Now with the 30 member nations having signed the NATO accession protocols for Sweden and Finland on Tuesday, which brings them a huge step closer to entering the alliance, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reacted by downplaying it:
Russia has "no problem" if Finland and Sweden join NATO, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday. "We don't have problems with Sweden and Finland like we do with Ukraine," Putin told a news conference in the Turkmenistan capital of Ashgabat. Finland and Sweden will be formally invited to join the alliance after Turkey dropped its opposition on Tuesday.
However, he was also quoted as saying he couldn't rule out that new tensions would emerge in Russian relations with Helsinki and Stockholm now that they've abandoned their historic neutrality regarding the Western military alliance.
Additionally he suggested a further militarization along the 830-mile Russian-Finnish border, in line with prior comments from top Kremlin officials: "President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would respond in kind if NATO set up infrastructure in Finland and Sweden after they join the US-led military alliance," according to AFP, though without explaining further.
The thrust of his comments appeared to focus on the question of Ukraine joining and Sweden-Finland being "two different things".
Putin explained in the televised remarks, "They began turning Ukraine into an anti-Russia bridgehead for trying to destabilize Russia itself. They began fighting Russian culture and language. They began to persecute individuals who regarded themselves as part of the Russian world," in reference to the Ukrainian government post-2014, following the forced ouster of Russian-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych.
Two months ago as it emerged that Finland would seriously pursue joining NATO, there were fears this could spark a Russia-NATO war, but now these and other comments of Putin on the question strongly suggest Moscow is willing to de-escalate on the question.
One more important step forward. ⁰— Finland at NATO (@FinMissionNATO) July 5, 2022
Today, #NATO Allies signed the Accession Protocols for 🇫🇮 and 🇸🇪. We want to extend a sincere thank you to all Allies.
The next step on the road towards membership is the ratification process in all national parliaments.
It seems for the first time the Russian leader has offered NATO a partial olive branch of sorts, signaling Russia doesn't wish to stumble into broader conflict with the Western military alliance, particularly over the Scandinavia countries' accession.
He was also addressing critics who don't buy the Russian arguments that the Ukraine invasion was fundamentally driven by NATO expansion. This was the most detailed that President Putin has been of late in explaining why the Ukraine matter is "different" - or a unique threat to Russia's national security - when it comes to NATO expansion.