The Russian government has responded to Finland’s rapprochement with NATO with the same threats that Vladimir Putin proclaimed in December regarding the possibility of Ukraine forming part of the Atlantic Alliance. “Russia will be forced to adopt response measures of a technical-military nature, and of another type, with the aim of stopping the threats to its national security,” the Russian Foreign Ministry warned Thursday after denouncing “a radical turn” in the position of the Nordic country. Finland’s entry into NATO, the epitome of neutrality between the West and the USSR in the Cold War, is seen by Russia as a threat, although experts do not consider it as clear a red line as Ukraine or Georgia. In any case, from the thinktank The Kremlin’s most important club, the Valdai Club, warn: “We live in dangerous times.”
“Helsinki must be aware of the responsibility and the consequences of this measure,” the Foreign Ministry stressed in a statement. The Russian government accused NATO of having convinced Finland to take this step. “The clear objective is to continue expanding towards the borders of Russia and create another flank in the military threat to our country,” the text states.
The first time that Moscow spoke of “technical-military measures” was on December 21, in full negotiations with the US and NATO. Putin told his defense minister and his general that day that Russia would adopt such a response if it continued “clearly the aggressive line of Western colleagues.” During that meeting, Putin claimed “to have every right to do so to ensure the security and sovereignty of Russia” and stated that Ukraine would plan an alleged attack on Crimea if it had the NATO umbrella. Exactly the same arguments that he proclaimed this Monday in his Victory Day speech.
After the start of the Russian offensive against Ukraine, Putin warned on April 14 that the entry of Sweden or Finland into NATO could force it to deploy nuclear weapons near the Baltic. His spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, has clarified this Thursday that the response will be adapted to the military movements in the Nordic countries. “Everything will depend on how that expansion is formalized, on how close the military infrastructure [de la OTAN] to our borders”, expressed the representative of the Kremlin after subordinating the new Russian deployment “to balancing the situation and guaranteeing our security”.
Entering the European Union was already a threat
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Weeks before the Russian offensive began, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a “Finnishization” of Ukraine. That term is controversial in the Nordic country because that supposed neutrality meant 44 years of self-censorship and restrictions on media and politicians critical of the Soviets. However, in Russia it is still seen as an example of supposed neutrality.
“Finland was then able to access the capitalist world by limiting its participation in Western organizations. That was beneficial for her and for relations between the USSR and the West,” Igor Istomin, an expert at the Valdái Club and professor at the Institute of International Relations of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MGIMO, for its acronym in Russian).
However, everything has changed from the Russian point of view. “It is no secret that since the 1990s they have refused to maintain their position as a neutral country despite continuous calls from the Russian authorities. They said: ‘We are not neutral, we want to join the European Union’, adds Istomin as an argument.
“What does this mean? Since the conflict in Ukraine began in 2014, Finland and Sweden have participated in the sanctions against Russia from within the European Union market,” explains the expert, who stresses that since that year “de facto cooperation has been seen with the NATO”, both in military maneuvers and with their participation in political consultations.
“The contradictions, which were softened and hidden, have now come to the surface,” he says. However, the Valdai Club expert agrees with other Russian analysts that NATO enlargement “leaves fewer and fewer countries that serve as buffers between Russia and NATO.” “Austria, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden and even Yugoslavia acted as mediators,” he adds after recalling that Finland responded well to the transponder crisis in 2015, when Russian planes deactivated this warning signal over the Baltic.
That same opinion was shared with the Tass agency by Dmitri Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Complex European and International Studies of the Higher School of Economics, who considers that the new scenario reduces mutual trust. “If Finland and Sweden enter NATO, they will become potential theaters of war in the event of a direct conflict between Russia and NATO,” he stated.
The most critical voices also warn that the movement may have far-reaching consequences. Christopher Chivvis, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a reputable think tank banned from the country by the Russian authorities a few weeks ago, shared in an April analysis that the neutrality of these countries could be “an invitation to Russia to attack.” In his opinion, “both have genuine reasons to be worried” after the Russian attack on Ukraine and the threats made to the Baltic countries over the years. “They correctly see the security of their neighbors as key to their prosperity,” he adds, emphasizing that an alliance in the region “would make Russia act more prudently in the future.” “At least the Kremlin would have to worry about another 1,300 kilometers of border,” concludes the Carnegie analyst.
Karelia, an old dispute
As in the case of the Black Sea peninsula and Ukraine, Finland and Russia have also had territorial disputes in the past. This is the region of Karelia, over which Helsinki gave up making any territorial claim in 1992, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. That territory had been disputed in parallel to World War II during the Winter War, where the USSR attacked Finland (1939) and the Continuation War, where Helsinki cooperated with the advance of the Third Reich. Finally, the USSR obtained that territory in the Treaty of Paris of 1947.
The key to this new clash between the two sides of the Iron Curtain was in Peskov’s words, stressing that everything will depend on the future deployment of NATO in Finland. “The military-technical measures may refer to the relocation there of the Kinzhal missiles and other modern weapons that Putin announced in 2018,” Istomin points out, although “everything will depend on the evolution of events.”
In his opinion, the Nordic situation is not comparable to that of the former Soviet republics. “If the prospect of Georgian entry into NATO appears again, this will be even more destabilizing and a significantly greater risk for a war in Europe than the accession of Finland and Sweden,” the Valdai Club expert believes.
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