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Jeff Jacoby / May 23, 2022

For Putin, a Self-Own for the History Books

Like Philip II of Spain, whose legendary assault on England backfired spectacularly, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has achieved the very outcomes he intended to prevent.

Earlier this year, as Russia’s massive troop buildup on Ukraine’s borders grew steadily more ominous, there were suggestions that the only way for Ukraine to avoid being conquered by Moscow was to submit to “Finlandization.” That was a reference to Finland’s policy of abject neutrality during the Cold War, when Helsinki was barred from joining NATO or otherwise aligning itself with the West, scrupulously avoided any criticism of the Soviet Union, and deferred to Moscow on most major policy questions. In return, Soviet troops stayed on their side of the 830-mile border with Finland, and Finns kept their democratic form of government.

Before Russia unleashed its war on Ukraine in February, a number of prominent figures, among them French President Emmanuel Macron and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, held out the prospect that a Finlandized Ukraine might satisfy Vladimir Putin and defuse the worsening crisis. “Wise Ukrainian leaders,” wrote former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to Ukraine becoming Finlandized. Finland became Ukrainized.

After decades of opposition to NATO membership, Finland has reversed course with a speed rare in international affairs. So has its neighbor Sweden, which had an even older policy of neutrality. Jolted by Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine and recognizing how dangerous it has become for any European country to remain outside NATO’s perimeter, both Nordic countries are now eager to join the world’s most powerful military alliance. On May 12, Finland’s president and prime minister announced that their country would “apply for NATO membership without delay.” Four days later, Sweden’s government followed suit. On Wednesday, the Finnish and Swedish ambassadors hand-delivered their nations’ applications to NATO headquarters in Brussels.

The two countries are members of the European Union and have a longstanding affinity with the West. Both meet NATO’s criteria for membership — they are functioning democracies with market economies, they respect political rights and civil liberties, and they are committed to the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Both are also well equipped to make a significant contribution to NATO’s operations. According to Elisabeth Braw, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Finland’s military assets include “its large armed forces, enormous reserves, history of defending a land border with Russia, and first-rate military intelligence,” while Sweden boasts a “skilled navy, one of the Baltic Sea’s largest.” Moreover, both countries have participated in NATO training exercises.

All of which means that Finland and Sweden — unlike Ukraine, which waited fruitlessly for years to see any results from its bid to join NATO — can expect a swift, smooth, and supportive accession process.

A year ago, this would all have been unthinkable. Public opinion in both countries was solidly against entering NATO. It had long been so. During the Cold War, remarked Braw, NATO was something of “a four-letter word” in Helsinki and Stockholm, “as toxic as foul language in polite company.” But after Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine and the horrific war crimes that followed, support for joining the alliance soared — to 57 percent in a recent poll in Sweden and a whopping 76 percent in Finland.

Putin’s public response to these developments has been muted. In a Monday TV address, he maintained that “Russia has no problems” with Finland and Sweden entering NATO, though he warned that a military buildup in the region would lead Moscow to “respond accordingly.” Inwardly, however, Putin must be appalled at how disastrously his onslaught against Ukraine has backfired.

Having falsely claimed that the enlargement of NATO posed a mortal threat to Russia, Putin went to war on the absurd pretext that his country had to be protected from “encirclement” by the alliance. Concocting a threat of Nazis in Ukraine and insisting for good measure that Ukrainians had no right to sovereignty, Putin launched his illegal invasion in February. But the quick conquest he anticipated never materialized. Ukraine has defended itself with a tenacity that has inspired the world and unified the West. Far from cowing NATO, Putin’s war revivified NATO’s sense of itself as a military alliance, strengthened the bonds between Europe and America, and even led Germany — long committed to a policy of pacifism and cooperation — to sharply increase its defense spending and send heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Worst of all, from Putin’s perspective, is that a war unleashed to stop NATO from expanding will lead to one of the largest expansions in its history. With Finland in the alliance, NATO’s border with Russia will double. The Baltic Sea will be almost encircled by NATO powers. Kaliningrad — the Russian exclave on the Baltic that bristles with ballistic missiles — will now be entirely surrounded by NATO. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — the three independent states that the Soviet Union occupied by force in 1940 and ruled for the next 50 years — will have two powerful new allies at their front door. In every significant respect, NATO’s prospects have improved.

For Moscow, this is a geopolitical self-own of historic proportions. The completeness with which Putin has managed to achieve the outcomes his attack on Ukraine was intended to prevent is stunning. It calls to mind the misadventure of King Philip II of Spain, who in 1588 sent a vast naval fleet to invade England. The mission of Philip’s mighty armada was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and stop the spread of Protestantism in England. But the English forces heroically fought off the invaders. The Spanish flotilla was ravaged. Elizabeth’s reputation grew even more lustrous as she remained on the throne for another 15 years. And the Protestant domination of England continued unabated.

Today, the Spanish Armada is recalled as one of history’s greatest strategic blunders and the king who ordered it as an obsessed and inflexible fanatic. Will Putin, centuries hence, be recalled the same way? His calamitous war in Ukraine isn’t over yet, but it has proved so far to be a failure in every respect. Thanks to Putin, Russia now is more reviled than ever. NATO is stronger. And Ukraine’s courage has so uplifted the free world that even Finland and Sweden are no longer on the sidelines.

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