BRUSSELS – Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said stopping NATO expansion prompted him to invade Ukraine. But on Thursday, Finland declared its unequivocal intention to join, not just pending Putin’s plan, but placing the new potential member of the alliance on Russia’s northern gates.
The statement by Finnish leaders joining NATO – with the expectation that neighboring Sweden would soon do the same – could now reshape a strategic balance in Europe that has prevailed for decades. It is the latest example of how the Russian invasion of Ukraine 11 weeks ago backfired by Putin’s intentions.
Russia reacted angrily, with Putin’s chief spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov saying that adding Finland and Sweden to NATO would not make Europe safer. Russian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, seemed to go further, stating in an interview with a British news site that he posted on Twitter that as members of NATO, the two Nordic countries “become part of the enemy and take all the risks”.
Finland, long known for such relentless non-alignment that “Finnishization” has become synonymous with neutrality, had signaled that the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine was giving Finns a reason to join NATO. But Thursday was the first time Finnish leaders publicly stated that they absolutely intended to join, making it almost certain that Russia would share an 810-mile border with a NATO country.
The addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO carries significant risks of increasing the prospects for war between Russia and the West, based on the alliance’s underlying principle that an attack on one is an attack on all.
But Finnish leaders, President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin, said “NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security”, adding that “as a NATO member, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance. “.
Putin offered a number of reasons for his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but in part it was intended to block NATO’s eastern expansion and was based on what he apparently assumed would be a contentious European response. Instead, the invasion united the West and helped isolate Moscow.
With the likely redrawing of Europe’s security borders, Western officials have also moved to reshape Europe’s economic infrastructure by taking steps to establish new transport routes from Ukraine, which is under Russian naval embargo. Russia, meanwhile, has found itself further ostracized by the global economy as Siemens, the German electronics giant, has become the latest company to withdraw from Russia, exiting after 170 years of business there.
On Thursday, the European Union announced a series of measures to facilitate Ukrainian exports of blocked food products, mainly wheat and oilseeds, in an effort to ease the tension of the war on the Ukrainian economy and avert a looming global food shortage.
The Russian navy blocked exports from Ukraine – a major global supplier of wheat, corn and sunflower oil before the invasion – to the country’s Black Sea ports. The long-term goal of the European Commission, the executive branch of the blockade, is to establish new transport routes from Ukraine to Europe, bypassing the Russian blockade using Polish ports, although the creation of new routes could take months. , if not years.
On the ground in Ukraine, where Russian invaders are still facing strong resistance from Western Ukrainian armed forces and the prospect of a protracted war, the Kremlin has redeployed troops to bolster its territorial conquests in Donbas, the eastern region where it is located. the fiercest fights are held.
Ukrainian and Western officials say Russia is withdrawing forces from Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, where it has lost territory, a withdrawal that the British Defense Ministry on Thursday described as “a tacit acknowledgment of Russia’s inability to capture the main Ukrainian cities where they expected limited resistance from the population ”.
On the contrary, in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which together comprise the Donbas, the Russians now it controls about 80 per cent of the territory. In Luhansk, where Russian bombing rarely subsides, “the situation has significantly worsened” in recent days, according to regional governor Serhiy Haidai.
“The Russians are destroying everything in their path,” Mr. Haidai said Thursday in a post on Telegram. “The vast majority of critical infrastructure will need to be rebuilt,” he said, adding that there is no electricity, water, gas or cellular connection in the region where most of the residents have fled.
Russia’s withdrawal from Kharkiv represents one of the biggest setbacks Moscow has faced since its withdrawal from areas near Kiev, the capital, where the costs of Russian occupation became clearer on Thursday.
The bodies of more than 1,000 civilians were recovered in areas north of Kiev occupied by Russian forces, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Thursday. They included several hundred people who were summarily executed and others who were shot by snipers, Ms Bachelet said.
“The numbers will continue to rise,” Ms Bachelet said at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the second in two weeks, focusing on abuses uncovered by investigators in Bucha, Irpin and other suburbs of Kiev. which were seized by Russian forces in the early stages of the invasion. Russia denied having committed atrocities in Ukraine.
The announcement by Finnish leaders to apply for NATO membership was largely anticipated. Public opinion in Finland has shifted significantly in favor of joining the alliance, from 20 percent six months ago to nearly 80 percent today, especially if Sweden, a strategic partner of Finland, and Sweden are also joined. even militarily not aligned.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” Finnish leaders said in a statement. “We hope that the national measures still necessary to take this decision will be taken quickly within the next few days.”
A parliamentary debate and a vote were expected on Monday.
The debate in Sweden is less advanced than in Finland, but Sweden is also moving towards the application for NATO membership, perhaps as early as next week.
Putin cited NATO’s eastward expansion into Russia’s sphere of influence, including the former Soviet states on its borders, as a national threat. He used Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance to justify his invasion of that country, although Western officials have repeatedly stated that the possibility of Ukraine membership remains remote.
One reason is that NATO would be highly unlikely to offer membership to a country involved in a war.
If Ukraine were to become a NATO member, the alliance would be obliged to defend it from Russia and other adversaries, in line with the application of NATO Article 5 that an attack on one member is an attack on the whole. alliance.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Even without the geopolitical risks, Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that has fought against endemic corruption since gaining independence, it would have difficulty meeting several requirements for joining NATO, including the need to demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law.
Sweden and Finland, by contrast, have developed over the decades into vibrant and healthy liberal democracies.
However, NATO members should act if Finland and Sweden are attacked by Russia or others, increasing the risk of a direct confrontation between nuclear powers.
Putin is likely to have tried to garner support for the invasion of Ukraine by portraying the moves of Finland and Sweden as new evidence that NATO is becoming increasingly hostile.
If Finland and Sweden run, they are widely expected to pass, although NATO officials are publicly discreet, saying just that. the alliance has an open door policy and any country wishing to join can apply for an invitation. However, even a quick application process could take a year, raising concerns that the two countries would be vulnerable to Russia while outside the alliance.
In addition to a long border, Finland shares a complicated and violent history with Russia. The Finns repelled a Soviet invasion in 1939-40 in what is known as “The Winter War”.
The Finns eventually lost, gave up some territories and agreed to remain formally neutral during the Cold War, but their ability to temporarily keep the Soviet Union at bay became a central point of Finnish pride.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland joined the European Union in 1992, becoming a member in 1995, while remaining militarily non-aligned and maintaining working relations with Moscow.
Finland maintained its military spending and sizeable armed forces. Finland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program along with Sweden in 1994 and has become ever closer to the alliance without joining it.
Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels and Norimitsu Onishi from Paris. The report was provided by Cora Engelbrecht of London, Nick Cumming-Bruce of Geneva, Ivan Nechepurenko of Tbilisi, Georgia, Monika Pronczuk of Brussels and Dan Bilefsky of Montreal.