Expanding Nato will deepen east-west fissure

The writer is chief executive of the New America think-tank and an FT contributing editor

Nearly three months on from Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, we should all beware the geopolitical machinations ahead. World leaders are contemplating the redivision of Europe in ways that will further threaten long-term peace.

Finland and Sweden are deciding on whether to make a formal application to join Nato. Public opinion among Finns and Swedes is now running over 50 per cent in favour of joining, a sharp upwards increase in traditionally neutral Sweden and traditionally careful Finland, which has a roughly 800-mile border with Russia. While President Joe Biden has been publicly non-committal, Julianne Smith, US ambassador to Nato, has welcomed the possibility.

All parties concerned should take a deep breath and slow down. The threat of Russia invading either Finland or Sweden is remote. But admitting them to the military alliance will redraw and deepen Europe’s 20th-century divisions in ways that will probably preclude far bolder and braver thinking about how to achieve peace and prosperity in the 21st.

Nato’s immediate aim should be to help Ukrainian forces push Putin far enough back to his starting positions in the east of the country that he is willing to engage in serious peace negotiations. But what does a positive peace look like? Putin will never come to the negotiating table just to ratify a defeat. Turning Russia into North Korea through sanctions will simply push it closer to China. Moreover, a weak and humiliated Russia just means a permanent spoiler in European and global politics.

The real question here has to be how to get to the best outcome for all of Europe: a Europe “whole and free” and “at peace”, as George HW Bush proclaimed in Berlin in 1989. Russia is part of that continent. Europe ends and Asia begins at the Ural Mountains. Historical efforts to locate the “centre of Europe” have landed on spots in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. Russia belongs to both Europe and Asia, but nearly 80 per cent of its population and almost all its major cities are west of the Urals.

The 20th-century divide between eastern and western Europe was ideological rather than geographical. It was the line, with subsequent adjustments, between areas controlled by Soviet troops at the end of the second world war and those controlled by other allied nations. It became the line between capitalism and communism, democracy and totalitarianism.

Since 1989 that line has become primarily a military division between Nato and Russia, and secondarily an economic partition between Moscow and the EU. Russia seeks to prevent countries formerly part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from joining either grouping. The only way out of that stalemate is to develop security and economic institutions that all European countries can eventually join.

Business leaders should think in the same way, focusing on people rather than geopolitics. It is striking that when the Drucker Institute cross tabulated the companies that rank the highest in the Management Top 250 with Yale business professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s ranking of how companies have responded to the war in Ukraine, the best companies got lower grades because they have not pulled out of Russia completely. PepsiCo, for instance, is still selling baby formula in Russia and keeping on its employees there. These companies are balancing their responsibilities to both the Ukrainian and Russian people — even if that might raise uncomfortable questions about which side they’re on.

US, UK and EU leaders should specify that in return for military and economic support, Ukraine must be willing to negotiate about its own security guarantees, language rights for Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and a future European security architecture. Finnish and Swedish leaders should announce that although they have long seen the virtues of military neutrality, Putin’s aggression has caused them to rethink. This should prompt new security discussions, including a potential agreement between the US, UK, all the Nordic states and any other willing European countries, to come to one another’s defence if attacked.

Putin has made “a new European security architecture” a dirty phrase, a term of capitulation, as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky regularly suggests. But Europe will never be truly peaceful unless it integrates eastern European nations, including Russia, into its economic and security structures. That will not happen with Putin in office, nor perhaps under his immediate successors. But let us not condemn the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Moldovans, the Georgians, the Belarusians, and so many others to yet another century of exclusion.

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