Collateral damage and unintended consequences of the Russian attack

Nordic Council

Helsinki, 2 November 2022

Let me illustrate the consequences of the Russian attack on Ukraine with the metaphor of self-inflicted collateral damage.

The decision by Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership is probably the least worrying outcome for Russia even if a glance at the map is enough to show what a sea-change this extension of NATO territory will mean. Both countries were already well embedded in Western defense arrangements and their armed forces fully NATO compatible. Sweden enjoyed secret American security guarantees throughout the Cold War. 

Maybe the most important change though will be the fact that both Finland and Sweden are in Norway’s rear in the north and will provide additional depth for NATO defense of Finnmark. Immediately after Finland and Sweden submitted their membership applications a Norwegian military transport crossed through Northern Finland and Northern Sweden to Southern Norway.

It is evident that the NATO debate in Finland and Sweden, which was triggered by Russia’s aggressive rhetoric last fall, took the Kremlin by surprise. But it was the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24ththat turned out to be the inflection point and led to the determined decision in Helsinki and Stockholm to apply for membership. Putin’s denial of Ukraine’s right to exist was immediately associated with Stalin denying Finland its right to exist followed by a Red Army attack on November 30th, 1939. 

Up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine the Finnish assumption was that close cooperation with NATO, ever-deepening military integration with Sweden since 2014 and growing cooperation with the US and Britain would be enough to secure the country’s defense. The general idea remained that NATO membership would mean a break with Russia and that Finland should never break with Russia. At the same time, the resolve to resist and if needed put up a fight if Russia would break with Finland was evident and demonstrated by the systematic buildup of Finland’s defense capability. This was also the essence of the so-called NATO option adopted as early as 2004. 

For Sweden, joining NATO meant leaping over its own shadow. Staying out of alliances for two centuries was almost an ideological issue, but for Finland joining NATO was a pragmatic decision backed up by overwhelming public support. The fact that the Swedish decision was taken by a government led by a NATO-skeptical party enhanced the credibility of the change of policy. Still, there is an axiom not to be forgotten – there is no solution to the Finnish security problem posed by an unstable and unpredictable nuclear superpower neighbor – it can only be managed – now also as a future NATO member

The Nordic enlargement of NATO differs in many ways from previous enlargements because both Sweden and Finland offer the alliance high value assets. Finland has the largest army in the North with Europe’s largest artillery. This probably comes as a surprise, but it reflects a wartime legacy and Stalin’s adage “artillery is the God of War” (Boh voiny). Something the war in Ukraine has proven beyond doubt. 

Unlike so many other countries, Finland never embraced the concept of a peace dividend and never replaced territorial defense with expeditionary forces as Sweden and Germany did. Finnish participation in expeditionary operations was always considered in terms of its contribution to improving territorial defense. Compulsory conscription remains popular and is the basis for all officer and NCO recruitment. Finland has a large, trained reserve and constant refresher training. After the upgrading of the Finnish Air force with 64 F-35 fighters to replace the existing F-18s, the combined Nordic Air Forces with the F-35 of Norway and Denmark and the F-39 Gripens of Sweden will be a formidable force, which the Russian Air force cannot match in the North. Sweden’s world class intelligence capabilities and its unique submarine force, not to forget its versatile armaments industry, are all assets that underline the value of NATO’s Nordic enlargement.

From a historical point of view the fact that all five Nordic states are to become allies creates a unity that has not existed since the late Middle Ages. I am not comparing it with the Kalmar Union, but this is nevertheless a fulfillment of the purpose of the Nordic Council founded seventy years ago, but which Finland was able to join only in 1955 for well known reasons. Still, it is not a perfect world. Only three out of the five are members of the European Union and only Finland is a euro country. 

Germany’s Zeitenwende is a much more serious development, and more than just collateral damage, as seen from the Kremlin. From a Russian point of view, it means the loss of its most important European co-operation partner and the market for its energy and raw material exports. 

Berlin’s announced change of policy and a decision to build up the German defense forces to reflect the strength of the largest economy of Europe will be an arduous road. Not least because of the inherent reluctance of the German people to turn Germany into a military power and accept military means as an inevitable instrument of a major power. It also requires the acceptance of the defense industry as a source of national security and innovation. Probably no other country is burdened with the German peculiarity of a Zivilklausel. It is a voluntary self-declaration that prevents several universities from engaging in defense research and cooperating with the defense industry. 

The policy announcements of the Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock are, nevertheless, clear, and unambiguous. To quote FM Baerbock: “The security of Eastern Europe is Germany’s security.” To build up a neglected army is not only a question of money, but it will also take years. This remains a challenge for Sweden, too.

The destruction of the reputation of the Russian arms industry is more of an example of unintended consequences than collateral damage The dismal performance of the Russian armed forces that have been using inferior equipment signals the end of what I would symbolically call the “AK 47 Kalashnikov” phenomenon. This was robust, inexpensive hardware exported around the world and suitable for armies and terrorists alike. Merely the fact that the Russian armament industry is totally dependent on western technology, spare parts and especially electronics undermine its claim to excellence. To add insult to injury Russia has been forced to import armed drones and missiles from Iran and has so far failed to ensure arms and technology deliveries from its most important friend – China. 

Losing the support of China in case of a defeat on the battlefield or by taking a step too far in brandishing nuclear weapons would be the ultimate collateral damage. 

The reconstruction of Ukraine will be the largest effort of its kind since World War II. A trillion-euro endeavor, a European Marshall Plan.

In a nutshell: If Adolf Hitler was an anomaly of German history, Vladimir Putin represents a continuum of Russian history.