HELSINKI/KHARKIV (AP) — Finland said Thursday it would apply to join NATO “without delay,” with Sweden expected to do so later, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appeared poised to spark the same expansion of the Western military alliance. that Vladimir Putin intended 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. Moscow called Finland’s announcement a direct threat to Russia and threatened retaliation, including unspecified “military-technical” measures.
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 “warmly welcome” and promised a “smooth and speedy” accession process.
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, hoping steps to make the 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.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow would be forced to take “retaliatory measures, both of a military-technical and other nature”, without giving further details. Russian officials have spoken in the past about possible measures, including stationing nuclear-armed missiles in the Baltic Sea.
‘LOOK AT THE MIRROR’
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.
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 Washington’s superpower, including its nuclear arsenal.
Moscow considers him a threat to its security. But Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has changed Nordic public opinion, with political parties that had long backed neutrality 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.
Thursday also saw an intensification of disputes over Russia’s energy supply to Europe, which remains Moscow’s biggest source of funds and Europe’s biggest source of heat and power, despite war and sanctions.
In the latest developments, Moscow said it would stop gas flows to Germany via the main oil pipeline over Poland, while kyiv said it would not reopen a pipeline route it closed this week unless it regains control of areas from fighters. pro-Russian Gas prices in Europe skyrocketed.
In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council was due to decide on Thursday whether to launch an investigation into possible war crimes committed by Russian troops during their occupation of the area near kyiv, before they were ousted at the end of March.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said there were many examples of possible war crimes, including unlawful killings and summary executions, with 1,000 bodies recovered so far near kyiv.
Moscow denies targeting civilians. Her ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said the West was “arranging another political defeat to demonize Russia.”
On the front lines, Ukraine has mounted a bold counteroffensive in recent days, driving Russian forces out of villages north and east of Kharkiv that they had occupied since the beginning of the invasion.
Reuters journalists have confirmed that Ukraine is now in control of territory stretching 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 the Russians were regrouping to prevent further Ukrainian advances near Kharkiv.
Russia’s withdrawal has begun to make it possible for some residents to return to the recaptured villages around Kharkiv. But the areas remain unsafe, littered with mines and booby traps, and still within range of Russian bombardment.
(Report from Reuters Offices Written by Peter Graff Edited by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean)