Russia, NATO and the Future of Neutrality

Neutrality was once an attractive option in Europe.

Switzerland made non-alignment look almost sexy, with its ski resorts, excellent chocolates, and secure banking system. Then there was Sweden, which refused to join NATO or subordinate its military policy to Moscow, offering instead to broker peaceful compromises between east and west as well as north and south. Austria, divided into four occupation zones after World War II just like Germany, embraced neutrality as the last foreign troops exited the country in 1955. It has sent peacekeepers around the world and offered Vienna as a neutral place for negotiations, like the ones that produced the Iran nuclear deal.

During the Cold War, non-alignment emerged as a third path between Soviet-style communism and American-style capitalism, between two nuclear superpowers, between a poorly delineated East and West. So many countries were eager to go down this path that they formed a new bloc, the Non-Aligned Movement, at the Bandung Conference in 1955, with Yugoslav leader Tito as one of its prime movers.

The end of the Cold War rendered non-alignment moot. Even France, which had left NATO in 1966 because it refused to relinquish control of its military strategy and nuclear weapons, returned to the fold in 2009. And yet some form of neutrality limped along in Europe. A number of countries still rejected formal NATO membership even if, like Sweden and Finland, they were increasingly coordinating their security policy with the alliance.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ended even this attenuated sense of non-alignment.

This week, both Finland and Sweden have formally requested NATO membership. The leaders of these countries are not right-wing, male chauvinist militarists who have been just waiting for an opportunity to reverse their countries’ longstanding policies. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson are both dynamic Social Democrats who are not making these decisions lightly.

These new addition to NATO won’t mean a great deal on a practical level. The 30 current members of the alliance don’t really need what few weapons and personnel these countries possess (though Finland, because of its conscription policies, can count on a rather large number of reservists). Sweden has pledged not to host any nuclear weapons or NATO bases. Finland won’t attach such conditions to membership but will likely follow suit in practice.

Russia has offered a rather muted reaction to the announcement. Russian President Vladimir Putin was careful to say that the Kremlin has no beef with either country and that it’s not worried about their accession to NATO. He did point out that Russia would respond if NATO sent any significant infrastructure to the countries, which explains why Sweden took pains to disavow both bases and nuclear weapons.

But this northern expansion of NATO, even if it doesn’t add much to the alliance or trigger a dangerous retaliation from the Kremlin, is still a profound change for Europe.

After all, it basically drives a final stake through European non-alignment.

The Jolt of War

Whenever NATO faces an existential crisis, war comes along like a dose of smelling salts to revive the alliance.

At the end of the Cold War, NATO seemed like a relic well worth mothballing. The Warsaw Pact was gone, the Soviet Union was on its way out, and there seemed no good reason for NATO to exist. A perfectly good inclusive security arrangement had been in place since the mid-1970s—the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe—so NATO should have bowed out gracefully with a lavish retirement party.

Instead, NATO strategists started talking about “out-of-area” operations that would involve dispatching troops to the Middle East and North Africa to engage in various missions. The first Gulf War might have served that purpose nicely, but the George H.W. Bush administration instead opted for an ad hoc coalition including several NATO members to push Iraq out of Kuwait.

The war in Yugoslavia that was meanwhile gathering force put paid to the notion that Europe was an entirely peaceful region. NATO became increasingly involved as the conflict spread to Bosnia, ultimately engaging in its first-ever combat mission in 1994 when it shot down four Serbian jets while enforcing a no-fly zone. Later that year, at the request of the UN, it launched its first air strikes against Serb targets. In 1999, NATO engaged in a three-month bombing campaign against Serbia to stop its intervention in Kosovo.

The war in Yugoslavia and the debate over out-of-area operations provided NATO with a patina of relevance that distracted from its quite obvious obsolescence. Indeed, the Clinton administration relied on this patina to push through its proposal to expand the alliance eastward, which required overcoming concerns from the left that expansion would antagonize Russia and criticism from the right that the president was bending over backwards to build cooperation between NATO and the Kremlin. Eastern European countries showed various levels of enthusiasm for joining NATO. They no longer feared Russia, at least not the version presided over by Boris Yeltsin. But they saw NATO membership as a first step toward what they really wanted: accession to the European Union. And the military upgrades that NATO promised were seductive as well.

