Finland is joining NATO, and Victoria Coates says Russia is less than pleased.
Leaders in Moscow are “thoroughly outraged about this and claiming it causes some kind of intolerable threat to Russian security,” says Coates, a senior research fellow in international affairs and national security at The Heritage Foundation. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
Finland will become the 31st NATO member on Tuesday, a move that Coates says is likely an embarrassment to Russia because counties in the region appear to “not [be] interested in joining with Russia” in the war against Ukraine.
Coates joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain the significance of Finland entering NATO and what it could mean for the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Coates also shares what we know about the imprisonment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and how the Biden administration should be handling the situation.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: We are joined today by Heritage Foundation senior research fellow in international affairs and national security Victoria Coates. Victoria, thank you for being with us today.
Victoria Coates: Thanks for having me, Virginia.
Allen: Well, today, Finland is joining NATO. What is the significance of this move?
Coates: This is, in the abstract, an extremely good thing. Both Finland and Sweden joining NATO brings in two members with large, flourishing economies and significant militaries who have, quite frankly, been coasting along under the security umbrella provided by NATO without actually participating, and now they are signaling their willingness to formally join and start spending the percentage of [gross domestic product] committed to by NATO members and presumably participate in a more coordinated fashion in the support for Ukraine. So I would see this as a good thing.
Allen: What are the benefits for Finland? What are they getting out of this” And for America, what’s the benefit for us?
Coates: Well, quite frankly, it’s security for Finland. I think Finland has a significant border with Russia. Russia’s tried to consume Finland before and so I think when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin went into Ukraine so brutally, it really had a way of focusing the attention of his other neighbors that he is willing to follow up threats with force, and that for Finland, the obvious choice is to ban together with NATO.
The concern from a U.S. perspective is how strategically the Biden administration has thought this through, because of course when you admit new members, they come with the obligation of Article 5, which is the collective security agreement of NATO in which military force is an option if another member is attacked. It does not guarantee military action, that’s something that’s not well known about Article 5, but it raises it as an option.
The United States needs to be prepared in the event of a Russian or some other invasion that we might be going to actual war to defend these allies. And I think very much in the case of Finland and Sweden, if Russia goes into one of those countries, we probably would be engaged.
So NATO membership for them makes sense. But putting countries into NATO that do have these significant borders with Russia should not be taken lightly for that reason.
Allen: So then, what is Russia’s perspective? Because we’ve seen the Finnish foreign minister, he says that for Finland, they’re very focused on support for Ukraine as they join NATO. What are the leaders of Russia saying about Finland joining NATO?
Coates: Oh, they’re all thoroughly outraged about this and claiming it causes some kind of intolerable threat to Russian security. But the fact of the matter is that no NATO member has ever invaded Russia. NATO is inherently a defensive posture to guard against Russian aggression, so if the Russians do not invade NATO members, they literally have nothing to fear.
Historically, that has never happened, that this has been a problem. And so, I think the sort of faux outrage out of Moscow is more embarrassment that these countries are not interested in joining with Russia—one can see why—and that they are interested in partnering with Western Europe and the United States.
Allen: Are there any key objectives that NATO has on its docket right now as they’re moving forward and maybe entering a little bit of a new season with Finland being a part of NATO? Are there any key objectives that they have announced as far as the focus this year?
Coates: Well, we have the upcoming NATO meeting, which is actually in Vilnius in Lithuania in, I believe, about a month, it might be sooner. But there are a number of things on the docket.
For the first time, energy security is on the docket, which is a critical point that has been brought home to Europe since the Ukraine invasion as well.
China is on the docket. And this is a point I would hope the United States is really leaning forward on because unlike Europe, the United States is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power, and in the event of a conflict with China, Europe, I’m a 100% sure, would say that is an American issue that America should lead on because America is a Pacific power.
