BRUSSELS — Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin has said stopping NATO expansion prompted him to invade Ukraine. But on Thursday, Finland declared its unequivocal intention to join, not only nullifying Mr Putin’s plan, but also placing the alliance’s newest candidate member on Russia’s northern doorstep.
Finland’s leaders’ declaration that they will join NATO – expecting neighboring Sweden to do the same soon – 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 has backfired on Mr Putin’s intentions.
Russia reacted angrily and Putin’s chief spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said adding Finland and Sweden to NATO would not make Europe a safer place. Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, appeared to go further, saying in a statement: interview with a British news site he posted on Twitter that the two Nordic countries as NATO members “become part of the enemy and bear all the risks”.
Finland, long known for its implacable non-alignment that “Finlandization” became synonymous with neutrality, had indicated that the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 gave the Finns a reason to join NATO. But Thursday marked the first time Finland’s leaders said publicly that they certainly 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 poses significant risks of increasing the prospects of war between Russia and the West, following the alliance’s underlying principle that an attack on one is an attack on all.
But Finland’s leaders, President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin, said that “membership in NATO would strengthen Finland’s security”, adding that “as a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance.”
Mr Putin has put forward a number of reasons for his large-scale invasion of Ukraine, but it was partly intended to block NATO’s eastward expansion and was based on what he had apparently assumed would be a rambunctious 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 taken steps to reshape Europe’s economic infrastructure by taking steps to establish new transport routes from Ukraine, which is under a Russian naval embargo. Russia, meanwhile, was further banned from the global economy when Siemens, the German electronics giant, became the last company to withdraw from Russia after 170 years of doing business there.
The European Union on Thursday announced a series of measures to ease Ukraine’s exports of blocked food products, mainly grains and oilseeds, in a bid to ease wartime pressures on the Ukrainian economy and prevent an impending global food shortage.
The Russian navy has blocked exports from Ukraine – a major global supplier of wheat, corn and sunflower oil before the invasion – into the country’s Black Sea ports. The long-term goal of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive, is to create new transport routes from Ukraine to Europe, bypassing the Russian blockade by using Polish ports — although creating new routes takes months, if not years. can last.
On the ground in Ukraine, where Russian invaders continue to face strong resistance from the Ukrainian armed forces from the West and the prospect of a protracted war, the Kremlin redeployed its forces to bolster its territorial gains in the Donbas, the eastern region where the fighting has taken place. fierce.
Ukrainian and Western officials say Russia is withdrawing troops from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, where it has lost territory — a setback that Britain’s Defense Ministry described on Thursday as “a tacit admission of Russia’s inability to fight key Ukrainian forces.” conquer cities where they expected limited resistance from the population.”
By contrast, in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which together make up the Donbas, Russians now control about 80 percent of the territory. In Luhansk, where Russian shelling rarely stops, “the situation has deteriorated significantly in recent days,” said regional governor Serhiy Haidai.
“The Russians are destroying everything in their path,” Haidai said in a Telegram message on Thursday. “The vast majority of critical infrastructure will have to be rebuilt,” he said, adding that there was no electricity, water, gas or cell phone connection in the region, where most residents have fled.
Russia’s withdrawal from Kharkiv is one of the bigger setbacks Moscow has faced since it withdrew from areas near Kiev, the capital – where the costs of the Russian occupation became more apparent on Thursday.
The bodies of more than 1,000 civilians have been recovered in areas north of Kiev occupied by Russian forces, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Thursday. Among them, hundreds were summarily executed and others shot by snipers, Ms Bachelet said.
“The numbers will continue to climb,” Ms Bachelet told a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the second in two weeks, focusing on abuses discovered by investigators in Bucha, Irpin and other suburbs of Kiev. which were seized by the Russian forces in the early stages of the invasion. Russia has denied committing atrocities in Ukraine.
The announcement by Finnish leaders to join NATO was widely anticipated. Public opinion in Finland has shifted significantly in favor of joining the alliance, from 20 percent six months ago to nearly 80 percent now, especially if Sweden, Finland’s strategic partner and also militarily non-aligned, joins as well.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” Finland’s leaders said in a statement. “We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken quickly within a few days.”
A parliamentary debate and vote was expected on Monday.
The debate in Sweden is less advanced than in Finland, but Sweden too is on track to apply for NATO accession, perhaps as early as next week.
Mr Putin has cited the spread of NATO eastward into Russia’s sphere of influence, including to former Soviet states on its borders, as a national threat. He has used Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance to justify his invasion of that country, although Western officials have repeatedly said the possibility of Ukrainian membership remains slim.
One reason is that NATO is very unlikely to offer membership to a country embroiled in war.
If Ukraine were to join NATO, the alliance would be obliged to defend it against Russia and other adversaries, in accordance with NATO’s Article 5 application that an attack on one member is an attack on the entire alliance.
Even without the geopolitical risks, Ukraine, a former Soviet republic struggling with endemic corruption since independence, would find it difficult to meet a number of necessary requirements to join NATO, including the need to demonstrate commitment to the rule of law.
Sweden and Finland, on the other hand, have developed into vibrant and healthy liberal democracies in recent decades.
Still, NATO members would have to act if Finland and Sweden were attacked by Russia or others, increasing the risk of a direct confrontation between nuclear powers.
Mr Putin would likely try to gain support for the invasion of Ukraine by portraying the steps of Finland and Sweden as new evidence that NATO is becoming increasingly hostile.
If Finland and Sweden apply, they are widely expected to be approved, although NATO officials are publicly discreet, saying only that the alliance has an open door policy and any country wishing to join can apply for an invitation. Still, even a quick application process could take up to a year, raising concerns that the two countries would be vulnerable to Russia outside the alliance.
In addition to a long border, Finland shares a complicated, violent history with Russia. The Finns repelled a 1939-40 Soviet invasion in what is known as “The Winter War.”
The Finns eventually lost, gave up some territory and agreed to remain formally neutral throughout the Cold War, but their ability to temporarily hold off the Soviet Union became a focal point of Finnish pride.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland joined the European Union in 1992 and became a member in 1995, while remaining militarily non-aligned and maintaining working relations with Moscow.
Finland has maintained its military expenditure and sizeable armed forces. Finland joined the NATO Partnership for Peace program with Sweden in 1994 and has moved closer and closer to the alliance without joining it.
Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, and Norimitsu Onishi from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Cora Engelbrecht from London, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels and Dan Bilefsky from Montreal.