BRUSSELS – Russian President Vladimir Putin said halting NATO expansion helped him invade Ukraine. But on Thursday, Finland announced its categorical intent to join, not only to overturn Mr. Putin’s plan, but also to put the newest potential member of the alliance on Russia’s northern doorstep.
Finland’s leaders’ announcement that they will join NATO – with expectations that neighboring Sweden will soon do the same – could now reshape the strategic balance in Europe that has prevailed for decades. It is the latest example of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 11 weeks ago backfired on Putin’s intentions.
Russia reacted angrily, with Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, adding Finland and Sweden to NATO will not make Europe safer. Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, seemed to have gone further, saying in An interview with a British news site posted on Twitter The two northern countries, as members of NATO, “become part of the enemy and take all the risks”.
Finland, long famous for its stubborn non-alignment that has become synonymous with neutrality, was suggesting that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 was giving the Finns a reason to join NATO. But Thursday was the first time Finland’s leaders have publicly stated that they definitely intend to join, making it almost certain that Russia will share an 810-mile border with a NATO country.
The addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO carries a significant risk of increasing the potential for war between Russia and the West, under the alliance’s core principle that an attack on one is an attack on all.
But Finnish leaders, President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin, said that “NATO membership will enhance Finland’s security,” adding that “as a NATO member, Finland will strengthen the entire defense alliance.”
Mr. Putin offered a range of reasons for his large-scale invasion of Ukraine, but it was intended in part to prevent NATO’s eastern expansion and was based on what he apparently assumed was a divided European response. Instead, the invasion united the West and helped isolate Moscow.
With Europe’s security borders likely to be redrawn, Western officials have also moved to reshape Europe’s economic infrastructure by taking steps to create new transport routes from Ukraine, which is subject to a Russian naval embargo. Meanwhile, Russia has found itself even more ostracized by the global economy, with Siemens, the German electronics giant, becoming the latest company to pull out of Russia, exiting after 170 years of doing business there.
On Thursday, the European Union announced a set of measures to facilitate Ukraine’s exports of banned food products, especially grains and oilseeds, in an attempt to ease the pressure of the war on the Ukrainian economy and avoid 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 – at the country’s Black Sea ports. The long-term goal of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, is to create new transport routes from Ukraine to Europe, bypassing the Russian blockade using Polish ports – although creating new ones could take months, if not years.
On the ground in Ukraine, where Russian invaders still face stiff resistance from Ukrainian armed forces in the West and the prospect of a protracted war, the Kremlin has redeployed its forces to consolidate its territorial gains in Donbas, the eastern region where the fighting has been. the fiercest.
Ukrainian and Western officials say Russia is withdrawing its forces from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, as it is losing territory – a withdrawal that Britain’s Ministry of Defense described on Thursday as “a tacit acknowledgment of Russia’s inability to seize major Ukrainian cities. Expect limited resistance from the population.”
By contrast, in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which together make up the Donbass, the Russians It now controls about 80% of the land. In Luhansk, where Russian bombardment rarely subsides, the situation has “significantly deteriorated” in recent days, according to the region’s governor, Serhiy Heidi.
“The Russians are destroying everything in their path,” Mr. Heidi said Thursday in a Telegram post. “The vast majority of critical infrastructure will have to be rebuilt,” he said, adding that there is no electricity, water, gas or mobile phone connection in the area, where most residents have fled.
Russia’s withdrawal from Kharkiv represents one of the biggest setbacks Moscow has faced since it pulled out of areas near the capital Kyiv – as the costs of the Russian occupation became more apparent on Thursday.
On Thursday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that the bodies of more than a thousand civilians had been found in areas of northern Kyiv occupied by Russian forces. Among them, Bachelet said, several hundred were summarily executed and others were shot by snipers.
“The numbers will continue to increase,” Ms Bachelet said at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, her second in two weeks, focusing on abuses uncovered by investigators in Bucha, Irbin and other captured suburbs of Kyiv. by Russian forces in the early stages of the invasion. Russia has denied committing any atrocities in Ukraine.
The announcement by Finland’s leaders to apply for membership in NATO was widely expected. Public opinion in Finland has shifted dramatically in favor of joining the alliance, from 20 percent six months ago to nearly 80 percent now, particularly if Sweden, Finland’s strategic partner as well as non-aligned militarily, joins.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” Finnish leaders said in a statement. “We hope that the national steps that are still necessary to make this decision can be taken quickly within the next few days.”
A parliamentary debate and vote is expected on Monday.
The controversy in Sweden is less advanced than in Finland, but Sweden is also moving towards a bid to join NATO, possibly as early as next week.
Mr. Putin cited NATO’s eastward spread into Russia’s sphere of influence, including the former Soviet Union countries on its borders, as a national threat. He has used Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance to help justify his invasion of that country, even though Western officials have said repeatedly that the possibility of Ukrainian membership is still a long way off.
One reason is that it is highly unlikely that NATO will offer membership of a country embroiled in a war.
If Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, the alliance will be obligated to defend it against Russia and other enemies, in keeping with the application of NATO Article 5 which states that an attack on one member is an attack on the entire Alliance.
Even without the geopolitical risks, Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that has Fight with rampant corruption Since gaining independence, he will find it difficult to meet many of the requirements necessary to join NATO, including the need to demonstrate commitment to the rule of law.
In contrast, Sweden and Finland have developed over the decades into vibrant and healthy liberal democracies.
However, NATO members will have to act if Finland and Sweden are attacked by Russia or others, which increases the risks of direct confrontation between the nuclear powers.
Mr. Putin was likely to try to garner support for the invasion of Ukraine by portraying the actions of Finland and Sweden as new evidence that NATO was increasingly hostile.
If Finland and Sweden apply, they are widely expected to be approved, although NATO officials are publicly reticent and only say so The alliance has an open door policy Any country wishing to join can request an invitation. However, even the express application process could take a year, raising concerns that the two countries would be vulnerable to Russia while outside the alliance.
Besides a long border, Finland shares with Russia a complex and violent history. The Finns repelled the Soviet invasion in 1939-40 in what is known as the “Winter War”.
The Finns eventually lost, relinquished some territory and agreed to remain officially neutral throughout the Cold War, but their ability to hold off the Soviet Union temporarily became a central point of Finnish pride.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland moved to join the European Union in 1992, becoming a member in 1995, while remaining militarily unaligned and maintaining working relations with Moscow.
Finland maintained its massive military spending and armed forces. Finland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program alongside Sweden in 1994 and has become closer to the alliance without joining it.
Stephen Erlanger reports in Brussels, and Nourimitsu Onishi in Paris. Reporting was contributed by Cora Engelbrecht in London, Nick Cumming Bruce in Geneva, Ivan Nikiburnko in Tbilisi, Georgia, Monica Brunszuk in Brussels and Dan Belewsky in Montreal.