Russia may have a muted response to Finland and Sweden’s decision to seek Nato membership despite earlier threats of retaliation, president Vladimir Putin suggested on Monday, as the Kremlin reckons with the transformation of Europe’s security order triggered by its invasion of Ukraine.
Putin said Finland and Sweden’s entry into Nato did not represent an imminent danger to Russia, even though their accession, if finalised, would add hundreds of miles to Russia and Nato’s shared border.
But, the Russian leader cautioned, the same would not be true if Nato staged a military build-up in the two countries. “Russia has no problems with Finland and Sweden, and in this sense, expansion at the expense of these countries does not create an immediate threat for us,” Putin said in televised remarks.
“But the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory will certainly provoke our response.
“What it will be, we will look at based on the threats that will be created for us. That is, problems are created out of thin air,” he said, blaming the United States for the Nordic nations’ historic shift. “We will respond accordingly.”
Putin spoke as Sweden’s government on Monday announced it would join neighbouring Finland in launching a Nato bid.
Prime minister Magdalena Andersson said a large majority in Sweden’s parliament supported joining Nato, ending a decades-long position outside the 30-member bloc. “We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one,” she said.
The prospect of membership for Finland and Sweden, which experts say punch above their weight in military might, defies years of warnings from Moscow, where some senior officials, including former president Dmitry Medvedev, have suggested that Russia could respond by positioning nuclear and hypersonic weapons along the Baltic Sea.
Putin’s more measured response may reflect the reality of how the conflict in Ukraine has depleted Russia’s military at the same time it is facing the prospect of lasting economic damage from global sanctions.
The Russian leader’s offensive appeared to secure a victory on Monday when Ukraine’s military command said it would end combat operations in Mariupol, where forces loyal to Kyiv have attempted to hold back a prolonged Russian assault, and focus instead on evacuating the hundreds of fighters that had been sheltering in a ruined steel plant.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Anna Malyar, said more than 260 soldiers have been transported to Russian-controlled territory. Moscow and Kyiv will broker a prisoner swap to secure their release, she said.
Finland’s decision to join Nato, meanwhile, marks the culmination of a gradual deepening of Finnish-Nato ties, said Mikko Hautala, Finland’s ambassador to the US.
Finland, like Sweden, has long conducted joint exercises with Nato and sent troops to Nato-led missions in Afghanistan and other areas.
“Rather than seeing this as a kind of a leap of a neutral country suddenly into Nato, rather it’s a last step on a long road,” Mr Hautala said in an interview.
Western officials expect that the Nordic nations will provide an important security boost, particularly in northern Europe, where the small and modestly defended Baltic nations have long worried that they might become Moscow’s next target.
Finland’s defence expenditure as a share of GDP is the largest in Europe, at 2.3pc. Finland has a formidable artillery force and is buying 64 F-35 stealth fighters.
Mr Hautala said growing support in Finland for Nato membership was not driven by fear but by a feeling the country needed to acknowledge the changing realities in Europe given Russia’s willingness to use force against a neighbouring state.
“We don’t see any direct military threat from Russia right now. But there’s a need to be prudent here,” he said. “Our goal is to prevent any speculation about our position, our security.”
President Sauli Niinisto’s call with Putin to inform him of Finland’s decision occurred “without aggravations,” the Finnish government said.
As Sweden announced its own accession bid, Deputy Russian foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov lashed out at both countries, calling their moves “another serious mistake with far-reaching consequences.”
“The general level of military tension will increase, and there will be less predictability in this area,” he said.
The Swedish government said it would not bow to Russian coercion.
© Washington Post