BRUSSELS — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin says NATO’s stalled expansion prompted him to invade Ukraine. But on Thursday, Finland declared its unequivocal intention to join, not only reversing Mr Putin’s plan but also placing the potential new alliance member on the doorstep of northern Russia.
Finland’s leaders’ declaration that they will join NATO – with the hope that neighboring Sweden will soon do the same – could now reshape a strategic balance in Europe that has prevailed for decades. This is the latest example of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 11 weeks ago backfired on Mr Putin’s intentions.
Russia reacted angrily, with Mr Putin’s chief spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, saying adding Finland and Sweden to NATO would not make Europe safer. Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, seemed to go further, saying in a interview with a British news site that he posted on Twitter that as members of NATO, the two Nordic countries “are part of the enemy and bear all the risks”.
Finland, long known for non-alignment so relentless that “Finlandization” has become synonymous with neutrality, had signaled that Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine gave the Finns a reason to join NATO. . But Thursday was the first time Finland’s leaders have publicly declared they definitely intend to join, making it almost certain that Russia would share an 810-mile border with a NATO country.
Adding Finland and Sweden to NATO carries significant risks of increasing the prospects of war between Russia and the West, based on the alliance’s underlying principle that an attack on the one is an attack on all.
But Finland’s leaders, President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin, said “NATO membership would enhance Finland’s security”, adding that “as a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the whole defense alliance”.
Mr Putin offered a range of reasons for his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but it was partly aimed at blocking NATO’s eastern expansion and was based on what he apparently assumed was a restless 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 moved to reshape Europe’s economic infrastructure by taking steps to establish new transport routes from Ukraine, which is under naval embargo. Russian. Russia, meanwhile, found itself further ostracized from the global economy as Siemens, the German electronics giant, became the latest company to pull out of Russia, after 170 years in business. country.
The European Union announced on Thursday a series of measures to facilitate Ukrainian exports of blocked food products, mainly grains and oilseeds, in a bid to ease the pressure of the war on the Ukrainian economy and avoid a impending global food shortage.
The Russian navy blocked exports from Ukraine – a major global supplier of wheat, corn and sunflower oil before the invasion – to the country’s Black Sea ports. The long-term goal of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, is to establish new transport routes from Ukraine to Europe, bypassing the Russian blockade using Polish ports – although the creation new roads could take months or even years.
On the ground in Ukraine, where the Russian invaders still face strong resistance from Western-armed Ukrainian forces and the prospect of a protracted war, the Kremlin has redeployed troops to bolster its territorial gains in Donbass, the eastern region where the fighting was fiercest.
Ukrainian and Western officials said Russia was withdrawing its forces around Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, where it was losing territory – a retreat the British Ministry of Defense described on Thursday as “a tacit acknowledgment of Russia’s inability to capture major Ukrainian cities where they expected limited resistance from the population.
By contrast, in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, which together form the Donbass, the Russians now control around 80% of the territory. In Luhansk, where the Russian bombardments rarely let up, “the situation has deteriorated significantly” in recent days, according to regional governor Serhiy Haidai.
“The Russians are destroying everything in their path,” Haidai said in a message on Telegram on Thursday. “The vast majority of critical infrastructure will need to be rebuilt,” he said, adding that there was no electricity, water, gas or cellphones in the area, where most residents fled.
Russia’s withdrawal from Kharkiv represents one of the biggest setbacks Moscow has faced since pulling out of areas near the capital Kyiv – where the costs of Russian occupation became clearer on Thursday.
The bodies of more than 1,000 civilians have been found in areas north of kyiv occupied by Russian forces, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Thursday. Among them, several hundred were summarily executed and others were shot dead by snipers, Ms Bachelet said.
“The numbers will continue to rise,” Ms Bachelet told a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the second in two weeks, focused on abuses uncovered by investigators in Bucha , Irpin and other suburbs of Kyiv that were seized. by Russian forces at the start of the invasion. Russia has denied committing atrocities in Ukraine.
The Finnish leaders’ announcement of their application for NATO membership was widely expected. Public opinion in Finland has shifted considerably in favor of joining the alliance, rising from 20% six months ago to almost 80% now, especially if Sweden, Finland’s strategic partner and also militarily not aligned, also joins it.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” Finland’s leaders said in a statement. “We hope that the national steps still necessary to make this decision will be taken quickly in the coming days.”
A parliamentary debate and a vote were expected on Monday.
The debate in Sweden is less advanced than in Finland, but Sweden, too, is moving towards an application for NATO membership, perhaps as early as next week.
Mr Putin cited NATO’s eastward spread into Russia’s sphere of influence, including to former Soviet states on its borders, as a national threat. He used Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance to help justify his invasion of that country, although Western officials have repeatedly said that the possibility of Ukrainian membership remains remote.
One reason is that NATO would be highly unlikely to offer membership to a country embroiled in 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 Article 5 of NATO according to which an attack against a member is an attack on the whole alliance.
Even without the geopolitical risks, Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that has struggled with endemic corruption since its independence, would struggle to meet several conditions necessary to join NATO, including the need to demonstrate its commitment to the state of straight.
Sweden and Finland, on the other hand, have developed over the decades into vibrant and healthy liberal democracies.
Still, NATO members would have to act if Finland and Sweden were attacked by Russia or others, increasing the chances of a direct confrontation between the nuclear powers.
Mr Putin was likely to try to rally support for the invasion of Ukraine by portraying the actions of Finland and Sweden as further evidence that NATO is becoming increasingly hostile.
If 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 that any country wishing to join can ask for an invitation. Yet even a quick application process could take a year, raising concerns that both countries could be vulnerable to Russia outside the alliance.
Besides a long border, Finland shares a complicated and violent history with Russia. The Finns repelled a Soviet invasion in 1939-40 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 back the Soviet Union became a focal point of Finnish pride.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland joined the European Union in 1992, becoming a member in 1995, while remaining militarily non-aligned and maintaining working relations with Moscow.
Finland has maintained its military spending and its large armed forces. Finland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program with Sweden in 1994 and has moved ever 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.