How 'Stupid' Is It for Russia to Attack Finland and Sweden?

It’s very disturbing how academics and mainstream media are combining to misreport basic facts about Russian aggression in Ukraine.  Looking at their work, it’s easy to see how Vladimir Putin might imagine he could get away with any type of military aggression against his smaller neighbors, since his adversaries would be far too ignorant and confused to mount any kind of credible response.

On April 9, for example, a Washington Post reporter named Adam Taylor published an article entitled “No, Russia isn’t about to invade Finland and Sweden.”  Taylor quoted two academics, Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution and Mark Galeotti of New York University, saying that although Russia was massively increasing espionage and military menacing of the two countries, it is “overblown” and “wholly implausible” to suggest the Russia might attack them.

Taylor’s effort to explain the reasons for this conclusion was laughably childish.  He wrote:

Why is Russian military action in Finland and Sweden seen as so unlikely? To put it simply, because it'd be stupid. Russia's actions in Ukraine and Crimea may have been brazen, but they were also opportunistic. It's hard to imagine now is really a great time to suddenly enter into another unnecessary conflict.

It’s just amazing that academics and mainstream media can criticize “bloggers in their pajamas” for frivolous reporting while churning out such gibberish.  The facts actually show that Russia has every bit as much basis to attack Finland and Sweden as it did to attack Ukraine.

Though Taylor’s pseudo-reporting chose to ignore it, the fact is that just like Ukraine, the military forces of Finland and Sweden are small, weak and poorly prepared, and insignificant compared to Russia’s military force.  In fact, given a choice between attacking Ukraine and attacking Finland or Sweden, choosing the latter two would be a no-brainer: Ukraine ranks #21 on the global military firepower list, while Sweden is #29 and Finland is #49.  The population of Ukraine is over 45 million.  Finland and Sweden have barely more than 15 million people combined, just one third that of Ukraine.

Just like Ukraine, neither Finland nor Sweden is a member of NATO.  Since NATO took no military action of any kind when Ukraine, which borders three NATO members, was invaded and a chunk of its territory annexed by Russia, there is no reason to believe that NATO would take any military action in defense of Finland or Sweden, which border only one NATO nation combined.

Just like Ukraine, both Finland and Sweden are strategically critical to Russia.  Taylor himself admits this fact:

Sweden and Finland have histories of conflict with Russia, and both are located in strategically important places for Moscow– Finland shares a 833 mile border with the country, while the Swedish island of Gotland is just 155 miles from Kaliningrad, Russia's European enclave.

Despite these facts, Taylor claims in utterly juvenile fashion that “it’d be stupid” for Russia to attack Finland or Sweden.  But it was stupid for Russia to attack Crimea.  Ukraine did not threaten Russia’s military base in Sevastopol, Crimea, in any way, shape, or form.  Russia had no way of knowing whether NATO would respond with military force when it attacked. 

Both Europe and the United States have hit Russia with tough economic sanctions as a result of the attack, just as Russia’s economy was already heading for recession.  And the nations of the world have lined up strongly against Russian aggression.  Both the United Nations General Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe have voted overwhelmingly to condemn Russian aggression.  It’s extremely hard to name something tangible that Russia received as a benefit in return for all these losses.

In other words, it’s easy to conclude that Russia’s invasion of Crimea was stupid, but Russia did it anyway.  To say the least, neither Hill nor Galeotti predicted that Russia would do so, nor did either one offer a coherent response to Russian aggression once it did.

For some even more hilarious reading, check out an op-ed in the Moscow Times by Wesleyan University academic Peter Rutland.  You won’t believe me until you read it for yourself, but the thesis of this piece is that if Rutland had been published more often in the New York Times, the problems in Crimea would never have happened.

Or maybe I should say it would be hilarious, were Russian tanks not running amok in Ukraine.

The day before Taylor’s article appeared, WaPo had run an editorial under the headline “Russia will respond only to increased sanctions over Ukraine.”  The editorial points out that while the Obama administration was condemning increasingly aggressive Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine, while 40,000 Russian troops sat menacingly on the border, the Obama administration was not doing anything serious about it.  The editors asked “whether Mr. Putin would have launched his latest provocation if the United States had continued to raise the pressure on the Russian economy in the weeks since the last measures were unveiled on March 20.”

But maybe the editors should have spent a bit more time scrutinizing their own reporting and asking how it might have misled U.S. policymakers, rather than helping them see the need for immediate action.  And their own editorial is really just a dithering mess, whipsawing back and forth between support for unspecified sanctions and support for negotiations, and offering little in the way of direct personal criticism of Barack Obama’s palpable cowardice and confusion, much less offering any support for Republican leaders like John McCain, whose tough stances on Russia have been proven correct.

The truth of the matter is that if we were to awake tomorrow and read on the WaPo front page about Russian forces crossing the border into Finland, we would not be surprised, nor would we be shocked to read that NATO had taken no military action in opposition.  Why would we be more willing to send NATO soldiers to perish in Finland than in Ukraine?  Put yourself in Vladimir Putin’s shoes, and then I challenge you to give a reasoned, supported, fact-based positive answer to this question.

Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.