Russia is furious that Finland is joining NATO, but can’t do much about it

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RIGA, Latvia — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted Finland to set aside longstanding concerns about provoking Russia and seek NATO membership, a major strategic setback for Russia.

The invasion also means there is little Russia can do about it.

The Russian armed forces are locked in heavy fighting in Ukraine, their ranks thinned by heavy losses of men and equipment. Russia withdrew troops from the Finnish border to Ukraine, leaving Moscow with a significantly reduced ability to threaten Finland militarily.

Russia supplies Finland with small amounts of gas and oil, but Finland was already preparing to cut off those supplies in accordance with European Union decisions to reduce dependence on Russian energy. A possible early response came on Saturday with an announcement by Russia’s state-owned company RAO Nordic that it had halted electricity exports to Finland, though it was unclear whether the move was intended as a punishment. Russia blamed Western sanctions for the move, saying they had made it difficult for Russia to receive payments for the supplies.

Finland shrugged off the action. Finnish officials said they had already reduced imports of Russian electricity to guard against possible attacks on the country’s infrastructure, with Russian electricity accounting for just 10 percent of their consumption.

Russia may attempt to launch cyberattacks against Finnish infrastructure or wage hybrid warfare in an attempt to sway Finnish public opinion, but Finland has highly developed systems capable of countering such efforts, said retired Maj. Gen. Pekka Toveri, a former head of the Finnish military. . intelligence.

“They don’t really have much that they can use to threaten us,” Toveri said. “They have no political, military or economic power.”

Finland’s decision, expected to be formally announced on Sunday, shifts the balance of power along the NATO alliance’s northern borders. In the coming days, Sweden is expected to follow Finland’s lead and also seek NATO membership. But it is Finland’s accession that will have the biggest impact on Russia, serving to double the size of Russia’s land border with NATO and completely encircle its three Baltic Sea ports.

For decades, Finland had refrained from joining NATO for fear of provoking its larger, nuclear-armed neighbor. And Russian President Vladimir Putin had kept those fears alive with vague threats of war and threatening acts of harassment in Finnish airspace and waters.

The invasion of Ukraine overturned that calculation, leading the Finns to conclude that they would be safer under the protective umbrella of NATO than dealing with Russia alone. Before the war, only 20 percent of Finns supported joining NATO. By May, that figure had reached 76 percent.

The Finns have also concluded that the Russian military’s unexpectedly dismal performance and battlefield setbacks in Ukraine suggest it no longer poses the threat it once did, Toveri said.

“Russia is so weak now that it could not risk another humiliating defeat,” he said. If Russia tried to send troops to Finland “in a couple of days they would be annihilated. The risk of a humiliating defeat is high, and I don’t think they can take it.”

For the Kremlin “it’s a really ironic moment,” said Lauren Speranza, director of Transatlantic Defense and Security at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Deterring NATO enlargement was one of Putin’s stated goals in attacking Ukraine, which was seeking NATO membership. Finland and Sweden had not, until the invasion of Ukraine, she pointed out.

From neutral to NATO: how Finland and Sweden changed after the Russian invasion

“Putin not only has a huge failure on his hands in terms of his military goals in Ukraine, but he also expanded NATO, which was the exact opposite of what he wanted,” Speranza said. “It underscores what a huge strategic miscalculation this was.”

Moscow already appears to be reducing its threats of retaliation. In a phone call on Saturday, Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that Finland’s decision to join NATO is “wrong” and could have “a negative effect” on Russian-Finnish relations, but made no specific threats. according to a reading of the Kremlin.

Niinisto, who initiated the call, bluntly told Putin that it was above all his “massive invasion” of Ukraine that prompted Finland to seek the protection provided by the NATO security alliance, according to a statement from his office.

“The conversation was straightforward and direct and carried out without aggravation. It was considered important to avoid tensions,” the statement said.

In the weeks before Finland’s announcement, Russian officials had warned of dire repercussions, including deploying nuclear weapons in the vicinity and sending military reinforcements to the Finnish border.

They have since been more circumspect, saying Russia’s response will depend on how far NATO goes to establish a presence on Russia’s border.

The decision will require Russia to offer a “political reaction”, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko was quoted by Russian media as saying on Saturday, a step back from the “military and technical” response threatened by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, on Thursday.

He also said it was “too early to talk about the deployment of nuclear weapons in the Baltic region” and added that “Moscow will not be guided by emotions” in deciding its response.

Russia will conduct a “thorough analysis” of any new configuration of forces on its border before deciding on its response, he said, echoing Peskov’s comments that the degree of Russian retaliation will depend on how much NATO military infrastructure is established on the borders. borders of Russia.

No decisions have been made on what kind of presence NATO will establish in Finland and Sweden once their accession is formalized, which could take several months. A new problem has arisen in the form of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s objection to his membership on the grounds that Sweden harbors members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

How the addition of Finland and Sweden would change NATO

But Finland’s membership most likely won’t require a significant NATO troop presence, analysts say. Finland has a robust and well-equipped military that has held regular training exercises with NATO countries. Its military is already well integrated with NATO military systems.

So great is the threat to Russia’s strategic interests that Moscow will be forced to take some kind of action against Finland, said Dmitry Suslov of the Higher School of Economics at the National Research University in Moscow.

At a minimum, he said, Russia will need to strengthen its military presence along the Finnish border because Finland will no longer be considered a “friendly” country. She will also have to step up her naval presence in the Baltic Sea which will become, she said, “a NATO lake.”

If the United States or Britain establish bases in Finland, Russia “will have no choice but to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to attack those bases,” Suslov warned.

Finland is ready for further action, said former Finnish general Toveri, if only because Putin may feel the need to save face. But Finns have been used to living with a potentially hostile power on their borders for decades and don’t feel too threatened, he said. “We are used to the fact that the Russians are there. Most Finns aren’t too anxious about it.”

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