Vladimir Putin has signalled Russia will tolerate Finland and Sweden joining Nato, but warned the Kremlin would respond if the alliance installed military bases or equipment in either country.
The Russian president said on Monday the proposed Nato enlargement posed “no direct threat for Russia”, adding he had “no problems” with either Finland or Sweden.
Speaking on a day that Sweden formally announced its membership application while acknowledging it would remain “vulnerable” until it joined, Putin warned that “expanding military infrastructure on to this territory would provoke a response from us [ . . .] based on the threats they create for us”.
His comments appeared to indicate the Kremlin could live with Finnish and Swedish Nato membership provided the military alliance did not dispatch arms or troops to the two countries — as it did in the Baltic states and eastern Europe in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Sweden has repeatedly said it does not want Nato military bases on its soil or to host nuclear missiles. Finland is thought to be unlikely to want either but said on Sunday that it would not set conditions before its membership.
But Turkey continued to be a thorn in the side of the Nordic nations’ applications with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warning again on Monday night that he would not accept them.
His comments prompted Nato secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, to ring Turkey’s foreign minister to tell him “we must stand together at this historic moment”. Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin said: “Of course, these messages are worrying.”
Putin said Nato expansion in itself was “a completely artificial problem because it’s all done in US interests”.
He added: “The problem has basically come out of nothing, but we’ll react to it appropriately” and also complained that Nato was trying to “control and influence the international security situation in other parts of the world, not for the best”.
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The proposed Nato expansion highlights the extent to which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has transformed the geopolitical map of Europe. It is a significant setback for Putin, who justified the invasion by saying he wanted to prevent the alliance from expanding further east.
Instead, the enlargement will double the alliance’s frontier with Russia and in Sweden’s case break with two centuries of neutrality.
Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, said Russia was trying to make the best of a situation beyond its control by drawing a line similar to constraints on Norway’s Nato membership during the Cold War.
“They’re not in a position to be fighting a second war,” Charap said. “Occupying and invading Finland is far-fetched. They’re signalling they’re not going to do more than establish conditions.”
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Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of Russian political consultancy R. Politik, said Putin’s comments showed he saw Nato as a threat to Russia’s traditional dominance of its former empire, rather than a strategic military problem.
“So Nato can exist in the west, but not in our backyard. Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova are historically our backyard,” she wrote on messaging app Telegram.
Sweden and Finland will send in their applications for Nato later this week.
Swedish prime minister Magdalena Andersson formally announced her country’s membership bid on Monday alongside centre-right opposition leader Ulf Kristersson, which is a sign of unity ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
“Sweden will be in a vulnerable position while our application is being processed,” said Andersson.
For both Finland and Sweden, the period between application and actual membership could last between four and 12 months. But while Finland has said it is calm and prepared for whatever Russia may throw at it, Sweden has said it is worried about potential cyber and hybrid attacks.
Norwegian prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Danish premier Mette Frederiksen added that they would come to Finland’s or Sweden’s aid should either be attacked before they were covered by Nato’s Article 5 collective defence pledge.
The UK has also promised to come to Sweden and Finland’s aid, including with military assets if they come under attack and request assistance.
Jacob Wallenberg, Sweden’s leading industrialist, became the country’s most prominent business figure to come out in favour of Nato membership on Monday when he said joining would be “positive” and that doing so together with Finland was important.