Finland’s leaders on Friday came out in favour of applying to join NATO, and Sweden could do the same within days, in a historic realignment on the continent 2 1/2 months after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine sent a shiver of fear through Moscow’s neighbours.
The Kremlin reacted by warning it will be forced to take retaliatory “military-technical” steps.
On the ground, meanwhile, Russian forces pounded areas in central and eastern Ukraine, including the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol, as part its offensive to take the vital industrial Donbas region, while Ukraine recaptured some towns and villages in the country’s northeast.
Finland’s president and prime minister announced that the Nordic country should apply right away for membership in NATO, the military defence pact founded in part to counter the Soviet Union.
“You (Russia) caused this. Look in the mirror,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said this week.
While the country’s Parliament still has to weigh in, the announcement means Finland is all but certain to apply — and gain admission — though the process could take months to complete. Sweden, likewise, is considering applying.
That would represent a major change in Europe’s security landscape: Sweden has avoided military alliances for more than 200 years, while Finland adopted neutrality after its defeat by the Soviets in World War II.
Public opinion in both nations shifted dramatically in favour of NATO membership after the invasion, which stirred fears in countries along Russia’s flank that they could be next.
Such an expansion of the alliance would leave Russia surrounded by NATO countries in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic and would amount to a stinging setback for Putin, who had hoped to divide and roll back NATO in Europe but is instead seeing the exact opposite happen.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the alliance would welcome Finland and Sweden with open arms.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned that Moscow “will be forced to take retaliatory steps of military-technical and other characteristics in order to counter the emerging threats to its national security.”
NATO’s funnelling of weapons and other military support to Ukraine already has been critical to Kyiv’s surprising success in stymieing the invasion, and the Kremlin warned anew in ominous terms Thursday that the aid could lead to direct conflict between NATO and Russia.
“There is always a risk of such conflict turning into a full-scale nuclear war, a scenario that will be catastrophic for all,” said Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council.