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Then lastly on Sweden. First of all, it is historic that now Finland is member of the Alliance. And we have to remember the background. The background was that President Putin declared in the autumn of 2021, and actually sent a draft treaty that they wanted NATO to sign, to promise no more NATO enlargement. That was what he sent us. And was a pre-condition for not invade Ukraine. Of course we didn't sign that.

The opposite happened. He wanted us to sign that promise, never to enlarge NATO. He wanted us to remove our military infrastructure in all Allies that have joined NATO since 1997, meaning half of NATO, all the Central and Eastern Europe, we should remove NATO from that part of our Alliance, introducing some kind of B, or second class membership. We rejected that.

So he went to war to prevent NATO, more NATO, close to his borders. He has got the exact opposite. He has got more NATO presence in eastern part of the Alliance and he has also seen that Finland has already joined the Alliance and Sweden will soon be a full member. Because at Vilnius Summit, we agreed a statement where it was clearly expressed how Sweden will do more, follow up the agreement we had in Madrid on fighting terrorism, and also address issues related to export of military equipment, and then Türkiye made it clear that they will ratify as soon as possible.

https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_218172.htm

What were the reasons behind Russia's opposition to NATO enlargement? Despite NATO being originally designed as a defensive alliance rather than a military pact targeting Russia, why did Russia express concern and propose a treaty urging NATO to commit to halting its enlargement?

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I think the concept you're looking for is "sphere of influence" (SoI). Every nation has an international sphere of influence — an array of nations in which it has political, economic, military, or cultural impact — and this is particularly true for powerful nations. NATO was originally created to defend against the expansion of the SoI of the USSR, not merely to ward off Soviet military actions. After the USSR collapsed, Russia still considered the borders of the old USSR as remaining within its SoI, and jealously guarded that for both political and economic reasons. An expansion of NATO would mean an expansion of the SoI of other major nations (e.g. the US, Britain, France, Germany…) that would impinge on Russian influence.

The situation in Ukraine is a case in point. Until recently, Ukraine was largely considered a Russian satellite state (similar to Belarus): a nation where Russian leadership had an outsized impact on the political process and Russian oligarchs could make sizable profits. When Ukraine started to buck Russian political control, Russia tried to reassert its SoI through military means, first by seizing Crimea — a highly valuable port system for Russian trade — and then by overrunning the nation to install a new, more Russia-sympathetic leadership. The draft treaty Putin sent in 2021 was likely an effort to get NATO to formally agree to the status quo SoI before Putin took an action he knew would raise tensions. I think there was an assumption that a quick victory in Ukraine followed by a rapid demilitarization would be more or less tolerated by the West (much the way that Russia's actions in Chechnya were) because the West recognized Ukraine as within Russia's SoI. But Putin surely recognized that movement into Ukraine would come breathtakingly close to Polish borders and other core NATO nations, and wanted to preclude the kind of response that ultimately occurred.

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    While this answer does a good job showing the Russian mindset (as well as we can determine it), the sentence "every nation has a sphere of influence" could be read as saying that every nation thinks in terms of spheres of influence, willing to establish its authority over other nations through military conquest. While this was historically true (c.f. Concert of Europe), most european nations today no longer see war as an acceptable tool to wield influence in other nations. This is why Putin's behavior, which would have been perfectly normal in the 19th century, draws sharp condemnation today.
    – meriton
    Feb 10 at 19:31
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    @meriton Many European nations did not see any problem participating in the Iraq War or intervening in Lybia, though. They also had no issues dissecting Serbia. Moralistic reasoning has to go from the discussion.
    – alamar
    Feb 10 at 19:51
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    @alamar Serbia was in a civil war for years. The only thing that the NATO coalition did in there was stop the civil war and separate the warring factions. Historical grievances is Russia's shtick. For any modern situation, Russia seems to find something in the far away history and starts talking about it like just happened yesterday to justify some nonsense it does today. Feb 10 at 20:24
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    @meriton: Most nations (including Russia) prefer to exercise hegemonic power through economics and politics; military intervention is a last resort. A common method is through arms sales, where the 'buying' regime becomes politically dependent on the good will of the 'selling' regime. But the US has been willing to take more active interventions in Latin America (considered its SoI) — remember the invasion of Granada? — and France and England have regularly intervened in some of their former colonies. Feb 10 at 20:55
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    @meriton "most european nations today no longer see war as an acceptable tool to wield influence in other nations" - oh but they do. It just depends on who is doing it. If the USA is doing it, then it's completely fine. European nations took part in plenty of wars as the ally of the USA in the past few decades. Even if some of them were not called wars, just antiterrorist strikes, or peacekeeping missions, or whatever.
    – vsz
    Feb 12 at 11:46
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Let's not get over-complicated.

Whatever Russia is up to, NATO was expressly brought into being as a counterweight to the USSR.

