Putin appears to back off threats as Nordics prepare to join NATO

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Vladimir Putin appeared to climb down on Monday from Russia’s objections to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, saying Moscow had no issues with them entering the U.S.-led military alliance they now aim to join in reaction to his invasion of Ukraine.

Though the Russian leader said Moscow would take action if NATO were to move more troops or hardware onto the territory of its new members – steps Finland and Sweden have both already ruled out – he said NATO’s expansion itself was not a threat.

“As far as expansion goes, including new members Finland and Sweden, Russia has no problems with these states – none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion to include these countries,” Putin said.

The comments appeared to mark a major reversal of Russian policy. For decades, Moscow has cast NATO’s expansion to include new members as a direct threat to Russia’s security, including citing it as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine itself.

Just hours before Putin spoke, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said Finland and Sweden were making a mistake that would have far-reaching consequences: “They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it.”

Putin’s own spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked last Thursday if Finland joining NATO was a threat to Russia, had said: “Definitely. NATO expansion does not make our continent more stable and secure.”

But faced with the prospect that his own actions may cause the very expansion of NATO he had opposed, Putin appears to have decided not to object directly.

He did however say NATO enlargement was being used by the United States in an “aggressive” way to aggravate an already difficult global security situation, and that Russia would respond if the alliance moves weapons or troops forward.

“The expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response. What that (response) will be – we will see what threats are created for us,” Putin said. “Problems are being created for no reason at all. We shall react accordingly.”

Both non-aligned throughout the Cold War, Finland and Sweden say they now want the protection offered by NATO’s treaty, under which an attack on any member is an attack on all.

“We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said, announcing plans to formally abandon the militarily non-aligned status that has been a cornerstone of Swedish national identity for more than 200 years. “NATO will strengthen Sweden, Sweden will strengthen NATO,” she said.

Swedish and Finnish officials have said Putin has no one to blame but himself for their decisions to join NATO. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweeted a picture of a fake award for Putin as “NATO salesman of the year”.

Kjell Engelbrekt, professor of political science at the Swedish Defence University, said Putin appeared to be trying to “limit the damage”, though it was too early to say whether he now accepted NATO’s expansion as “a fait accompli”.

Moscow now had few military options left to follow through on its previous “very assertive” rhetoric demanding the Nordics never join NATO, Engelbrekt said.

“Given that Russian military resources are fairly stretched or even overstretched at the present time … they could not match an intensification of the rhetoric with the stationing and distribution of more capabilities in this part of Europe anyway.”

Source: Reuters.com

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