For half a century, the alliance was in a constant state of preparedness to defend against an attack that never came. During the Cold War and in the immediate post-Cold War era, no country invoked the collective defense mechanism of the Charter’s Article 5. Nor was it easy to forge consensus on NATO missions beyond collective defense. In general, NATO has proven to be an extraordinarily unwieldy institution, composed of very diverse members (for example, Turkey and Iceland). For most of its existence, the alliance met, talked, conducted studies, spent money, engaged in military exercises, but didn’t actually fight. The war in Yugoslavia changed all that, and so of course did September 11.

In the wake of the attacks of September 11, NATO invoked Article 5 and came to the “defense” of the United States by joining the attack against Afghanistan as part of Operation Resolute Support. Even here, though, there was not unified opinion. Several NATO countries contributed troops outside of NATO structures. Even in the United States, Donald Rumsfeld was worried that NATO involvement would somehow diminish U.S. control over the operation. By the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, NATO would play no overt role with some NATO members, like Germany, vocally against the war.

The Gulf War, the Yugoslav wars, the attacks of September 11: these all revivified NATO by adding out-of-area operations, actual combat missions, and participation in the “war on terrorism” to its repertoire. Along the way, NATO wandered quite far from its original focus on collective defense.

Even with these new capabilities, however, NATO struggled. Over the last decade, Turkey began buying weapons from Russia. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán was more aligned with Putin’s illiberal philosophy than with the prevailing orthodoxy in Brussels. And Donald Trump, irritated by the apparent reluctance of NATO allies to “share the burden” of collective defense, was threatening to pull the United States out of the alliance.

But once again, war has given NATO new purpose. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a stark reminder of why these countries created a transatlantic bond. Ukraine, not being a member of the alliance, had no recourse to the mechanism of collective defense. The tiny Baltic countries, on the other hand, remained inviolate despite their modest militaries.

With a storm raging on the European frontier, it’s no wonder that Sweden and Finland have decided to huddle under the canopy of NATO rather than trying to keep dry under their relatively small umbrellas.

The Future of Neutrality

Prior to his invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin did whatever he could do to promote non-alignment in Europe. He cultivated political friends who challenged NATO (like France’s Marine Le Pen), who railed against Eurocrats in Brussels (like Viktor Orbán in Hungary), and who could play a disruptive role in existing institutions (like Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in NATO and the Council of Europe).

But as soon as Russian troops crossed into Ukraine, Putin hath murdered non-alignment. Regardless of the success or failure of the operation, the Russian president must have known that even his closest European friends would have to choose sides and they weren’t likely to choose his.

Which suggests that Putin had already written off Europe prior to the invasion. All of his investments into the politically heterodox—mostly on the far right but some on the left such as Syriza in Greece—had come to nearly naught. The Western European far right had not marched to power in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016. And Trump himself went down to defeat in 2020.

For years, Putin criticized liberalism but maintained political and commercial ties with the West. But especially after Trump’s defeat and the emergence of serious anti-government protests in Belarus, Putin’s rhetoric began to shift toward castigating the West in general. In the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian leader began to associate Kyiv’s deviations with its supposed Western puppet masters. Putin subsequently framed the invasion not as a small skirmish on the frontiers of Russian influence but a civilizational clash with a unified ideological foe.

In other words, Putin anticipated that NATO would draw together and even enlarge in the wake of the invasion. He no longer saw much merit in exploiting the fault lines in the Western camp. It’s why he hasn’t raised much of a fuss about Finland and Sweden joining the alliance. Their accession only strengthens his argument that the West is, without exception, unified against him.

Now firmly in the anti-Western camp, Putin hopes to create a united front with China, with India, with all countries that have rebelled against the hegemonic pretensions of the West. He is aided in this effort by the fact that much of the world has refused to send support to Ukraine or sanction Russia.

But joining an anti-Western alliance anchored by the Kremlin? That’s a step too far for all but the likes of Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong Un, and Daniel Ortega. Unlike in Europe, non-alignment remains an attractive option for much of the Global South. That kind of neutrality, however, will not in the end favor Russia. Neither the formerly non-aligned of Europe nor the currently non-aligned of the Global South are interested in furthering Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.