Don’t do it, was President Putin’s urgent advice to Finland and Sweden. The countries would have to deal with Russian nuclear weapons at the border and, like Ukraine, with ‘military-technical measures’ from Moscow. Two Russian military helicopters flew into Finnish airspace in recent weeks as a deterrent.
The Finns did it anyway: on Thursday the Finnish president and prime minister announced that Finland wants to join NATO. The Swedes are expected to follow on Sunday, when the social-democratic ruling party decides on Sweden’s first accession to a military alliance in 200 years.
The historic steps towards NATO accession of two major Scandinavian countries make President Putin’s miscalculation even greater than it already was. Putin in Ukraine expected a warm reception of his troops by Russian-speaking Ukrainians, but united Ukrainians of all languages against Russia. He counted on division in the West, but instead ensured unity against Russia. And instead of driving NATO away from the Russian border, the military alliance is now getting closer.
“You caused this,” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said at a press conference on Thursday addressing Putin. ‘Look in the mirror.’
On the battlefield, there was more bad news for Putin this week. The Russian army withdrew from the city of Kharkiv after an 11-week offensive. After the advance to Kyiv had initially failed, taking Ukraine’s second city also turned out to be too ambitious. In the Donbas, a river crossing failed miserably because the Ukrainian army fired on the pontoon bridge; satellite images show dozens of burnt-out tanks and armored vehicles near the remains of the bridge. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army was reinforced with increasingly heavier weapons from the West, including American howitzers.
On Monday, Putin found himself victorious on Victory Day, the day on which the president wants to radiate Russia’s military might. He declined to call for general mobilization, an option discussed abroad but avoided by Putin, as he could also turn his own people against him. In his speech in Red Square, he urged his soldiers in Ukraine to say that, following in the footsteps of their forefathers, they are protecting the motherland from neo-Nazis. Furthermore, Putin watched in silence as nuclear weapons rolled by in front of him.
Putin has had to scale back his ambitions in Ukraine. His invading army now focuses on fulfilling its basic task: taking the territory of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk proclaimed by Putin. The Russian soldiers who were supposed to capture Kyiv and Kharkiv have been called to the east.
Russia is slowly gaining ground there. This week, Russia captured several towns around Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, the last two towns in Luhansk province still under Ukrainian control. But the capture of Donetsk province is still a long way off.
Meanwhile, Putin, after all his threats, must prepare a response to the Finnish and possibly Swedish NATO submission. Finland and Sweden are already protecting themselves. This week they also received security guarantees from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. They must protect the countries as long as they cannot yet invoke Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which labels an attack on one Member State as an attack on all Member States. Despite being welcomed by most NATO members, the Finnish and Swedish accession could take a long time – Turkish President Erdogan already pushed for concessions from the Scandinavian countries on cooperation with Kurdish organizations on Friday.
Russia’s military-technical measures will be of a different caliber in Northern Europe than in Ukraine. Finland and Sweden have less significance for Putin than Ukraine and Kyiv, the city he describes as ‘the mother of all Russian cities’. Moreover, the Russian armed forces already have their hands full taking the east of one of Europe’s poorest countries.
Finnish politicians are considering other repercussions, including cyber-attacks and Russian gas shutdown. A Finnish newspaper report on an impending gas shutdown by Gazprom was described Friday as “probably a hoax” by Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov.
The Kremlin is currently using the deliberations of the Finns and Sweden mainly to convince its own population of the usefulness of ‘the special military operation’ in Ukraine. The news on state channel Rossija 24 said on Thursday that Finland and Sweden are “forced by the United States” to join NATO and “not even get a chance to hold a referendum.” As in Ukraine, NATO is proving, the state channel, that the alliance has only one goal: ‘encirclement of Russia’.