Churchill said it best back in 1946: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” He was referencing Joseph Stalin’s campaign to subvert efforts at democracy in the occupied nations of Eastern Europe, turning them into vassals of the Soviet Union. The so-called “Iron Curtain speech” sounded a call for unity among the Western democracies in the face of tyranny on the march in both Europe and the Far East. If these states held together and held firm Churchill asserted, the Soviet Union’s forward progress could be halted without war. If they didn’t, Churchill warned, then “catastrophe may overwhelm us all.”
Today, nearly 70 years after Churchill spoke those fateful words, the stakes are equally great. A new line is being drawn across Europe. Yes, it is farther east than in 1946 and does not include a portion of Germany or the states of Eastern Europe. But Ukraine, with its 50 million people and significant natural resources, is squarely in Moscow’s sights. Without Ukraine, Russia is a declining power, the 21st Century’s sick man of Europe. With Ukraine (and an already compliant Belarus), Russia is again an empire. It would not be long before Russian claims of preeminence vis-à-vis all the former Soviet republics posed an existential threat to the nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltic republics, which are NATO members, in particular.
There are those in the West today, as in the late 1940s, who counsel caution, acceptance of Russian aggression and even out and out appeasement of Moscow. What they fail to appreciate or choose to ignore is the reality that incorporation of eastern Ukraine will not be sufficient to satiate a Kremlin bent on restoring the old Soviet empire any more than did the annexation of Crimea. In the late 1940s, the West refused to accept Russian subversion of democratic governments in Eastern Europe, most notably Czechoslovakia in 1948, even though it lacked the military muscle to intervene on the ground. The same reality exists today. The West, in general, and Europe, in particular, cannot accept the change of borders by subversion and force without placing its own peace and freedom in peril.
A number of European states, including some not members of NATO, recognized the dangers to themselves inherent in Russia’s moves against Ukraine and are taking action. Sweden, Europe’s Queen of neutrality, is planning to increase its defense budget in the aftermath of the Crimea crisis. In addition, a senior government official publicly broached the subject of Sweden joining NATO.
Even more telling are the actions taken by Finland. Quietly, it has negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with NATO. The MoU marks a watershed in Finnish foreign and security policy which, up to this point, has studiously avoided any actions that would cast a shadow over its position of absolute neutrality. According to multiple published reports, Finland commits to organizing a NATO-style military, particularly in command and control. Helsinki also has offered to conduct maintenance on NATO ships and aircraft, and will provide facilities for fuel and equipment maintenance for land forces. NATO, in turn, guarantees military support to Finland in the event it is attacked. This is an accession agreement in almost everything but name. It is much more than partnership countries got prior to beginning the process of entering the Alliance.
The MoU is a recognition of two realities. The first is the need to definitize the borders between NATO and Russia, to the extent possible. If the Kremlin is to be deterred from going after its neighbors piecemeal, then it must be clear where everyone stands. The second is that the security of the Baltics is tied to that of Finland which, in turn, is connected to that not only of Sweden but NATO members Norway, Denmark, Poland and even Germany. For NATO, access to Finnish ports, airfields and other facilities adds a strategic depth to its forward position in the Baltics that was heretofore missing.
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