Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has energized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in every possible way, reviving the alliance’s purpose and unity, and granting it new attractiveness in Europe as well as greater prominence in the Indo-Pacific. The prospect of Finland and Sweden joining the 30-member bloc was hypothetical at best last autumn, when Moscow issued an ultimatum, demanding that NATO curtail its activities in Central Eastern Europe. But it became increasingly realistic as public opinion in both Nordic countries reacted to the onset of a major war in the middle of the continent. Finally, it has become practical, as the two governments finalize their accession applications, to be submitted over the coming days. President Vladimir Putin reflected on his failed posturing in the May 9 Victory Day speech addressing the military parade on Red Square. And last Friday (May 13), he put the issue of NATO enlargement on the agenda of the virtual session of Russia’s Security Council (Izvestia, May 13).
The urge to deliver a strong response to the new accessions, which the Kremlin perceives and describes as a direct threat to Russian security, is irresistible; but Russia’s capacity to produce such a convincing answer is undermined by its setbacks in the ill-planned war against Ukraine (Kommersant, May 12). Russia blocked the export of electricity to Finland, yet the impact of this cutoff is rather miniscule, and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto reportedly never even mentioned it during his call with Putin on Saturday (RBC, May 13; Presidentti.fi, Kremlin.ru, May 14). Commentators lament that the peaceful Baltic Sea is turning into a “NATO lake,” but Russia cannot counter this shift by strengthening its Baltic Fleet (Russiancouncil.ru, May 13). Its naval shipbuilding has been severely affected by Western sanctions, and it is the Black Sea Fleet that badly needs reinforcements, particularly after the flagship cruiser Moskva was sunk and several combat ships hit by Ukrainian missiles near Snake Island over the past two months (Svoboda.org, May 13). Russian officials keep referring to “military-technical measures”: this may imply the deployment of non-strategic nuclear warheads to Kaliningrad, though such a move would hardly make this isolated exclave any safer (Forbes.ru, May 12).
What Putin needs is an asymmetric response that would have a double impact, additionally deterring the United States and its European allies from supplying Ukraine with more heavy weapons necessary to launch a large-scale counter-offensive (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 11). The easiest way to score such a geopolitical coup might be to formally annex the Donetsk and Luhansk quasi-“republics” into the Russian Federation; then, Ukrainian resistance and combat operations in Donbas could be construed as an attack on Russia and its “historic lands” mentioned by Putin in his May 9 speech (Moscow Times, May 9). Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), “mumbled” about such a plan during the televised meeting of the Security Council on the eve of the re-invasion. More recently, he speculated about Poland’s supposed intentions to restore control over its old possessions in western Ukraine (Kommersant, February 21; RIA Novosti, April 29). A follow-up Russian move could consist of annexing the Kherson region, critical for establishing a corridor between Donbas and occupied Crimea (Svoboda.org, May 12).
One serious problem with this plan is the situation on the front line. Although Luhansk Oblast is nearly completely occupied by Russian forces, only half of the Donetsk region has been “liberated,” from Moscow’s point of view (see EDM, May 11). The battered retreat from the outskirts of Kharkiv makes little difference to this pitched battle, but the hard blow at the Siversky Donets river-crossing last week further derailed the long-planned Russian offensive (Graniru.org, May 13). Meanwhile, Russia’s control over the Kherson region is increasingly tenuous: its offensive push toward Mykolaiv and Odesa lost momentum and turned into a slow retreat, leaving the troops on the western side of Dnieper River undersupplied and demoralized (Kommersant, May 11). The Kremlin counts on the unstoppable drive of its military machine securing additional territorial gains in Donbas, but timing may be a factor. Namely, the envisaged annexation could be entirely undercut by a surprise breakthrough achieved by the emboldened and rearmed Ukrainian brigades (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 11). Moscow is preparing for the land grab in eastern Ukraine with a planned rehearsal in Georgia’s South Ossetia. A “referendum” on this separatist region joining Russia has been scheduled for mid-July; but two months is a long time even for the currently slow-moving war (Rosbalt, May 11).
It is not only the morale of Russian troops that is sinking with every Ukrainian counter-attack, so is the mood among the Russia elites, who show much less enthusiasm for the unequal and costly confrontation with the West than the propaganda trumpets (Riddle, May 13). Only a few of Putin’s courtiers, such as former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, are actively asserting their “patriotic” credentials; many others, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and even Putin’s long-time confidant Igor Sechin, the CEO of Rosneft, prefer to keep a low profile (Republic.ru, May 10). The grumbles from the oligarchs, who now have to park their yachts and purchase real estate in Turkey, can be ignored by the Kremlin, but the disgruntlement among the top brass must be a major worry (Forbes.ru, May 11). Ukrainian sources speculate about a dishonorable dismissal of General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff, who was absent from the May 9 parade (Gordonua.com, May 12). Putin might not dare to execute such a radical purge, but the fact that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu answered the phone call from US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday could be significant (RIA Novosti, May 13).
The clear-cut decision of Finland and Sweden to join NATO signifies both the failure of Putin’s foreign policy aimed and sowing and exploiting discord in the West, and the fiasco of his attack on Ukraine, where the mighty Russian military machine is hopelessly stuck. Putin needs to alter the losing course of the contestation, but he refrained from declaring war on Ukraine at the Victory Day parade, perhaps to avoid alarming Russian society with talk of full mobilization. The annexation of Donbas and Kherson might be seen as a way to transform the notorious “special military operation” into an ostensibly just cause war of defending Russian territory with all available military means. This geopolitical trick can hardly succeed—not only because of international condemnation but also because propaganda can induce only fake enthusiasm among Russians for such “enlargement.” The elites may be far detached from the populace, and the top brass from the soldiers, but the disunited country is gradually reckoning with the need to bring Putin’s war to an end.