here, sleepless nuclear-armed submarines undertake long, silent journeys underwater, while destroyers and landing ships prepare for naval assaults.
The 200th Mechanized Brigade is based in Luostari, less than 70 miles from Finland, and currently uses its tanks and rocket launchers in Ukraine.
Satellite images reveal it has a Cold War-era airstrip, barracks, and rows of armored personnel carriers and personnel carriers.
The 61st Naval Infantry Brigade, which has fought in Donbas and Syria, is based at the Sputnik base just to the north.
It’s a similar story at Alakurtti, another base housing military vehicles and soldiers trained in Arctic warfare, just over 30 miles from Finland.
Further south, units attached to the 6th Army based near St. Petersburg are stationed towards the Finnish border.
The bases at Kamenka and Sapyornoye, both of which are in active use, judging by satellite images, are 60 miles from the future NATO member.
With Sweden poised to join Finland and apply to join NATO as well, the balance of power appears to have tilted dramatically in the struggle for influence over the Black Sea.
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The busy shipping route is vital to Russia’s economy, especially for energy exports leaving St. Petersburg’s ports.
In 2015, a Defense Ministry report warned that Moscow might seek to “sow dissent and attack the resolve” of countries surrounding the waters.
Given that Sweden and Finland will soon increase the number of countries with Baltic Sea coastlines in NATO from seven to nine out of 10 (the odd one being Russia), there is little doubt that the alliance has established a dominant position there.
But Russia will continue to use Kaliningrad, its heavily militarized enclave between Poland and Lithuania, to ensure it maintains its strength in the region.
The Baltic Sea fleet at the Baltiysk naval base includes a battalion of modern missile-equipped warships, some of which entered service this year.
In 2019, Russia established a helicopter base on the island of Gogland, a tree-covered rock that floats in the middle of the Gulf of Finland. It is located a few miles from Finnish waters and 70 miles from Helsinki.
Russia, Sweden and Finland have a complicated history dating back hundreds of years that still casts a shadow over relations between the trio.
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What is now Finland was once a grand duchy controlled by the tsar and treated as a buffer state between the Russian Empire and the once-mighty Kingdom of Sweden, which spent decades at war with its neighbor.
Finland gained its independence in 1917, but fell into years of political turmoil and civil war, ultimately leading to the invasion of Soviet forces in 1939.
Like the attack on the Ukraine, the Winter War turned out to be a bloody and costly endeavor for Moscow and set Finland on a course that would see it fight with and against Nazi Germany in World War II.
Though Finland managed to maintain its independence throughout the 20th century as the Soviet Union gobbled up others on Russia’s doorstep, it came at a price: It shrank to maintain a small army and allowed the Soviet Navy to lease a base on its own. territory.
Successive politicians in Helsinki struck a middle ground between West and East during the Cold War, avoiding being forcibly drawn into Russia’s orbit but having to stay a step away from their European neighbors.
Sweden has followed a policy of non-alignment for more than 200 years, and the last time it was directly involved in a war was in 1814.
Both have openly considered applying for membership in recent years and already have some defense cooperation with NATO, but the strategic image and public opinion have been dramatically altered by the Ukraine war.
The Russian Foreign Ministry warned Finland that “it will be forced to take retaliatory measures, both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to prevent threats to its national security from arising.”
The UK has signed a defense guarantee with both countries this week, a move designed to offer support and security during their accession.
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