A map of Europe has Sweden and Finland highlighted. Tanks from Russia move towards the two nations, blocked by the acronym NATO sitting above Finland and Sweden.
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On Thursday, February 24, 2022, Russia began an invasion of Ukraine, one that is still developing nearly four months later. This invasion marked the beginning of an all-out war that has cost thousands of lives and caused seemingly insurmountable damage to the geopolitical landscape of eastern Europe. Tensions between Russia and Europe were heightened further after Sweden and Finland submitted applications to join NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin blames NATO for the escalation in Ukraine. Since as early as 1990, fears of NATO enlargement have stoked the flames of conflict in the region. Long contested and vied for by various Russian rulers, Ukraine has only been independent since 1991 and is beleaguered by Russia still. In 2014, Vladimir Putin went so far as to annex the Crimean Peninsula, land that is still internationally recognized as Ukraine’s, yet has been under Russian occupation and control since. Russia also sought to cast the blame for the ongoing Ukrainian invasion on alleged Nazis and other anti-Russia forces including the United Nations and the United States, attempting to portray itself as a liberator and a friend of freedom fighters and separatists in Ukraine.

Russians are not the only ones who attribute NATO’s problems to NATO itself. Zachary Selden, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, argues that another enlargement of NATO may bring additional resources, like a more flexible strategy and a monumentally long border, but at the cost of transformative changes for the organization, as well as for tensions in Europe. Selden argues these changes will greatly influence the way the organization works and its priorities. For example, NATO may well become the spearhead of Arctic politics as Sweden and Finland increase NATO interests in the Arctic Circle. 

Well-known commentators from both sides of the political aisle have also come to criticize the West’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, from Noam Chomsky on the left and Tucker Carlson on the right. Chomsky has criticized the U.S. and other European countries for choosing to be involved in this protracted conflict. In his eyes, settling for an unsatisfactory outcome that gives Putin an out is better than continuing to fight. While Chomsky claims continuing to fight a war to defend Ukrainian sovereignty is reprehensible, Tucker Carlson has taken it a step further to criticize the existence of NATO in its entirety, as well as claim that the invasion was merely a “border dispute.” Regardless of your stance, anti-war or pro-isolationism, it is integral that we all take a step back, canvass the subject better and provide informed, intellectual additions to the conversation regarding NATO.

To counter Tucker Carlson’s claim that NATO is useless and hasn’t done anything since the Soviet Union: NATO provides some incredible benefits to its members, including the protection that Sweden and Finland are now seeking. Deterrence is one of the easiest benefits to discern from the alliance, but the alliance also provides cooperative benefits that include, but are not limited to, various training exercises and access to a network of countries that can leverage their collective military power effectively.

Putin’s greatest fear, at least publicly, has been the expansion and posturing of NATO. Yet, he and Russia have provoked just that: By escalating conflict in Ukraine and blaming NATO, Russia has reinvigorated the alliance and created the very defensive operations it has been fearmongering about over the last decade. This is evident, as NATO has publicly stated via its deputy secretary general, that the restrictions on deploying military operations in countries bordering Russia have been lifted. The organization previously had restrictions in place to reassure Russia and reaffirm prior treaties, but they are now non-existent.

Russia’s talking points are just that: talking points. What the situation with NATO boils down to is a gasping Russia, grasping at straws to assert itself internationally, and a defensive, cautious international community that desires the preservation of national sovereignty. This is where Sweden and Finland come in, and they are doing just what Putin warned of. Sweden’s defense minister plainly described what anyone observing from afar could: The national security situation has changed, and now NATO membership is essential. For Sweden and Finland, NATO membership is do or die, as their proximity to, and icy relations with, Russia could place them in the firing line without much protection. To avoid a similar fate to Ukraine, they must act now and forgo their traditionally neutral status.

A wrench in the discussions revolving around the latest NATO enlargement efforts is Turkey, which is seeking to extract concessions from Sweden, Finland and the rest of NATO. Later this month, a Madrid summit will be taking place that U.S. and NATO leaders have announced will include discussion about Swedish and Finnish membership and the ever-increasing concerns of future deterrence and defense. Regardless of the outcome, a new strategy is developing to deal with Russian aggression.

It is evident that the purpose of NATO has been reaffirmed. For the West, and for European stability, NATO provides the benefits of deterrence, training exercises and flexibility when it comes to potential threats, like the ruthless and reckless invasion of Ukraine. By prompting NATO to expand yet again, Russia has sealed its fate and cut off the possibility of an international community that will not be concerned with its dealings. And it should, as the point of international organizations like NATO is to foster an interconnected, increasingly global and interdependent community that can work together and resolve issues peacefully. Bloodshed should never be the answer.

Sam Schmitz is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at schmitzd@umich.edu.