- Russian officials are changing their tune as Sweden and Finland announce they want to join NATO.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that Finland and Sweden joining NATO would probably make "not much difference," Reuters reported.
- Just last week, Russia said it would have to take "retaliatory steps" if the countries were to join NATO.
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Russian officials made an abrupt about-face this week as Sweden and Finland announced they want to join NATO, with Russia's top diplomat downplaying the historic development after Moscow repeatedly made dramatic threats in recent months in response to the possibility of the Nordic countries joining the alliance.
"Finland and Sweden, as well as other neutral countries, have been participating in NATO military exercises for many years," Lavrov continued.
"NATO takes their territory into account when planning military advances to the East. So in this sense, there is probably not much difference. Let's see how their territory is used in practice in the North Atlantic alliance," Lavrov said, according to Reuters.
Lavrov's comments echoed remarks from Russian President Vladimir Putin the day before.
"Russia has no problem with these states — none," Putin said on Monday to the leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-led military alliance. "And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion of NATO to include these countries," he added, per Reuters.
Putin noted though that "the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response."
This new, less aggressive tone comes on the heels of weeks of threats from the Kremlin toward Helsinki and Stockholm on the subject of NATO membership, including military retaliation and nuclear threats.
Last Thursday, for example, a Russian foreign ministry statement said that if Finland joins NATO then "Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to stop the threats to its national security arising in this regard."
Both Scandinavian countries broke from decades of neutrality by moving to join NATO. The historic shift in policy was prompted by Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Finland shares an 1,300km border with Russia, and the Finns and the Russians fought fiercely during World War II in a conflict known as the Winter War that saw Finland lose a huge portion of its territory. In 1948, Finland signed a treaty with Russia that ensured that the Soviets would not invade again in exchange for Helsinki remaining militarily non-aligned. Sweden, like its next-door neighbour Finland, was also neutral throughout the Cold War.
Finland and Sweden became NATO partner countries in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they did not pursue full NATO membership. Russia's invasion of Ukraine, however, has led both countries to rapidly transition toward joining the alliance. NATO operates under the principle of collective defense, which is enshrined in Article 5 of its founding treaty. It considers an attack on one an attack on all. Joining NATO would give Finland and Sweden the protection of dozens of countries, including nuclear powers like the US.
Russia has for years complained about NATO's expansion in the post-Cold War period, which saw a number of former Soviet republics join the alliance. As Russia began to gather tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's border in late 2021, Putin railed against NATO and demanded Ukraine be banned from ever joining the alliance. NATO refused, stating that its open door policy was non-negotiable, while offering to negotiate with Russia on other security concerns, such as missile deployments and military exercises.
In his Victory Day speech on May 9, Putin once again blamed NATO for the war in Ukraine and falsely claimed Russia had no choice but to invade. But the reality is that Russia invaded Ukraine without provocation, contrary to Putin's claims.
Enlarging NATO requires unanimous agreement from all current members. Only one NATO country — Turkey — has expressed opposition to adding Finland and Sweden. But NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has expressed confidence that Turkey's concerns will be addressed and won't ultimately prevent Finland and Sweden from being added to the alliance.
Finland and Sweden joining NATO is poised to stand as one of the more significant ways Russia's war in Ukraine has backfired on Moscow. Instead of weakening an alliance he's criticised for years, Putin has reinvigorated NATO and placed it on the verge of adding new members — including one that sits on Russia's northern border.