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Sweden joins Finland in seeking NATO membership

President Vladimir Putin’s response is muted compared to previous statements by Russian officials

Finnish troops conduct training exercises in Niinisalo in May. (Roni Rekomaa/Bloomberg)

Russia may have a muted response to Finland and Sweden’s decision to seek NATO membership despite earlier threats of retaliation, President Vladimir Putin suggested on Monday, as the Kremlin reckons with the transformation of Europe’s security order triggered by its invasion of Ukraine.

Putin said Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO did not represent an imminent danger to Russia, even though their accession, if finalized, would add hundreds of miles to Russia and NATO’s shared border. But, the Russian leader cautioned, the same would not be true if NATO staged a military buildup in the two countries.

“Russia has no problems with Finland and Sweden, and in this sense, expansion at the expense of these countries does not create an immediate threat for us,” Putin said in televised remarks. “But the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory will certainly provoke our response.”

“What it will be, we will look at based on the threats that will be created for us. That is, problems are created out of thin air,” he said, blaming the United States for the Nordic nations’ historic shift. “We will respond accordingly.”

Putin spoke as Sweden’s government on Monday announced it would join neighboring Finland in launching a NATO bid, a process that alliance officials hope will be concluded in coming months. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said a large majority in Sweden’s parliament supported joining NATO, ending a decades-long position outside the 30-member bloc. “We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one,” Andersson said.

The prospect of membership for Finland and Sweden, which experts say punch above their weight in military might, defies years of warnings from Moscow, where some senior officials including former president Dmitry Medvedev have suggested that Russia could respond by positioning nuclear and hypersonic weapons along the Baltic Sea.

Putin’s more measured response may reflect the reality of how the conflict in Ukraine has depleted Russia’s military at the same time it is facing the prospect of lasting economic damage from global sanctions.

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The Russian leader’s offensive appeared to secure a victory on Monday when Ukraine’s military command said it would end combat operations in the coastal city of Mariupol, where forces loyal to Kyiv have attempted to hold back a prolonged Russian assault, and focus instead on evacuating the hundreds of fighters that had been sheltering in a ruined steel plant.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Anna Malyar, said more than 260 soldiers have been transported to Russian-controlled territory, including 53 who were “seriously wounded” and taken to a hospital. Moscow and Kyiv will broker a prisoner swap to secure their release, she said, and efforts are underway to rescue troops trapped in the plant.

Finland’s decision to join NATO, meanwhile, marks the culmination of a gradual deepening of Finnish-NATO ties, said Mikko Hautala, Finland’s ambassador to the United States, pointing to Finland’s status as an official NATO partner as part of “Partnership for Peace” in the 1990s. Finland, like Sweden, has long conducted joint exercises with NATO and sent troops to NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and other areas.

“Rather than seeing this as a kind of a leap of a neutral country suddenly into NATO, rather it’s a last step on a long road,” he said in an interview.

Western officials expect that the Nordic nations will provide an important security boost, particularly in northern Europe, where the small and modestly defended Baltic nations have long worried that they might become Moscow’s next target.

Finland’s defense expenditure as a share of GDP is the largest in Europe, at 2.3 percent. Finland has a formidable artillery force and is buying 64 F-35 stealth fighters.

Hautala said growing support in Finland for NATO membership was not driven by fear but by a feeling the country needed to acknowledge the changing realities in Europe given Russia’s willingness to use force against a neighboring state.

We don’t see any direct military threat from Russia right now. But there’s a need to be prudent here,” he said. “Our goal is to prevent any speculation about our position, our security.”

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto’s call with Putin on Saturday to inform him of Finland’s decision occurred “without aggravations,” the Finnish government said.

As Sweden announced its own accession bid, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov lashed out at both countries, going further than Putin in calling their moves “another serious mistake with far-reaching consequences.”

“The general level of military tension will increase, and there will be less predictability in this area,” Ryabkov said at a news conference.

The Swedish government said it would not bow to Russian coercion.

“As we see it, it’s not their decision to take if we are joining or not. It’s a sovereign Swedish decision,” Karin Olofsdotter, Sweden’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview.

“They may try to influence us or intimidate us, which they have to a certain degree, but we are not deterred,” she said. “So we are prepared. We are strong. We have reinforced our security also in the short term. … We’ve seen this coming.”

At the same time, Olofsdotter said there were no plans to deploy NATO forces in either Nordic country.

“We are joining NATO. We are going all in,” she said in an interview. “But there’s no discussion of posting troops in Sweden or Finland. We are really taking care of our own security as much as we can.”

Hautala said that Finland was prepared to do its part — potentially deploying forces elsewhere in Europe — if it gains access to NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense guarantee.

“We also realize that there’s no free lunch, that … you have to also provide your own support to other member states,” he said. “So if others need help, I think it’s totally clear that Finland … is going to be there to help them.”

Before NATO entry is secured, the parties will have to address the concerns of Turkey, a member state that has raised concerns about relationships with members of Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Hautala said he hoped “that we will get this clarified.”

Hautala, a fluent Russian speaker who served as the No. 2 official at the Finnish Embassy in Moscow from 2011-2012 and then as ambassador from 2016-2020, said he did not expect Russia to back down from its maximalist goals in Ukraine despite the struggles of its military there, meaning a long and likely punishing conflict in the heart of Europe.

“I don’t think there’s any chance that [Putin] would willingly accept any kind of solution like before the war. I don’t think Russians have given up on their fundamental goals, which is to control all of Ukraine,” Hautala said. “They may adjust their plans given the situation of the resources and other risks. But still, I think this war has deeper roots.”

Hautala’s observations stem not only from his diplomatic duties — he also served as Niinisito’s foreign policy adviser and has met repeatedly with Putin — but from more quotidian moments.

While serving in Moscow, Hautala’s son came home from his Moscow preschool saluting and marching in the Russian military style. The diplomat thought it was a little curious.

When he learned the children would celebrate Russia’s May 9 Victory Day by dressing in Red Army or contemporary military uniforms, he was more concerned. He and his wife kept their son home. That none of the other parents raised concerns about their 3-year-olds taking part in that kind of a display, he concluded, said something about Russian society.

After years of eroding trust in institutions, Hautala said, “most Russians want to believe in state propaganda and they want to feel proud of their military might.”

Maps of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

If Russians are looking for redemption in the restoration of Moscow’s historic might, that may give Putin more leeway to pursue his goals in the war.

“Moscow has a long cherished idea of Western decline and rise of a multipolar order in which Russia is one of the key players,” he said. “Taking control of Ukraine is [an] essential part of the story.”

Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia; Annabelle Timsit in London; and Reis Thebault in Washington contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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