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The “What’s NATO’s future at its Eastern border?” Edition

The “What’s NATO’s future at its Eastern border?” Edition
By Weekly Focus by n-ost • Issue #9 • View online
Hi and welcome to the 9th issue of the Weekly Focus!
Each week we invite authors to our open editorial process to decide the main direction of the newsletter together. And each week, we get new surprising insights, inspirations and thought-provoking conversations. This week, our discussion even made it onto Finnish Twitter. But read for yourself.

Looks like NATO has been resurrected from the “brain dead.” The transatlantic committee leaders met at their annual summit in Brussels last week to discuss the alliance’s new 2030 agenda.
NATO, founded in 1949 at the start of the Cold War, was formed to respond to the Soviet Union. So, why is the alliance still needed? Leaders say that cybersecurity and China are now two subjects to focus on.
But while Russian aggression may take on only as a digital threat for many Western members of the alliance, it’s a real military one for many of its neighbours. Are they and their risk perceptions really heard in Europe? 
At the height of possibly the worst wave of repression Russia has experienced this millennium, the German newspaper Die Zeit yesterday published a guest article by Vladimir Putin (English version), allowing him to lay out his interpretation of how “NATO expansion” in the 90s and 2000s was  “dashing hopes for a continent without dividing lines.” 
But why are countries like Ukraine and Georgia — that have fought 21st century wars with Putin’s Russia —  asking eagerly to join NATO then? Are we listening to them as closely as we should? Do we know how Finns and other neighbours are perceiving the security situation in Europe?  Why haven’t these countries joined the alliance yet – and what are the risks if they do?
Lucy Martirosyan, this week’s Editorial Coordinator
Salla Vuorikoski (Helsinki), Holger Roonemaa (Tallinn), Denis Trubetskoy (Kyiv), Milivoje Pantovic (Belgrade), Aleksandre Keshelashvili (Tbilisi).
Salla Vuorikoski (Helsinki), Holger Roonemaa (Tallinn), Denis Trubetskoy (Kyiv), Milivoje Pantovic (Belgrade), Aleksandre Keshelashvili (Tbilisi).
🇫🇮 Why Finland is afraid to call NATO
This week's Weekly Focus topic is sparking debate on Finnish twitter.
This week's Weekly Focus topic is sparking debate on Finnish twitter.
In Finland, NATO is not a hot political topic. Politicians seem to word their thoughts carefully, or not at all. And Russia is always listening. 
But when I asked about it on Twitter, I got a lot of responses, including the one above. The “suppressed spouse,” here, is Finland. And Russia is the “aggressor.”
Finland has a long history of defending its freedom from Russia. After World War II, we were mocked for our “Finnlandisierung,” – seemingly independent, but in many ways still under the influence of the Soviet Union. The 1948 Friendship Agreement allowed the USSR to supervise Finnish society from all different angles.
Depending on whom you ask, this was either a pitiful crawling back towards the suppressor — or the only way to maintain the freedom of the Finnish state and people. 
But when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Friendship Treaty was scrapped, Finland missed its short window to apply for NATO membership.
Then came Vladimir Putin and suddenly we found ourselves next to a nation that didn’t hesitate to intimidate its neighbours. Finns watched as Russia marched into Crimea — could the same happen to us?
Of course, we would hope that NATO would take care of us if Russia were to misbehave — even without membership. 
That’s because, in practice, we already do a lot with NATO: our forces train with NATO, our technical capacity is pretty much matched to NATO’s — maybe even more than some of the real NATO countries’.
Besides, maybe Putin wouldn’t have time to mess with Finland anyway: he has other things and territories on his mind. But a growing number of people say otherwise.
In recent years, probably due to Russia’s behaviour, the public’s attitudes have grown positively towards membership, but still approximately half of the population is against it. Many think that maintaining our own strong military forces is still the best way to deal with Russia.
Officially, “the NATO option” is there. But what would happen if the battered spouse dialed “911” and turned to NATO? Would that be enough to provoke Moscow?
Salla Vuorikoski is an award-winning Finnish journalist. She leads the news and current affairs section of the biggest weekly magazine in Finland, suomenkuvalehti.fi.
Salla Vuorikoski is an award-winning Finnish journalist. She leads the news and current affairs section of the biggest weekly magazine in Finland, suomenkuvalehti.fi.
🇪🇪 Number of the Week: 114,000,000
Three blue lions decorate the logo of the Estonian Defence Ministry. They derive from the coat of arms of Denmark, which ruled northern Estonia in the thirteenth century. GIF: Karolina Uskakovych.