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    They could have pivoted into something else, but for some reason didn't.
    – alamar
    Feb 12 at 8:30
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    This answer basically says the same as the other, longer answer from Allure but has a quite different score. Maybe the attraction of this answer is that it gives a simple answer to a complicated question. People can identify with it. But what USSR with Russia to do and NATO then with NATO today? Feb 12 at 9:03
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    @NoDataDumpNoContribution No, this answer is not Allure's "thats-what-they-want-you-to-think". It merely states NATO's reason for being. Think of it as a blank piece of paper. Some commenters here love to fill that in with "defensive only". Even if one assumes that true, can one expect Russian leaders to do the same? And, even more pointedly, expecting the same leaders, whatever they think, not to develop NATO's origin into a point of grievance to the Russian people at large, if it suits them to do so, is... very, very, naive. Feb 12 at 14:48
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    Ted's answer is correct, in that it interprets the Russky Mir and "near abroad" mindset correctly. But, really, unless Russia was Westo-phile to an unexpected degree, they'd always have been a bit cautious about a very large military alliance brought into being to counteract their previous incarnation. Feb 12 at 15:03
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Neutral and explicit:

  • From Russia point of view, NATO wants to build a military infrastructure around Russia and use it to attack.
  • From the point of view of Baltic countries and countries recently joining NATO (Finland, Sweden), Russia plans to invade them in the foreseeable future. Successfully joining makes foreign military help much more likely so the invasion much more risky.

Choose that is closer to your hearth. Also, one not excludes another.

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I'm not sure what drives Kremlin so I will answer without mind reading:

Imagine your neighbour saying: "We have two large countries bordering us, and we've just signed a defensive pact with the one that is not you. Meaning if we ever go to war, it wouldn't be against them. Just saying, and have a nice day."

Now, for most people in the 2000s and 2010s war was this ever-distant, solved once and for all issue. It would surely not come regardless of how long wolves huff and puff. But the state apparatus must always be on guard because tides change. If anything, recent developments show Kremiln was way too soft when it was crucial and then trying to chase the already departed train.

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  • Sure, if you want to hold ALL your sphere of influence by war, you have to go to war as soon as the first crack appears. I mean you talk about war as if it's not Russia who invaded their neighbors, claiming to defend Russian minorities there. Which is one aspect of a sphere of influence. Feb 10 at 19:52
  • @Fizz It wasn't the first crack though. Earlier crack was admission of Poland & friends. Another one is admission of Baltic states. Just as Ukraine refused peace negotiations because it feared Russia will come later for more land, Russia went to war because it feared NATO will come later for more its neighbours. That is of course my guess because I don't read minds.
    – alamar
    Feb 10 at 19:56
  • Perhaps Putin needed to capture the Portals to the Abyss situated under Azovsteel, once that was accomplished he became mostly disinterested in the war.
    – alamar
    Feb 10 at 20:03
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Because saying straight out that they don't want Russia to be overran by the Chinese from the East would sound racist.

So Russia had to invent reasons which would sound plausible without sounding racist.

Since Russia was commonly accused of using Hitler-like excuses for invading Georgia in 2008, it decided to accuse Ukrainians of being Nazis first. And blame NATO second.

The West is still undergoing the self-introspection period, so it takes any accusations, however ridiculous, seriously.

Obviously Russia didn't care about NATO. NATO never attacked Russia and never would if Russia doesn't attack first.

Russia just wanted to kidnap more white Russian speakers to fill more of the Russian East with them to prevent a potential Chinese takeover.

enter image description here This was already clear by September of 2022.

EU is the real problem for Russia, not NATO. EU provides too many economic opportunities for the Eastern Europeans. So they are not tempted to do business in Russia. And Russia cannot replace its own population.

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Despite NATO being originally designed as a defensive alliance rather than a military pact targeting Russia

That's what NATO wants you to think. NATO is not a defensive alliance, and it was created in part to "target" the Soviet Union.

I suppose you could argue that the Soviet Union is not Russia, and therefore NATO isn't an anti-Russian alliance, but if you believed that then the Eastern European countries would have no reason to join NATO. Note even Bill Clinton (American president during the most important phase of NATO expansion) said preparing for future conflict with Russia was a big part of the reason for expanding NATO.

It therefore shouldn't be surprising that Russia wanted a halt to NATO enlargement. When a hostile, aggressive military alliance comes right up to your borders, everyone would be apprehensive, if not terrified.

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    If that's true, how do you explain the mellow reaction of Putin to Finland joining NATO? Putin said: "As for the expansion [of NATO], including through new members of the alliance — Finland, Sweden — Russia wants to inform you that it has no problems with these states,” “Therefore, in this sense, expansion on account of these countries does not pose a direct threat to Russia.”
    – meriton
    Feb 11 at 2:10
  • @meriton he's got his plate full with the war in Ukraine. He doesn't have the resources to start another war by attacking Finland. He realizes that Finland is going to join NATO regardless of what he does. And perhaps, don't take Putin at his word either - he cannot be trusted.
    – Allure
    Feb 11 at 2:12
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    NATO is a defensive alliance. It was created in 1949 in response to Soviet Union betraying the anti-Hitler coalition by occupying the countries it was supposed to liberate. It was created to defend against the Soviet aggression. Feb 11 at 2:47
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    @Allure Finland has been a part of NATO since April 4th, 2023. It's close to Russia's large population centers than Ukraine is.
    – wrod
    Feb 11 at 2:55

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