BRUSSELS – Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said stopping NATO expansion helped him invade Ukraine. But on Thursday, Finland unequivocally declared its intention to join, which not only turned Putin’s plan on its head but also put the alliance’s newest potential member on Russia’s northern doorstep.
The declaration by Finnish leaders that they will join NATO – with the expectation that neighboring Sweden would soon do the same – could now reshape a 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 chief spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov saying admitting Finland and Sweden to NATO would not make Europe any safer. Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, seemed to go further and said in one Interview with a British news site that 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 such a relentless nonalignment that “Finlandization” became synonymous with neutrality, had signaled that Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine gave the Finns reason to join NATO. But on Thursday, Finland’s leaders publicly announced for the first time that they definitely intended to join, making it all but certain that Russia would share an 810-mile border with a NATO country.
The addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO carries a significant risk of raising the prospects of war between Russia and the West, in accordance with the alliance’s underlying 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 would strengthen Finland’s security,” adding that “Finland as a member of NATO would strengthen the overall defense alliance.”
Mr Putin has cited a number of reasons for his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but it was partly intended to block NATO’s eastward expansion and was based on a seemingly recalcitrant European response. Instead, the invasion unified the West and helped isolate Moscow.
With the likely redrawing of Europe’s security borders, Western officials also moved to reshape Europe’s economic infrastructure, taking steps to establish new transport routes out of Ukraine, which is under a Russian naval embargo. Russia, on the other hand, was further ostracized by the world economy when Siemens, the German electronics giant, became the latest company to pull out of Russia, retiring after 170 years of doing business there.
The European Union on Thursday announced a series of measures to ease Ukrainian exports of blocked food products, mostly grains and oilseeds, in a bid to ease the war’s strain on Ukraine’s economy and avert a looming global food shortage.
The Russian Navy has blocked exports from Ukraine — a key global supplier of wheat, corn and sunflower oil before the invasion — in the Black Sea country’s ports. The long-term goal of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive, is to set up new transport routes from Ukraine to Europe and bypass the Russian blockade by using Polish ports – although creating new routes could take months if not years.
On the ground in Ukraine, where the Russian invaders still face strong resistance from western-armed Ukrainian forces and the prospect of a prolonged war, the Kremlin redeployed troops to further its territorial gains in Donbass, the eastern region where the fighting was taking place , to strengthen fiercest.
Ukrainian and Western officials say Russia is withdrawing troops from around Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, where it has lost territory – a withdrawal the UK Defense Ministry on Thursday described as “tacit recognition of Russia’s inability to seize key Ukrainian cities.” , they denoted expected limited popular resistance.”
In the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, however, which together form the Donbass, the Russians now control around 80 percent of the territory. In Luhansk, where Russian shelling rarely abates, “the situation has deteriorated significantly in recent days,” according to regional governor Serhiy Haidai.
“The Russians are destroying everything in their path,” Mr Haidai said in a post on Telegram on Thursday. “The vast majority of critical infrastructure needs to be rebuilt,” he said, adding that there was no electricity, water, gas or cell phone service in the region to which most residents fled.
Russia’s withdrawal from Kharkiv represents one of the major setbacks Moscow has faced since withdrawing from areas near the capital Kyiv – where the cost of the Russian occupation became more apparent on Thursday.
The bodies of more than 1,000 civilians have been recovered in areas north of Kyiv occupied by Russian forces, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Thursday. Among them were several hundred who were summarily executed and others shot dead by snipers, Ms Bachelet said.
“The numbers will continue to rise,” Ms Bachelet told a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the second in two weeks, focusing on the abuses uncovered by investigators in Bucha, Irpin and other Kyiv suburbs that seized were used by Russia’s armed forces in the early stages of the invasion. Russia has denied committing any atrocities in Ukraine.
The announcement by Finnish leaders that they would apply for NATO membership was widely expected. Public opinion in Finland has clearly shifted in favor of joining the alliance, from 20 percent six months ago to almost 80 percent now, especially if Sweden, Finland’s strategic partner and also militarily non-aligned, also joins.
“Finland must immediately apply for NATO membership,” Finnish leaders said in a statement. “We hope that the national steps still necessary for this decision will be initiated quickly in the next few days.”
A parliamentary debate and vote was expected on Monday.
The debate in Sweden is less advanced than in Finland, but Sweden is also moving towards joining NATO, perhaps as early as next week.
Mr Putin has described NATO’s eastward expansion into Russia’s sphere of influence, including the 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 is slim.
One reason is that NATO would most likely offer membership to a country engaged in a war.
If Ukraine were to become a member of NATO, the alliance would be obliged to defend it against Russia and other adversaries, in accordance with the application of NATO’s Article 5 that an attack on one member is an attack on the entire alliance.
Even absent the geopolitical risks, Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that has struggled with endemic corruption since independence, would find it difficult to meet several necessary conditions for joining NATO, including the need to demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law.
Sweden and Finland, on the other hand, have developed into vibrant and healthy liberal democracies over the decades.
Still, if Finland and Sweden were attacked by Russia or others, NATO members would have to act, increasing the risk of a direct confrontation between nuclear powers.
Mr Putin would likely try to rally support for the invasion of Ukraine, presenting the moves by Finland and Sweden as new evidence that NATO is becoming increasingly hostile.
When Finland and Sweden apply, they are generally 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 rushed application process could take a year, raising concerns that the two countries would be vulnerable to Russia if they are not part of the alliance.
Aside from a long border, Finland shares a complicated, violent history with Russia. The Finns repelled a Soviet invasion in 1939-40 in the so-called “Winter War”.
The Finns eventually lost, giving up some territories and agreeing to remain formally neutral during 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, but remained militarily non-aligned and maintained working relations with Moscow.
Finland has maintained its military spending and sizable armed forces. Finland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program along with Sweden in 1994 and has steadily moved closer to the alliance without joining.
Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels and Norimitsu Onishi from Paris. Reporting was provided by Cora Engelbrecht from London, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels and Dan Bilefsky from Montreal.