Three blue lions decorate the logo of the Estonian Defence Ministry. They derive from the coat of arms of Denmark, which ruled northern Estonia in the thirteenth century. GIF: Karolina Uskakovych.
For years, Estonia has been advocating for European NATO member states to increase their defence budget. But now, Tallinn is slashing its own spending by 114 million euros over the next four years.
Although it had been agreed that all nations should invest at least 2% of their GDP on defence, few states had done so. 
After the war in Eastern Ukraine broke out, the issue became even more pressing, especially in Estonia where the borders of NATO and Russia touch. Often, Western journalists ran alarming headlines asking if Narva (the border town where the majority of the population is Russian-speaking) was going to be “the next Crimea”?
Such a stereotypic comparison eventually became a running joke in Estonia. After all, the situation couldn’t be more different to Ukraine’s — for a long time, Tallinn has been NATO’s “straight-A” student. It participated in military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan in large numbers. It joined the French to help safeguard the situation in Mali. 
To further prove its commitment to the alliance, Estonia’s national defence budget became untouchable, rising well above the 2% GDP mark. Back in 2015, there were only three other European countries that reached the agreed benchmark, eventually leading Donald Trump to demand NATO allies to “pay up.”
Now, the newly-formed Estonian government is slowing its defence spending by over 100 million euros to account for its COVID-19 hit economy and the previous administration’s overspending. After the cuts, the defence budget will still narrowly meet the agreed 2% of the GDP requirement (2,02%), but not without letting go of 270 jobs. The Estonian Defence Forces are set to lay off the entire military orchestra and the military chaplain service.
But the symbolic value of the cuts is perhaps even more important than the actual content. It shows that the defence budget is not untouchable anymore.
As more NATO members are reaching the 2% milestone, Estonia no longer stands out as NATO’s teacher’s pet.
Holger Roonemaa is an investigative journalist at Ekspress Meedia in Estonia. His investigations mostly focus on issues of security and espionage, propaganda and disinformation, corruption and money laundering.
Holger Roonemaa is an investigative journalist at Ekspress Meedia in Estonia. His investigations mostly focus on issues of security and espionage, propaganda and disinformation, corruption and money laundering.
🇺🇦 Ukraine isn’t crying ‘wolf’
"Little green men" after the seizure of the Perevalne military base in Crimea, 9 March 2014. Photo: Anton Holoborodko (CC BY-SA 3.0).
"Little green men" after the seizure of the Perevalne military base in Crimea, 9 March 2014. Photo: Anton Holoborodko (CC BY-SA 3.0).
I’m from Sevastopol, a Ukrainian city on the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia seven years ago. Growing up, I and other Sevastopolians saw the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO as a threat. We viewed the alliance as an enemy eager to replace the long-standing Russian military base in our hometown with its own. I still remember anti-NATO-protests and the fear that spread among young Ukrainians that we would have to take part in missions abroad if we were to join NATO.
But when Russia annexed my homeland in 2014, my views changed significantly. While I still think NATO is far from perfect, I started to see it as the only viable option for Ukraine. No one was there to help us. We just had to watch as Russia took over the peninsula.
Today, Kyiv is still largely on its own in the war in Eastern Ukraine. While President Volodymyr Zelensky has been maintaining his peace policy alone, including risking troop disengagement on the front lines, new prisoner exchanges, and above all, the surprisingly successful ceasefire between summer 2020 and early 2021 — it hasn’t been enough.
Since then, there has been more shooting in Donbas, and Russia heightened tensions after deploying troops on the Ukrainian border last spring (see Weekly Focus #2). In response, Zelensky reacted with clear demands for joining NATO — an unusual move by the president who tended to stay away from the topic. After all, Ukraine’s NATO membership is a red line for Russia, raising the question whether joining the alliance would really improve the security situation in the region.
And where is Europe in all of this? In Germany, the recent total disagreement over the delivery of defensive weapons to Ukraine came as anything but a surprise. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that even many top German politicians do not understand at all what it is like when a country like Russia presents a real, and not a virtual threat.
Denis Trubetskoy was born in Sevastopol, Crimea, and works as a political correspondent for German media in Kyiv.
Denis Trubetskoy was born in Sevastopol, Crimea, and works as a political correspondent for German media in Kyiv.
🇷🇸 Serbia and NATO’s secret love affair
Who is hiding? Photo: nato.int
Who is hiding? Photo: nato.int
“Serbia remains a strong ally of Russia in the Balkans.” That is how most media ends up reporting on Serbia’s relationship with NATO and Russia. Of course, this perception leads back to the country’s war against NATO in 1999. Russia, on the other hand, has always been seen by Serbs as an ally, a “great Orthodox brother,” supporting Belgrade over Kosovo’s independence. But is this traditional view about Serbia’s allegiance to Russia still a reality?
