NATO’s expected admission of Finland and Sweden poses “no direct threat” to Russia, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who signaled his acquiescence to the setback after months of claiming that the growth of the alliance endangered Russia and justified the war in Ukraine.
“Russia has no problems with these states,” Putin told the leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow’s analog to the U.S.-led security bloc, in a public session Monday. “No problems at all! In this sense, therefore, there is no direct threat to Russia in connection with NATO’s expansion to these countries.”
That statement broke with the truculent tone of other Russian officials in recent weeks as Moscow has used nuclear saber-rattling and other bellicose gestures to try to cow Finnish and Swedish lawmakers contemplating an application to NATO. Those intimidation tactics failed, as the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine alarmed officials in Helsinki and Stockholm and preoccupied Russian forces that might otherwise have presented a more convincing threat of retaliation, culminating in a synchronized decision by the Nordic states to apply.
“The mood is cool, calm, collected,” Finnish Ambassador to the United States Mikko Hautala said Monday during a Center for European Policy Analysis event. We don’t see any sort of activity that would be of major concern to us. So it seems to be the case so far that ... there’s going to be a response, but most likely, it’s going to be a rather long-term thing depending on how things go forward and what kind of developments take place in northern Europe.”
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Putin also suggested that NATO membership would not warrant a new crisis unless there were some concomitant Western military shift.
“The expansion of its military infrastructure to these territories will certainly evoke a response on our part,” the Kremlin chief said. “We will see what it will be like based on the threats that are created for us. But generally speaking, problems are being created from nothing. So we will respond to it in a fitting manner.”
Hautala questioned whether Finland would need to invite Western forces into the country given the strength of the Finnish military. "We are not seeking that if we don't need it. If we need it, we will be seeking for it," he said. "First and foremost, it's our responsibility to make sure we are safe. That's why we have done a lot of national contingency planning and continue to do so in order to be prepared for all the potential scenarios."
The addition of Sweden and Finland to the trans-Atlantic alliance is a boon for Poland and the Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — most exposed to a Russian attack. Lithuania and Poland share a border known as the Suwalki Gap, a 60-mile stretch of land that separates Belarus, a Putin client-dictatorship that hosted Russian forces on their way to attack Ukraine, from Kaliningrad — a district of Russian sovereignty territory on the Baltic Sea. The regional geography is such that a Russian and Belarusian military operation to close the Suwalki Gap in a crisis would impede NATO’s access by land to the Baltic states, but Finland and Sweden’s accession to the security bloc would all but render the Baltic Sea a NATO lake.
“We are confident that both Sweden and Finland will contribute to unity, solidarity, cohesion, and strength of the alliance and whole transatlantic area, at a time when the security environment we face is increasingly complex,” the foreign ministers of the three Baltic states said Monday in a joint statement. “Their membership will also greatly increase the security of the Baltic Sea region, open new perspectives for Nordic-Baltic and other regional cooperation formats in defense and security matters, providing additional strategic clarity that benefits all.”
Russian Ambassador to Canada Oleg Stepanov warned last month that Sweden and Finland’s membership would turn the region “into yet another potential theater of war,” and another senior Russian official pledged Monday that Moscow would retaliate.
“They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Monday. "The general level of military tension will increase, [and] predictability in this area will become less.”
"They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it — and nor should Brussels, Washington, and other NATO capitals,” he added.
Those threats have gone unheeded in the Nordic countries in part because Russian forces already are postured in a way that could prove dangerous for them.
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“Russian propaganda doesn’t really stick in Sweden, and I’m sure it’s the same in Finland,” Swedish Ambassador to the United States Karin Olofsdotter said Monday in a CEPA appearance alongside her Finnish counterpart. “And, of course, we have to take [their threats] seriously given what they have already done in the Ukraine ... but I guess we all assume that there are already those kind of tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad.”