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.
Comments made separately by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg earlier on Friday make it appear likely the United States and the alliance will reject Russia’s demands that NATO expansion be halted. The two men stated that Russia will hold no influence on what nations NATO may consider for membership, effectively slamming the door on one of Vladimir Putin’s strongest for easing tensions with Ukraine. They each also warned of a “forceful” response to future Soviet military intervention in Ukraine. Blinken and Stoltenberg spoke following a virtual meeting of NATO foreign ministers. This was the first in what will be a series of meetings over the next week intended to bring an end to the Russian military buildup on the Ukraine border, as well as Moscow’s increasingly forceful rhetoric.
The risk of a new armed conflict breaking out could grow exponentially if Putin’s demands for security guarantees are officially rejected by the US and NATO next week. Of course, many analysts, diplomats and military officers in the West are of the opinion that Putin is aware his demands will be rejected, and he will have a justification for military action down the line. This has likely been the Russian play since a number of details on its demands were made public. On the surface, it might seem to some parties that Russia is willing to negotiate in good faith. Yet the heart of its security concerns and subsequent demands to NATO is made up of points Moscow is aware that neither Brussels nor Washington can accept.
On Monday, US and Russian diplomats will open discussions in Geneva that are expected to center on Ukraine. Discussions between NATO and Russian officials in Brussels will follow, as will more in-depth talks in Geneva. NATO and the US have stated they’re open to discussing arms-control and other related topics.
As for what’s currently happening in Kazakhstan, we’ll discuss that tomorrow, along with the connection between events there, including the intervention by the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, and Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin is putting the squeeze on NATO and Western leaders for immediate negotiations to halt NATO expansion and put in place security agreements that will limit the amount of NATO forces in states neighboring Russia. He began the week by holding telephone discussions with French and British leaders on the matter. Today, he broached the subject with the president of Finland. Putin has received little more than guarantees to continue such discussions in the future yet the Western powers are moving slower than he would like. Understandably so. With the buildup of Russian forces near its border with Ukraine continuing, NATO refuses to be strongarmed into security discussions with Russia. Agreeing to such talks will only undermine NATO’s position even more, forcing it to negotiate from a weak position.
Russia has hinted it may be compelled to respond militarily and deploy tactical nuclear weapons if NATO’s eastern expansion does not end. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov made the threat as Putin’s demands for talks have not received a positive response. “A lack of progress towards a political-diplomatic solution would mean that our response will be military and military-technical,” Ryabkov said, laying out the position of his government with alarming clarity: If NATO expansion cannot be curbed by diplomacy, Russia will resort to military force to halt it.
Meanwhile, in the Black Sea on Tuesday tensions continue to rise. Russia is monitoring the movement of a French warship in close proximity to its territorial waters. Last week, Russian aircraft were scrambled to intercept US and French military aircraft over the Black Sea. NATO’s consistent naval and air presence in the region has been a thorn in the side of Russia for some time. Putin has accused the United States and Russia of provoking tensions in the Black Sea since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden are set to hold a video conference on Tuesday. With large numbers of Russian troops massing in close proximity to the Ukrainian border and US-Russian tensions ascending rapidly there’s an increasing feeling tomorrow’s talk between the two leaders might be the final chance for the US to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine in the near future. As discussed the other day, the core of this crisis is NATO’s eastern expansion, which Russia has long considered to be reckless. Putin will enter tomorrow’s digital summit looking for a guarantee from Biden that NATO will not expand into Ukraine. The former Soviet republic is the final straw, in Putin’s view. A failure by the US and NATO to respect Russia’s sphere of influence runs an inherent risk of unleashing a Russian offensive.
Moscow wants a written guarantee that NATO expansion will cease and is applying significant pressure to force Biden and other Western leaders to give in. Washington has made no indication that it would even consider such a move. Doing so would effectively leave Ukraine isolated and at the mercy of Russia. Biden has warned of ‘serious consequences’ if Russia invades. These refer mainly to economic sanctions which would probably not be enough to deter Putin from moving. The present crisis is not centered on economic gain or loss, but on security and influence, namely Russia’s.
Putin is hoping Biden approaches Russia’s concerns in a sincere and competent manner. If this is the case, he believes progress will be made and the threat of a military offensive no longer necessary. Yet for Biden to reach an agreement on limiting further NATO expansion, he’d have to accept the severe consequences such a move would have for NATO and US influence and prestige in Europe and around the world.