Days after Finland and Sweden formally applied to join NATO — essentially ending decades of neutrality on the world stage — former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called the development “huge” and a major defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was partly driven by a desire to prevent the country from joining NATO, which would put the military alliance right at Russia’s border. But last week’s move by Finland and Sweden suggests that plan has backfired, Gates told “Face the Nation” Sunday.
“I think it changes the geopolitics in Europe in a dramatic way. Now he’s got NATO on his doorstep, not only in Ukraine and elsewhere,” Gates said, referring to Putin.
“He’s going to have them on his border in Finland. And it’s an amazing thing he’s done because he’s gotten Sweden to abandon 200 years of neutrality,” Gates said. “So I think one of his many, huge miscalculations in invading Ukraine is he has dramatically changed the geostrategic posture of Western Europe. And now that you have the Swedes and the Finns as part of that, he’s really put Russia in a much worse strategic position than it had before the invasion.”
NATO’s 30 member countries are now reviewing Sweden’s and Finland’s applications. If their bids are accepted, the two once-neutral Nordic nations could become members within a few months.
When the leaders of the two countries visited the White House last Thursday, President Biden offered his “strong support” for their applications.
Gates, who served as defense secretary under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine could continue to hurt Russia’s economy and affect the country in other ways. He also doesn’t believe Putin could win the war by taking over Ukraine and “absorbing it” into Russia, but he said Putin might still walk away with some strategic areas of Eastern Ukraine.
“He has the potential to hold on to a good part of the Donbas. But I think in terms of pushing on to Odessa or trying to bring a change of government in Kyiv or absorb Ukraine, I think if that’s winning, I don’t see that he can win,” Gates said.
“His invasion has weakened Russia and it’s got now long-term economic problems,” Gates said. “Europe, I think, is very serious at this point about weaning itself away from dependence on Russian oil and gas. So that will weaken Russia significantly.”
The former defense secretary expressed doubt that Putin’s biggest ally, China, would do enough to rescue Russia’s economy partly because it wouldn’t want to become dependent on Russia for energy sources.
“China will want to remain diversified,” Gates said. “They might buy some more Russian oil and gas, but nothing like what would be required to replace the European market. Putin will remain a pariah … He has put Russia really behind the 8-ball economically, militarily, and because now people are going to look at the Russian military and say, ‘You know, this was supposed to be this fantastic military. Well, they give a good parade, but in actual combat, not so hot.'”
Asked if he believes Putin could resort to using a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine, Gates said it’s unlikely.
“I think the probability of him using a tactical nuclear weapon is low, but not zero,” he said. “There are no large masses of Ukrainian forces that would be taken out by a tactical nuclear weapon. And if [there’s no] military purpose, then the only purpose is as a terror weapon to try and break the will of the Ukrainian people. And I think that moment has come and gone. I don’t think that there’s anything at this point that will break the will of the Ukrainian people.”
Gates noted that a nuclear attack on Ukraine could possibly affect Russia’s mainland as well.
“In that part of the world, and particularly in eastern Ukraine, the winds tend to blow from the west,” he said. “If you set off a tactical nuclear weapon in eastern Ukraine, the radiation is going to go into Russia. So I just hope somebody reminds him of that.”