Russia is furious about Finland’s NATO membership, but can’t do much about it

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RIGA, Latvia – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spurred Finland to put aside long-held concerns about provoking Russia and pursue NATO membership, a major strategic setback for Russia.

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

The Russian military is embroiled in intense fighting in Ukraine, its ranks depleted by heavy losses of men and equipment. Russia withdrew troops from the Finnish border to send them 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 those supplies in line with European Union decisions to reduce dependence on Russian energy. A possible early response came on Saturday with an announcement by Russian state-owned company RAO Nordic that it had stopped electricity exports to Finland, although it is unclear whether the measure was a punishment. Russia blamed Western sanctions for the measure, saying they made it difficult for Russia to receive payments for supplies.

Finland shrugged off the action. Finnish officials said they were already reducing Russian electricity imports to guard against potential attacks on the country’s infrastructure, and Russian electricity accounts for just 10 percent of their consumption.

Russia may attempt to launch cyberattacks against Finnish infrastructure or wage a hybrid war in an attempt to sway Finnish public opinion, but Finland has highly developed systems capable of countering such efforts, said retired Major General Pekka Toveri, a former chief of staff. of the Finnish armed forces. intelligence.

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

Finland’s decision, due to be formally announced on Sunday, upsets the balance of power along the northern borders of the NATO alliance. In the coming days, Sweden is expected to follow Finland’s example 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 entirely encircling its three ports on the Baltic Sea.

For decades, Finland has refrained from joining NATO for fear of provoking its larger, nuclear-armed neighbor. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has 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 if they had to deal with Russia alone. Before the war, only 20% of Finns supported NATO membership. In May, that number reached 76%.

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

“Russia is so weak now that it couldn’t risk another humiliating defeat,” he said. If Russia tried to send troops to Finland “in a few days they would be wiped out. The risk of humiliating defeat is high, and I don’t think they can handle 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 the expansion of NATO was one of Putin’s stated goals in attacking Ukraine, which sought NATO membership. Finland and Sweden didn’t — until the Ukraine invasion, she noted.

From Neutral to NATO: How Finland and Sweden Changed After Russia’s Invasion

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

Already, Moscow appears to be easing 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 he made no specific threats, according to a reading from 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 offered by the NATO security alliance, according to a statement from his office.

“The conversation was direct and straightforward and was conducted without aggravation. Avoiding tensions was considered important,” the statement said.

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

Since then, they have been more cautious, 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 said on Saturday – a step back from the “military and technical” response threatened by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday. market.

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 his answer.

Russia will carry out a “full 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 at the borders. from Russia.

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

How the addition of Finland and Sweden would change NATO

But it is highly likely that Finland’s membership will not require a significant presence of NATO troops, analysts say. Finland has a robust and well-equipped army that has conducted regular training exercises with NATO countries. Its armed forces are already well integrated into NATO’s military systems.

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

At the very least, he said, Russia will need to strengthen its military presence along the Finnish border because Finland will no longer be considered a “friendly” country. It will also have to step up its naval presence in the Baltic Sea, which will become, he 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 target those bases,” Suslov warned.

Finland is preparing for further action, said former Finnish general Toveri, not least because Putin may feel the need to save face. But Finns have grown accustomed over decades to living with a potentially hostile power on their borders and do not feel unduly threatened, he said. “We are used to the presence of Russians. Most Finns are not too worried about that.”

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