A fresh look at the facts and data shows that it is doubtful, at best. While Serbians may prominently read about Serbian-Russian military operations, such as the “Slavic brotherhood” or “Slavic Shield” in government-controlled media, Serbia has held three times more exercises with NATO members in recent years than with Russia, including several with the US.
Belgrade also signed the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with NATO giving its staff diplomatic immunity, something that the Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Centre has been applying for since almost a decade — without success. 
Even last week’s visit to Belgrade by the UK’s defence secretary did not go without controversy: did Serbia really sign an agreement that would counter Russia’s malignant influence? While British media reported on the deal, Serbian politicians are denying it publicly
But why are agreements or military exercises with NATO underreported or even censored in pro-government media? What is preventing Serbia (and NATO) from coming out and revealing their secret partnership?
First, due to its war history with NATO, President Aleksandar Vučić’s government simply cannot go against public opinion, which is still very pro-Russian. A NATO membership would be a red flag. Still, for the Serbian government, which is getting more autocratic by the day, strong NATO ties could strengthen its international legitimacy.
For NATO, it’s also better to keep quiet about its dodgy partner. After all, NATO still has some standards for democracy, at least on paper. To Russia, the narrative that its influence is stronger in the Balkans than it actually is, really is flattering. The only losers are the Serbian citizens who live in an autocracy backed by both sides.
Milivoje Pantovic is a freelance investigative journalist from Belgrade, the former capital of the “non-aligned” Socialistic Federative Republic of Yugoslavia.
Milivoje Pantovic is a freelance investigative journalist from Belgrade, the former capital of the “non-aligned” Socialistic Federative Republic of Yugoslavia.
🇬🇪 1 question to…Vano Machavariani
Vano Machavariani, one of the founders of the Georgian Strategic Analysis Center, a foreign policy and security think tank. Photo: Mzia Saganelidze / RFE/RL.
Vano Machavariani, one of the founders of the Georgian Strategic Analysis Center, a foreign policy and security think tank. Photo: Mzia Saganelidze / RFE/RL.
Before the NATO summit in Brussels last week, there were questions whether Georgia’s membership ambitions were still on the agenda. When the final communiqué mentioned that the decision of the 2008 Bucharest Summit is still in force, meaning that one day Georgia will become a member of the alliance, it was perceived as a success by the Georgian government. However, it also caused new disappointment. Although the door to NATO is wide open, critics complain that Georgia still has a long way to go before it is welcomed inside.
Mr. Machavriani, why does Georgia still have to wait and what kind of expectations does NATO have towards the country? 
We should feel sorry for the fact that we are not yet close enough to NATO; not that we can’t enter NATO’s door. At the last summit, the problems existing in the political, military, legal and other fields in Georgia were directly pointed out. The statements made before the summit and the final communiqué were quite critical.
Tbilisi seems to expect that NATO should accept us, and we will take care of strengthening defence, political and military reforms afterwards. But the expectations of the members of the alliance towards Georgia are different.
On the one hand, Georgia should work on political relations, representing its role in overshadowing Russia’s position, which currently may be of greater importance for sceptical members of NATO. On the other hand, Georgia must prove that it is not only a union republic, but also a democratic state and work with the status of one. Not as it is now — one step forward, two steps back.
We need to have negotiations with all the member states, especially those with sceptical attitudes. A specific plan should be made on what results the country expects in 2024, so that the role, attitude and aspirations of Georgia are clear for the NATO member states.
Aleksandre Keshelashvili is a multimedia journalist at the Georgian news site Publika.ge. He also teaches digital media and storytelling at Caucasus University in Tbilisi.
Aleksandre Keshelashvili is a multimedia journalist at the Georgian news site Publika.ge. He also teaches digital media and storytelling at Caucasus University in Tbilisi.
Author's pick: What we were reading and listening to
Bundeswehr investigates new derailments against soldiers - DER SPIEGEL
All Quiet on the Eastern Flank? Reflections after the June 2021 NATO Summit - New Eastern Europe
Why is Ukraine still not in NATO? - Atlantic Council
Survey: 80% of Serbian citizens against NATO membership, but only 33% against cooperation - European Western Balkans
Tribune | Georgia has abandoned efforts to advance on NATO membership – Civil.ge
Production: Katya Kovalenko
Production: Katya Kovalenko
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