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Reservists from the Karelia Brigade fire live bullets during the Etel’-Karjala 22 local defense exercise in Taipalsaari, southeastern Finland, on March 9.Lauri Heino/The Associated Press

Finland said on Thursday it would apply to join NATO “without delay”, and Sweden is expected to follow, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seemed destined to spark the expansion of the Western military alliance that Vladimir Putin sought to prevent.

The decision of the two Nordic countries to abandon the neutrality they maintained during the Cold War would be one of the biggest changes in European security in decades. Finland’s announcement angered the Kremlin, which called it a direct threat to Russia and threatened an unspecified response.

It came even as Russia’s war in Ukraine suffered another major setback, with Ukrainian forces pushing Russian troops out of the region around the second largest city, Kharkiv, the fastest Ukrainian advance since forcing Russia to withdraw from the capital and the northeast for more than a month. .

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Finns would be “welcome” and promised an accession process that would be “smooth and quick”.

Finland and Sweden are the two largest EU countries that have not yet joined NATO. Finland’s 1,300 km (800 mile) border will more than double the length of the border between the US-led alliance and Russia, putting NATO guards within a few hours’ drive of the northern outskirts of St. Petersburg. .

“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement. “We hope that the national steps that are still needed to make this decision will be taken quickly in the coming days.”

Asked if Finland’s accession posed a direct threat to Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “Definitely. NATO expansion does not make our continent more stable and secure.

“This cannot fail to arouse our regret, and is a reason for corresponding symmetrical responses from our side,” Peskov added, without elaborating. Russian officials have spoken in the past about possible measures, including stationing nuclear-armed missiles in the Baltic Sea.

Asked on Wednesday whether Finland would provoke Russia by joining NATO, Niinisto said: “My answer would be that you provoked this. Look at the mirror.”

Five diplomats and officials told Reuters NATO allies hope both countries gain membership quickly, paving the way for a larger troop presence in the Nordic region to defend them during a one-year ratification period.

Putin, the Russian president, cited the potential expansion of NATO as one of the main reasons he launched a “special military operation” in Ukraine in February. Ukraine has long sought to join NATO, although it has recently offered in peace talks to accept some kind of neutral status.

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE BALLOON AND THE MAIL, SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS

NATO describes itself as a defensive alliance, built around a treaty that declares an attack on one member is an attack on all, giving US allies the protection of superpower power. of Washington, including its nuclear arsenal.

Moscow sees him as a threat to its own security and influence in neighboring countries. But Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has sparked a shift in public opinion in the Nordic region, with political parties that had backed neutrality for generations now adopting the view that Russia is a threat.

Finland, in particular, has centuries of uneasy history in the shadow of Russia. Ruled by the Russian empire from 1809 to 1917, it fought off Soviet invasions on the eve of World War II and accepted some Soviet influence as the price of avoiding taking sides in the Cold War. Since it and Sweden joined the EU in 1995, they have aligned themselves more firmly with the West.

On the front lines, Ukraine has mounted a bold counteroffensive in recent days that has pushed Russian forces out of villages north and east of Kharkiv that they had occupied since the beginning of the invasion.

Reuters journalists have confirmed in recent days that Ukraine is now in control of the territory that stretches to the banks of the Siverskiy Donets River, some 40 km (25 miles) east of Kharkiv.

To the north, the Ukrainians have been advancing towards the Russian border. In the latest advance, they announced on Wednesday the reconquest of the town of Pytomnyk, halfway to the border.

“The withdrawal of Russian forces from the Kharkiv oblast (region) is a tacit acknowledgment of Russia’s inability to capture key Ukrainian cities where they expected limited resistance from the population,” the British Ministry of Defense said in an update.

Ukraine’s general staff said in an overnight update that the Russians were regrouping “to prevent our forces from advancing further” around Kharkiv, with fighting ongoing where Russian troops had crossed the Siverskiy Donets.

Russia’s pullout has begun to make it possible for some residents to return to recaptured villages around Kharkiv and for volunteers to bring aid to those left behind. But the areas remain unsafe, littered with mines and booby traps, and still within range of Russian bombardment.

A group of volunteers and aid organizations hoping to bring food to the recaptured villages of Russky Tishky and Tsyrkuny told Reuters on Thursday they were forced to cancel the trip after reports that Russia was shelling the area with artillery and missiles. Reuters was unable to verify the reports.

Ukraine’s advances near Kharkiv could put some of Russia’s main supply lines to eastern Ukraine, located on the opposite bank of the river, within range of Ukrainian artillery, and even allow it to shell staging areas inside Russia. .

Both sides reported overnight attacks across the border, which Reuters could not confirm. Ukrainian officials reported shelling across the border from the Russian city of Tyotkino; Russia said Ukraine hit Solokhi near Belgorod.

Elsewhere, Ukraine’s general staff said Russia had had some success in advancing towards Kudryashivka and Sievierodonetsk, part of Moscow’s main assault on the eastern Donbas region.

Ukrainian forces reported battlefield gains on Wednesday in a counterattack that could signal a shift in the momentum of the war. This report produced by Zachary Goelman.

Reuters

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