Following the lead of Finland earlier this week, Swedish leadership has thrown its support behind Sweden joining NATO. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson will submit a formal application likely by the end of the upcoming week. After decades of staunch neutrality, Sweden is choosing a side in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, Stockholm’s Road to NATO Membership did not start in late February of this year when the first Russian troops crossed the border. The process began in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its aggressive posturing towards NATO and the West. At this time Moscow’s relationship with Sweden and its neighbor Finland started to deteriorate. The security of the Baltic Sea region and Northern Europe became a major concern. Over the next seven or so years, Sweden and Finland enjoyed a closer relationship with NATO member-states in the Baltic Sea region. Mutual security concerns led to increased defense preparations and military exercises with the armed forces of neighboring nations. Over time, concern over Russia diminished. Then in late 2021, with Russia massing troops along Ukraine’s border, Sweden and Finland each started to reexamine the NATO Membership matter. Early this year, the push towards NATO membership slid into overdrive following a blatant show of force around the Swedish island of Gotland by Russian naval forces, followed a short time later by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the weeks leading up to the war, there were other matters that helped Stockholm and Helsinki come to the conclusion that NATO membership was the right choice for both nations, like Russia’s demand that NATO halt its eastward expansion.
Ukraine was the final straw for Sweden and Finland, however.
I wasn’t expecting to write on this topic today, but somehow I ended up doing just that. I was originally going to discuss India’s decision to halt wheat exports, unrest over food prices in Iran and other related matters. I will post on that either tomorrow or early Tuesday.
Finland has moved one step closer to applying for NATO membership. Its leadership officially extended its support for expedited membership in the transatlantic alliance. President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin made the decision and it is one that is enjoying heavy initial support among Finnish citizens and lawmakers. It a joint statement, Finland’s leaders said, “NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance. Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay.” Neighboring Sweden is expected to move forward with its own decision on NATO membership in a matter of days.
The leadership’s statement brings to bear a crucial question NATO will need to closely examine during the application process: Exactly what benefits do Finland, and perhaps eventually Sweden as well, bring to the table? Aside from aggravating Moscow, of course, and adding more fuel to Moscow’s NATO Expansion argument.
Russia wasted no time in saying it would consider a Finnish application to be a violation of international legal obligations. “Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of military and other nature, in order to curtail the threats that arise to its national security in this regard,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Moscow views the moves by the Scandinavian neutral nations to join NATO is viewed as a knee-jerk reaction to the war in Ukraine. With the war not progressing the way Vladimir Putin anticipated, Russia is now viewing events in Finland and Sweden with deep suspicion.
We’re moving into military exercise season in the Baltic region. Every year at this time a number of modestly sized exercises crop up in and around NATO nations. Days later, similar exercises sprout up in and around Russia and Belarus. The dueling maneuvers increase in size and complexity, usually culminating on the NATO side with the commencement of BALTOPS, a major exercise held annually that involves ships, aircraft and equipment from over a dozen NATO member-states. This year, the spring exercise season’s stakes are considerably higher than usual given the continuing war in Ukraine, as well as the heightened tensions between Russia and the West. Both NATO and Russia will use the maneuvers to send a message to the other side, as well as work up their respective forces.
Moscow got the jump on NATO by holding wargames in Kaliningrad which included simulated launches of SS-26 Stone (Iskander to the amateurs and social media ‘experts’) short range ballistic missiles. According to statements released by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Russian forces in Kaliningrad practiced multiple strikes against simulated enemy missile batteries, airfields, protected infrastructure, military equipment and command posts belonging to a generic enemy. Russian personnel also roleplayed avoiding “a possible retaliatory strike” and working in areas of radiological and chemical agent contamination.
To put it in basic terms, Russian forces in Kaliningrad just ran a military exercise intended to work up its nuclear-capable forces and demonstrate how capable military personnel in Kaliningrad are when it comes to working amid a tactical nuclear or chemical exchange. The message here is simple; Russia takes the possibility of a limited nuclear war far more seriously than does NATO, and Moscow wants the world to be aware of this.
NATO also has several large-scale maneuvers set for this month and beyond. Arrow 22 is set to begin soon in Finland and will run for two weeks. British, US, Polish and Finnish troops will be taking part, as well as soldiers from other NATO members. The exercise is gaining more attention than usual owing to Finland and Sweden. Both nations are tentatively moving closer to applying for NATO membership as the security situation with regards to Russia continues to deteriorate in the Baltic region.
The origin of catastrophic damage to the Slava class guided missile cruiser Moskva has yet to be confirmed. The Russian Defense Ministry claims the ship suffered a shipboard fire that caused ammunition to explode. The ship was evacuated but remains afloat. Ukraine had a different version of events, unsurprisingly. Ukrainian government officials took to social media and boasted that Moskva had been struck by Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles and this was the cause of the fire and damage. The Russian Defense Ministry claims the fire is now out and efforts are being made to tow the ship back to port. As of now, it’s unclear whether the Russian side of the story or Ukraine’s version contains the most facts. With luck more will be learned today, and the pieces of the puzzle will come together.
As Finland and Sweden move closer than ever to perhaps becoming members of NATO, the Russian government has wasted little time issuing a strong warning to the two nations. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s security council and former president of Russia said that Russia will bolster its Baltic Sea region defenses in the event Finland and Sweden join NATO. The move might include nuclear forces. “There can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic – the balance must be restored,” Medvedev said. His remarks underscore the unease which Russia has over the situation in the Baltic region. The Lithuanian government dismissed the veiled threat, however. Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas reminded the world that Russia already has nuclear weapons in place in the region. “The current Russian threats look quite strange when we know that, even without the present security situation, they keep the weapon 100 km from Lithuania’s border. Nuclear weapons have always been kept in Kaliningrad. The international community, the countries in the region, are perfectly aware of this. They use it as a threat.”
The White House was forced to walk back potentially explosive remarks made by President Biden during yesterday’s speech in Warsaw. In the speech, Biden called Vladimir Putin a ‘butcher’ who ‘cannot remain in power.’ The remarks were largely viewed as escalatory among America’s NATO allies with French President Emmanuel Macron remarking, “We want to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine without escalation — that’s the objective.” Granted, Macron has his own more self-serving reasons for not wanting to escalate the situation with a presidential election on the horizon. Then there is Macron’s continued hope that the war provides the opportunity for France situate itself in a position to Europe in the post-Ukraine War era.
The head of Ukrainian military intelligence noted today that Russia’s new strategy appears to be dividing Ukraine into two separate states with one being controlled by Moscow. Since Russia’s failure to occupy the entire country so far appears to be permanent, the Kremlin is turning to an alternate plan containing more attainable political goals.
In the past twenty-four hours I have spoken to a handful of chemical and biological weapons experts who claim a consensus is growing in Western defense circles that Russia will use chemical weapons in the coming days. The subject has been lurking in the background for the past week as Russia’s advances in Ukraine have come to a halt, with little prospect of resuming anytime soon.
Finland has suspended rail services with Russia, terminating the rail link between the European Union and Russia. All passenger, commercial and cargo services have ended for the moment. Finland’s national railway operator announced the halt will start on Monday.