All of which is true, but in that case, I think we also need to point out to them that Ukraine is essentially a European war and that we need Europeans to be very much at the forefront of that. For Finland and Sweden to come in to NATO, that gives us an opportunity for more large countries who can provide more support for Ukraine than we’re getting out of Europe currently.
Allen: Let’s take a few minutes and talk a little bit about America’s current relationship with Russia as a whole. As we covered on The Daily Signal’s top news show last week, Russia has arrested a Wall Street Journal reporter named Evan Gershkovich and they’ve arrested him on charges of spying. Tensions are already very high between America and Russia; is Russia in a way testing America here by arresting this Wall Street Journal reporter?
Coates: Oh, I think they’re certainly probing the Biden administration for what kind of resolve they have, and I think that the arrest of a reporter like this just shows you how blatantly Putin is willing to crack down on information that he doesn’t like.
And so, I think it’s probably foolhardy to say that the relationship between the United States and Russia has hit its low point because every time I think we’ve hit our low point, he, Putin, figures out a way to make it worse.
The administration has been trying to keep channels open. We know [State Secretary Antony] Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov, over the last 24 hours to insist on Evan’s release.
I don’t know that that really does much good. I think that Putin responds much, much more to forceful behavior rather than the outstretched hand. But I guess they’re still trying, but it doesn’t give much comfort, I think, to either Evan or his family.
Allen: Then, how do you think America should be responding?
Coates: Well, I think we have both the episode of the jet and the drone last month, and then we have this episode, and apparently [Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin said that the response of the U.S. Air Force was to start flying around where the Russians are, so we accommodated them. The hostage taking goes back both to Paul Whelan, who’s been left to languish in Moscow, and the Brittney Griner situation, where we accommodated them with Viktor Bout.
And so, I think these are all really unfortunate examples of Putin getting the signal that he can push forward if he wants. I think that is—for example, with the drone situation, I would’ve put two drones up there and figured out a way to establish our space. How do you respond to a bully? If you keep accommodating them, they’re going to keep pushing; if you push back, they tend to back down.
Allen: So then, given that and what we’ve seen recently from the Biden administration, even though, like you mentioned, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is calling on Russia to release Gershkovich now, what’s the likelihood that he is going to be released sooner than, I think they’ve given a date in May, when they say that they’ll release him?
Coates: I would say zero, unless the administration provides some kind of payment, essentially, some sort of ransom for him, whether it be another Russian national that we’re holding or relaxation of sanctions or not putting on additional sanctions. Absent that, I don’t see any hopes that he’s coming home anytime soon.
Allen: Do we know anything about how he’s being treated in that Russian prison?
Coates: No. To my knowledge, we have not had consular access, by which we mean that the U.S. Embassy personnel have been able to visit with him, make sure that he’s not being abused, and has some legal representation, but we have not been provided that access to date and that’s really egregious. That’s pretty much the rock bottom of diplomatic protocol would be consular access and they’re not even granting that.
Allen: How common is this, that a journalist, whether American or maybe from a European country, is arrested in Russia? Have we seen this happen many times before?
Coates: Oh, Putin is famous for his abuses of the press, most usually his domestic press if it steps out of line. People have been murdered, assassinated for attempting to get the truth out of Russia, but very, very rare for an American. This hasn’t really happened since the Cold War, so it’s been some 30 years or more since an American has been targeted that way. And so, this is an escalation on Putin’s part. Make no mistake about it.
Allen: Victoria, I want to get your thoughts on an incident that happened Sunday in Russia. On Sunday, a pro-Russian propagandist was killed by an explosion in a cafe in St. Petersburg, Russia. The man was known by the pseudonym Vladlen Tatarsky and he was speaking at a party, it seemed, at a cafe. It’s reported that a woman handed him this small figurine or statue of a miner. He was a miner. And then, the statue exploded, killing him and injuring others in that cafe. What do we know about this incident?
Coates: Well, it’s extremely sketchy. Clearly, this was some kind of targeted assassination by folks who didn’t appreciate his pro-Putin propaganda, but really, and this is also with Evan’s case as well, it shows you how Putin is weaponizing information, that we have so much disinformation, targeted information, shifting information on what’s going on in Ukraine, and the Russian government has a very powerful apparatus to both undermine what we would consider to be the truth and to push what seems from the outside to be blatant falsehoods through individuals such as this war propagandist.
But it is effective and I think the United States really doesn’t have any coordinated information operations that are anywhere near as effective, and it’s something we have to start thinking about as we think about things like energy security is a major national security risk, information security is also a major national security risk, that these kinds of incidents, hopefully, will be clarifying.
Allen: As the war continues in Ukraine, what are you watching closely? What are you keeping your eye on right now?
Coates: I’m really watching how bogged down the Russians seem to be in the East, that they have not made the kinds of gains they expected to make.
The reporting out of The Wall Street Journal that Evan was doing, talking about the real weakness in the Russian economy, that things had improved over the early weeks of the war and then now are taking another downward trend. The production cuts out of OPEC+ overnight. How is that going to impact Putin? Is he actually going to abide by them and reduce his energy exports?
It makes you wonder, do we have a real moment of opportunity here, that if the Biden administration was willing to actually level the truly crippling sanctions that would damage the Russian economy so severely, is this the moment we could tip things in our favor and in the favor of Ukraine and our allies? But I’m just not seeing any signs of that out of Washington.
Allen: What might be holding Washington back from doing that, from really putting the pressure on Russia through sanctions in a way that they would feel it deeply?
Coates: Well, their concern all along has been domestic energy prices, which they see as a political issue, and I think it was very telling that they responded to the OPEC+ production cuts as saying they’re not following barrels, they’re following prices. That’s all they care about, is taking on political risk through potentially raising domestic energy prices.
Now, one response might be, “Gee. We really want to incentivize robust domestic U.S. energy production, which will provide much more product on market and keep prices under control,” which was President [Donald] Trump’s approach, and that involves adjusting your regulatory posture to encourage both exploration and infrastructure investment, and it made the United States the world’s largest oil producer. We are an energy superpower whether we like it or not.
The Biden administration does not seem to like that, and so that is not their approach. Instead, they’re trying to tinker with things like massive releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, pleading with the Saudis, which proved ineffective to try to keep prices under control, while they impose a much more radical anti-fossil fuel climate agenda on our country.
I think they are terrified that if they really do take Russia offline, they face spiking energy prices at home and they don’t have any other way to remedy that, so I think that’s really what’s been driving them.
Allen: Given that strategy, who ultimately would you say are the winners and losers?
Coates: Well, in many ways the winners should be the Ukrainians. They’ve fought very bravely for their country. They haven’t asked for soldiers, they’ve asked for military help. I think that’s what the United States should focus on, is lethal, military aid.
I do think the social engineering that President [Joe] Biden and [Treasury Secretary Janet] Yellen have mentioned in terms of Ukraine of providing a safety net, putting things in the pockets of Ukrainians, that’s really the job of Brussels, of the European Union, if that’s all going to happen.
I think the United States is, unfortunately, the administration is so consumed by Ukraine, I worry that they’re not really focusing fully on the China threat.
But as we look at those two twin problems, Russia and China, they are increasingly becoming a single problem. I might see that as the biggest new challenge that’s coming out of this conflict for us.
Even if we can resolve Ukraine in a favorable stance, we still are going to have to deal with the fact that Russia is becoming a junior partner to China, as is Iran. Right now, the leadership of those three countries doesn’t give me a lot of hope that they have America’s best interest at heart.
Allen: Victoria, we so appreciate your time today. For all of our listeners who want to follow your work, you can follow Coates on Twitter, @VictoriaCoates, and you can also follow all of her work on The Heritage Foundation website. It’s just heritage.org. Victoria, thank you for your time today.
Coates: Of course. Thank you, Virginia.
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