Earlier today I read an article that made a great deal out of the efforts of Sweden to abandon its habit of neutrality and non-intervention in the wars around it to provide material support to Ukraine in their defensive war against Russia. The help provided was rather extensive in terms of thousands of anti-tank weapons that could be used without training by infantry troops, and it has the potential to inflict quite a lot of damages on Russian invasion forces of cities like Kharkiv and Kyiv, though whether such weapons are used successfully remains to be seen. In the short run, it would appear that Russia’s attempt to intimidate Sweden and Finland into remaining quiescent neutrals whose policies are no barrier to Russia’s expansion is backfiring by encouraging Sweden and Finland to join NATO and thus avail themselves of the possibility of invoking Article 5 in the case of any Russian aggression towards them.
If one looks at the history of Swedish neutrality, it is important to note that this was not always the way that Sweden behaved. For a period of around a century between the 17th and 18th centuries, Sweden had broken away from Danish domination and the rivalries with the Catholic branch of their then-ruling dynasty. After first consolidating their hold over Finland and surrounding areas, including the coast of Estonia, and gaining control over Scania, Sweden made a bit for expansion into Northern Germany, winning control of part of Pomerania as a reward for their aid to the Protestant cause during the Thirty Years’ War. But their bids for hegemony in the Baltic region were derailed both by their alarming amount of enemies–including Denmark, Poland, and Russia, and their own demographic weakness, leading to defeat in the Great Northern War and the eventual loss of Finland and their German holdings during the Napoleonic War, which was only temporarily countered by a short-term personal union over Norway. After a peaceful separation early in the 20th century Sweden spent the vast majority of the 20th century as a benign neutral in dangerous territory.
The only time before recently where Swedish neutrality was broken was in 1940, when Sweden supported the efforts of its neighbor and former imperial territory Finland in defending against Soviet aggression in the Winter War. Though Finland was ultimately unsuccessful, its brave effort in 1940 and during World War II allowed it to have a neutral status similar to that which Russia wants to enforce on territories like Moldova and Ukraine. That both Finland and Sweden appear not to wish this sort of neutrality in the face of contemporary Russian aggression and are both expressing a willingness to work along with NATO, and perhaps even join it–both would be a good fit for the northern and eastern fronts of NATO in providing control of the Baltic Sea and secure connections with the Baltic nations and the ability to protect power into the Arctic front as well along with Norway–suggests Russia’s attempts to restore previous periods of dominance for Russia are not viewed with fondness by neighbors and that they are willing and able to support the resistance of anyone willing to stand up against Russia’s efforts for domination in their near abroad. That it is those nations which directly border Russia which are the most alarmed at its behavior suggests that Russian efforts at soft power through gas exports are not fully able to reduce the hostility people have to the thought of Russian domination over their governments and economies, as most people within the region have some personal memory of.
To the extent that we desire to understand the momentous times that are going around us, it is of vital importance that we not only think about what is going on in a given warzone, where our understanding is colored by the point of view of the people providing information to us, all of whom have their own agendas and motives and perspectives, or what is not being done in those areas of supposed safety far away from the action which may lack any degree of engagement with what is going on, but those areas that are inhabited by those who might feel themselves to be the next targets of aggression and who have to face the reality of whether it is better to stand in solidarity with a neighbor under direct assault or make the best terms that they can make to hopefully avoid being under attack themselves. That the neighbors of Russia appear to be near uniform (except in the case of Belarus) in being willing to stick their necks out to provide aid to Ukraine that can help it better resist Russian oppression suggests that these nations would vastly prefer to align themselves with nations like the USA, Germany, France, and the UK, for all of the contemporary weaknesses of these nations, than submit themselves to the tender mercies of domination by Putin’s Russia, and this is not a choice that ought to be taken for granted or unappreciated, since standing up to bullies and tyrants and dictators–regardless of where they may be found–is risky behavior with a high degree of potential costs.
We ought not to forget the threads that connect standing up to dictators at home and abroad. Over the past couple of years, after all, many political leaders in the West on the national and local level have tried their hand at operating under emergency decree and cavalierly disregarding the rule of law in an effort to ever more tightly control the lives of their own citizens, and have faced a great and increasing amount of hostility to this sort of overreach. It is admittedly convenient that this hostility towards aggressively hostile and dictatorial behavior can be channeled away from dictators at home to dictators abroad. If this seems a bit too convenient for some, let us also not forget that many of those who fought against dictators abroad in World War II fought for a double victory against dictators abroad and injustices and corrupt systems of government at home. Such examples may prove worthwhile for those of us who stand against evil and corrupt authorities wherever they may be found, whether near at hand or further away. There are some areas, such as much of Northern and Eastern Europe, where such evils are far nearer at hand than we would wish for anyone else, and where the weakness and hypocrisy of leaders at home endangers the safety and well-being of those who are not to be blamed for the results of the vulnerabilities they suffer as smallish peoples in a dangerous world.