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.
Forty-six civilians have been evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks plant in Mariupol, according to Russian news reports. Another report from Ukrainian troops defending the plant tells of twenty civilians who were evacuated during a ceasefire. It remains unclear if these two groups are the same or different. However, The UN confirmed today that an operation to evacuate people from the steel plant in Mariupol is under way. According to estimates, there are 1,000 Ukrainian civilians and several hundred soldiers sheltering in the massive plant. According to news updates at 1540 Eastern Time, the UN has announced an operation to evacuate all civilians inside the city will begin on Monday
In eastern Ukraine, fighting has picked up around Kharkov as Ukrainian forces strive to push Russian troops farther away from the nation’s second-largest city. The battlelines around Kharkov have been static since the early days of the war. Russian troops are entrenched in the city’s northern and eastern suburbs. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, operations carried out by Ukrainian forces have retaken four villages around Kharkov: Verkhnya Rohanka, Ruska Lozova, Slobidske and Prilesne. Those claims have yet to be independently verified.
Germany’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being criticized (yet again). Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleb told a German newspaper that Berlin’s actions have been hesitant when compared to other European nations. Kuleb said Germany should “take the leading role in Europe, especially in questions of Eastern policy.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wasted little time in defending his decisions on Ukraine. “I make my decisions quickly and in coordination with our allies. I am suspicious of hasty action and Germany going it alone.” Scholz has been heavily criticized for not providing weapons and supplies to Ukraine fast enough.
Over the past week, the Moldovan region of Transnistria has become a focal point of attention. As the war in eastern Ukraine continues on, concern is growing that the breakaway Russian-backed region of Moldova could be the next flashpoint. Transnistria is a prototypical “oppressed Russian-speaking populations” region. A de-facto independent, but unrecognized breakaway state on Moldova’s eastern border, it has co-existed with the remainder of Moldova since the end of the Cold War. Russia has over 1,000 troops stationed there ostensibly as peacekeepers.
A number of attacks in Transnistria over the past week has put the region on edge. On Monday, it was the state’s security headquarters in Tiraspol, the region’s main city. The next day, a military barracks in Parcani and a radio transmitter in Maiac were hit. On Wednesday, the interior ministry reported that a number of drones were launched from Ukrainian territory and flew over the town of Cobasna, home to a large ammunition depot. Also, according to the ministry, ‘shots were fired’ from the Ukrainian side of the border in the direction of Cobasna. Following the attacks, Transnistria’s government announced a number of new measures intended to raise security across the region. New checkpoints at strategic points on roadways and in towns, increased power for militia and security forces, and Transnistria’s Defense Ministry has ordered the mobilization of all men between the ages of 18 to 55 to “replenish the peacekeeping contingent.”
The attacks have sparked concern in Moldova and around Europe that Russia is setting the stage for military action there, based on the pretense of defending the Moscow-backed breakaway republic of Transnistria. Moldovan citizens and politicians alike are increasingly worried about the direction events might take their small, pro-western nation in. Many people there are also quite aware that the future of Moldova is inextricably tied to the war in Ukraine. Right now, the war there appears to be perilously close to spilling over into Moldova. After two months of heavy fighting, and high casualties, Russia has little to show for its Ukrainian adventure. Unrest in, or a foreign attempt to destabilize Transnistria offers a variety of enticing opportunities for Russia. The Moldovan government and its citizens understand this as well, and are quite worried. Russia is clearly prepared to use the Transnistria for more attacks into Ukraine, or possibly for aggression against Moldova.