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.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Saturday that a peace agreement with Russia will be contingent upon all Russian forces leaving Ukrainian territory. The remarks were made while speaking to Chatham House, a British think tank. Zelenskiy also said, “I was elected by the people of Ukraine as president of Ukraine, not as president of a mini-Ukraine of some kind. This is a very important point.” Indeed, it is. However, Russia shows no signs of letting up, as the situation in Mariupol has revealed. It’s not very realistic to think Moscow would be willing to return to pre-23 February boundaries willingly.
Evacuation efforts in Mariupol have concluded. The last women, children and elderly civilians left Azovstal steelworks earlier today, leaving only Ukrainian soldiers in the sprawling steel plant. With the civilians having left, Russian forces are expected to redouble their efforts to capture the plant and break the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in the city.
The fate of the Russian frigate Admiral Makarov remains unknown at the present time. The Ukrainian government and military claim the ship was struck by an antiship missile near Snake Island yesterday. Russia has denied the claim, of course, and today released pictures of the frigate supposedly back at its homeport of Sevastopol.
Russian forces launched a missile attack against the Ukrainian port city of Odesa earlier Saturday. Ballistic missiles targeted a furniture factory and damaged nearby buildings. There has been no word on casualties. As fighting in Mariupol draws to a close, expect Russia to pay more attention to Odesa and other targets along the Black Sea coastline west of Crimea.
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.
There are growing indications that North Korea is moving forward with plans for its first nuclear weapons test in over four years. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been on the rise lately, though this has been underreported in light of the war in Ukraine. Last week, Kim Jong Un promised to continue development of its nuclear weapons “at the fastest possible speed.” This has prompted concerns that a test will be scheduled to disrupt the late May visit of US President Joe Biden to South Korea. Chinese and South Korea diplomats met in Seoul on Tuesday with China pledging to play a ‘constructive role’ in attempting to get North Korea to resume negotiations.
South Korea, with a new administration taking power on 10 May, is quite interested in deterring North Korea from escalating the situation. One element that appears to be coaxing the North along the slippery path it’s on at present is Russia. Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin have forged close ties over the years and the North is one of the few nations supporting Russia in its war without misgivings. In exchange for this loyalty, Russia could return the favor by blocking a UN effort to impose severe sanctions on North Korea if it does move forward with a nuclear test.
Having said this, it must be mentioned that the global economic fallout from Russia’s adventure in Ukraine and the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in China could hit the North Korean economy especially hard. Supply chain issues now coming into play will exacerbate food shortages. Inflation will also play a greater role. Food prices in North Korea often mirror global prices. With food prices rising around the world, the North’s prices are expected to do the same in the coming weeks, taking the country’s economic issues from bad to worse in the process.