Putin’s Strategic Error

The Russian leader is creating the very Western alliance he feared.

Three people stand at lecterns on a stage, with the flags of Finland, Ukraine, and NATO between them, during a press conference in Brussels.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, center, participates in a press conference with Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, left, and Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde, right, at NATO headquarters, in Brussels. (Olivier Matthys / AP)

When Vladimir Putin began laying the groundwork for his invasion of Ukraine, he pointed to what he regards as the existential threat posed by the West encroaching farther into the post-Soviet space. Nearly two weeks into Putin’s devastating and costly invasion, that fear has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy: The once-remote possibility of Ukraine joining the European Union and NATO now seems more plausible, and even in historically neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden (both of which are already EU members), public support for joining NATO has surged to record levels.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has primarily succeeded in materializing his worst fears: a unified West, a more militarized Europe, and a stronger, more attractive NATO. No matter how the invasion ends, this will be one of its legacies. Putin has demonstrated his willingness to violate the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors, in full view of the world, with little regard for the consequences. Several of those neighbors are now justifiably asking themselves, Could we be next?

This dramatic change has been particularly pronounced in Finland, where recent polls have found that, for the first time in the Nordic country’s history, a majority—albeit a narrow one, at 53 percent—supports joining NATO. This shift was sudden: In January, only 30 percent supported NATO accession. In addition to an 830-mile border, Finland and Russia share a long history and important economic ties. Although relations between the two haven’t always been perfect (Finland repelled a Soviet invasion in 1939), Finns didn’t consider themselves to be particularly threatened by their eastern neighbor—until now.

Moscow had already proved its willingness to violate the sovereignty of its neighbors when it invaded Georgia in 2008 and then when it illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. But this time, Putin “has gone full monty,” Alexander Stubb, the former Finnish prime minister, told me. As Finland’s foreign minister and prime minister during those respective periods, Stubb said he and other Western leaders failed to heed the warnings: “We set sanctions but, with hindsight, they were not enough. I’ll be fully honest with you, I never thought he would go this far.”

In Sweden, which like Finland has historically been seen as a neutral buffer between Russia and the West, public opinion has also swung in favor of NATO membership, the prospects of which seemed pretty marginal a couple of months ago. Meanwhile, Russia’s neighbors in Georgia and Moldova recently followed Ukraine’s lead in submitting applications for EU membership, in a clear effort to position themselves closer to the West. (Brussels announced on Monday that it would begin the process of examining the bids.)

The expansion of NATO and the EU aren’t necessarily imminent. But the fact that they are being discussed at all shows the extent to which the invasion of Ukraine has altered Moscow’s relationship with its neighbors in a way that its previous invasions hadn’t. While neither the Finnish nor Swedish government has announced any plans to change its security arrangements, both acknowledged the impact that the invasion has had on public opinion and vowed to strengthen bilateral security cooperation between them. They also pledged to send military aid to Ukraine, in a clear deviation from their usual neutral stance. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who earlier this year said that Sweden and Finland could join the alliance “very quickly” if they decided to apply, announced last week that both countries will take part in all NATO consultations about the crisis.

Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession would undoubtedly elicit a strong reaction from Moscow, which already warned that any effort to draw the Nordic countries into the military alliance would result in Russian retaliation. But the way experts I spoke with see it, these kinds of threats only stand to push Finland and Sweden even closer to NATO. “Everything has changed,” Zebulon Carlander, a Stockholm-based defense analyst and co-author of Strategic Choices: The Future of Swedish Security, told me.

The path forward is considerably less clear for Moldova, which, like Ukraine and Georgia, has a Russian-backed breakaway region within its territory. Although the Moldovan government has long sought to join the EU, its decision to apply now was precipitated by this “dramatic situation,” Nicu Popescu, the country’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs and European integration, told me and other foreign journalists Saturday at a press conference. It was also indicative of just how vulnerable countries such as Moldova have become. If Russian forces were to seize control of the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, as Ukraine’s government has warned they could try, then they would have a clear path to Transnistria, the separatist region along the Moldovan-Ukranian border, where Russia already has some 1,500 troops. When I asked Popescu whether his country is concerned about Russian aggression reaching Moldova, he said that the government is obliged to be “prepared for all of the scenarios that are possible, including the negative ones.”

Although seeking to join the EU isn’t the same as joining NATO (which Popescu said is a nonstarter for Moldova, owing to the country’s constitutionally enshrined neutrality), it does serve a similar purpose. The EU has become much more assertive in its own military capabilities, even going so far as to supply Ukraine with half a billion dollars’ worth of arms and other military aid. (Two EU member states, Germany and Denmark, are also increasing their military spending.) “The difference between being a member of the EU and being a member of NATO in terms of what the response would be to Russian aggression will be very marginal,” Stefan Wolff, an international-security expert at Britain’s University of Birmingham, told me. “It will exist on paper, but probably not in reality.”

The distinction likely matters little to Putin as well. His decision to invade Crimea stemmed in part from Ukraine’s desire to draw closer to the EU. In negotiations to end the hostilities, he has demanded a constitutional guarantee that Ukraine not join the EU. For him, the risk of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors integrating with European democracies is that Russians may one day aspire to do the same.

Luckily for the Russian president, the enlargement of NATO or the EU is not going to happen overnight. The accession process for both blocs can take years; each requires the unanimous support of its existing members. Still, the way observers such as Stubb see it, the timeline hardly matters. “There is no point of return,” he said. “What is happening is exactly what Putin did not want to happen.”