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Sweden joins Finland in NATO bid, prompting muted response from Putin
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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 heeds the transformation of the European security order triggered by its invasion of Ukraine.

Putin said Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO posed no imminent danger to Russia, even though their membership, if finalized, would add hundreds of kilometers to Russia’s common border. and NATO. But, warned the Russian leader, it would not be the same if NATO organized a military reinforcement in the two countries.

“Russia has no problem with Finland and Sweden, and in this sense, expansion at the expense of these countries does not create an immediate threat to us,” Putin said in televised remarks. “But the expansion of military infrastructure in this territory will certainly provoke our response.”

“What it will be, we will look at it depending on the threats that will be created for us. That is to say, the problems are created out of nothing,” he said, blaming the United States for the historic change in the Nordic countries. “We will react accordingly.”

Putin spoke as the Swedish government announced on Monday that it would join neighboring Finland in launching a NATO bid, a process alliance officials hope will be concluded in the coming months. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said a large majority in Sweden’s parliament backed NATO membership, ending a decades-long stand outside the 30-member bloc. “We are leaving an era behind us and entering a new one,” Andersson said.

The membership prospect of Finland and Sweden, which experts say exceed their military might, defies years of warnings from Moscow, where some top officials, including former President Dmitry Medvedev, have suggested that the Russia could respond by positioning nuclear and hypersonic weapons along the border. Baltic sea.

Putin’s more measured response may reflect the reality of how the conflict in Ukraine has depleted the Russian military as it faces the prospect of lasting economic damage from global sanctions.

The Russian oligarchs loved the luxury of Sardinia. Now they are frozen out of heaven.

The Russian leader’s offensive appeared to secure a victory on Monday when Ukraine’s military command said it would halt combat operations in the coastal city of Mariupol, where forces loyal to kyiv have been trying to hold off a protracted Russian assault, and instead focus on evacuating hundreds of people. of fighters who had taken refuge in a ruined steelworks.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar said more than 260 soldiers had been transported to Russian-held territory, including 53 who were “seriously injured” and taken to hospital. Moscow and kyiv will negotiate a prisoner exchange to secure their release, she said, and efforts are underway to rescue troops trapped in the factory.

Finland’s decision to join NATO, meanwhile, marks the culmination of a gradual deepening of Finland’s ties with NATO, said Mikko Hautala, Finnish Ambassador to the United States, stressing the status Finland as an official NATO partner in the “Partnership for Peace” in the 1990s. Finland, like Sweden, has a long history of conducting joint exercises with NATO and sending troops to NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and other regions.

“Rather than seeing this as a sort of sudden leap from a neutral country into NATO, it’s more like the last step on a long road,” he said in an interview.

Western officials expect the Nordic nations to provide a major security boost, particularly in northern Europe, where small, modestly defended Baltic nations have long feared they could become Moscow’s next target.

Finland’s defense expenditure as a percentage of GDP is the largest in Europe, at 2.3%. Finland has a formidable artillery force and is buying 64 F-35 stealth fighters.

Hautala said Finland’s growing support for NATO membership was not driven by fear but by a sense that the country needed to recognize changing realities in Europe given Russia’s desire to move forward. to use force against a neighboring State.

We see no direct military threat from Russia at this time. But you have to be careful here,” he said. “Our goal is to prevent any speculation about our position, our security.”

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto’s call to Putin on Saturday to inform him of Finland’s decision went “without aggravation”, the Finnish government said.

As Sweden announced its own application for membership, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov lashed out at the two countries, going further than Putin by calling their moves “another serious mistake for profound consequences”.

“The general level of military tension will increase and there will be less predictability in this area,” Ryabkov told a news conference.

The Swedish government has declared that it will not bow to Russian coercion.

“In our opinion, it is not up to them to decide whether we join or not. It is a sovereign Swedish decision,” Karin Olofsdotter, Sweden’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview.

“They may try to influence us or intimidate us, which they have to some degree, but we are not deterred,” she said. “So we are ready. We are strong. We have also strengthened our short-term security. … We saw it coming.

At the same time, Olofsdotter said there were no plans to deploy NATO forces to either Nordic country.

“We are joining NATO. We will do everything,” she said in an interview. “But there is no question of sending troops to Sweden or Finland. We really take care of our own safety as much as we can.”

Hautala said Finland was ready to do its part – potentially deploying forces elsewhere in Europe – if it had access to NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense guarantee.

“We also realize that there is no free lunch, that… you also have to provide your own support to other member states,” he said. “So if anyone else needs help, I think it’s absolutely clear that Finland… will be there to help them..”

Before NATO membership is guaranteed, the parties will have to address the concerns of Turkey, a member state that has raised concerns over relations with members of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. by Turkey. Hautala said he hoped “we get that cleared up.”

Hautala, a fluent Russian speaker who was the No. 2 official at the Finnish Embassy in Moscow from 2011-2012, then as ambassador from 2016-2020, said he didn’t expect Russia to back down from its maximalist goals in Ukraine despite its military’s struggles there, meaning a long and probably punitive conflict in the heart of Europe.

“I don’t think there’s any chance that [Putin] would gladly accept any kind of solution as before the war. I don’t think the Russians have given up on their fundamental goals, which are to control all of Ukraine,” Hautala said. “They can adjust their plans based on the resource situation and other risks. But still, I think this war has deeper roots.

Hautala’s observations stem not just from his diplomatic duties — he also served as a foreign policy adviser to Niinisito and met Putin on several occasions — but from more everyday moments.

While serving in Moscow, Hautala’s son returned home from his Moscow kindergarten saluting and marching in Russian military style. The diplomat thought that was a bit odd.

When he learned that the children would celebrate Victory of Russia Day on May 9 by dressing in the uniforms of the Red Army or the contemporary army, he was more worried. He and his wife kept their son at home. The fact that none of the other parents bothered about their 3-year-olds’ participation in this kind of exposure, he concluded, said a lot about Russian society.

After years of eroding trust in institutions, Hautala said, “most Russians want to believe in state propaganda and they want to be proud of their military power.”

Maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

If the Russians seek redemption in restoring Moscow’s historic power, that could give Putin more leeway to pursue his goals in the war.

“Moscow has a long-cherished idea of ​​Western decline and the rise of a multipolar order in which Russia is one of the key players,” he said. “Taking control of Ukraine is [an] essential part of the story.

Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia; Annabelle Timsit in London; and Reis Thebault in Washington contributed to this report.

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