Russia for years has warned that it would take military steps, among others, to counter any eventual decision by Finland or Sweden to join NATO. Yet since the Nordic countries declared that intention in mid-May, Russian officials’ changing rhetoric suggests that the Kremlin will seek to avoid any real confrontation over prospective NATO expansion.

Swedish soldiers parade in Stockholm in May, while the Swedish and Finnish governments prepared applications to join NATO. Russia has relaxed its longstanding rhetoric against the Nordic nations joining the alliance. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Swedish soldiers parade in Stockholm in May, while the Swedish and Finnish governments prepared applications to join NATO. Russia has relaxed its longstanding rhetoric against the Nordic nations joining the alliance. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

Sweden and Finland submitted applications to join NATO on May 18, overturning their decades-long policies of non-alignment. This change benefits the alliance, while undermining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim to the Russian public that the war in Ukraine will strengthen Russia’s security. Although their militaries are relatively small, Sweden and Finland would bring additional military capabilities to NATO and potentially help to complicate future Russian military planning.

While NATO formally maintains an “Open Door” to any European state interested in membership, Sweden’s and Finland’s accession may not be as smooth as some officials, such as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, earlier suggested. NATO requires unanimous agreement of its members to accept new member states — an agreement that Turkey has said it will withhold. The Turkish assertion that Sweden and Finland harbor terrorists, and therefore must make changes before Ankara will support their accession, is the most evident stumbling block to a smooth accession process. The Nordic expansion will weigh heavily at next week’s NATO summit in Madrid, and it will be vital to understand Russia’s position.

Russia's Change in Language

Russia’s initial reaction to the Finish and Swedish declarations of intent to join NATO appeared to threaten a violent response to this NATO expansion, perhaps in a bid to intimidate other NATO members into withholding their approval. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that Finnish accession to NATO would be a threat to Russia, and the foreign ministry asserted somewhat ominously that Russia would have to take unspecified “military-technical” measures in response. The deputy chair of the Russian National Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, issued an implicit nuclear threat, warning that Russia would consider new deployments of nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave.

These comments mirrored Russia’s previous statements on this issue. As early as 2012, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, warned Helsinki that “cooperation between Finland and NATO threatens Russia's security.” The Russian ambassador to Sweden, Putin, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu all issued similar warnings in subsequent years, threatening “counter-measures” if the countries were to move closer to NATO. In December 2021, as Russia had massed its forces on Ukraine’s border in preparation for its invasion, the Kremlin presented its formal demands to NATO. These came in a proposed treaty between Russia and NATO’s members that would have barred “any further enlargement of NATO, including the accession of Ukraine as well as other States” (emphasis added).

On May 16, Putin relaxed the menacing tone. “As for [NATO] expansion, including through new members of the alliance — Finland and Sweden, Russia has no problems with these states,” he explained at a summit conference of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. “Therefore, in this sense, the expansion [of the alliance] with these countries does not pose an immediate threat to Russia.” Russia’s concern, he said, would be what “military infrastructure” the alliance deploys in the new member states.

Other Russian officials then followed Putin’s lead. Peskov explained that the difference between NATO expansion to Finland and Sweden and NATO expansion to include Ukraine is that Russia has no territorial disputes with Finland and Sweden. Given that Russia had no territorial dispute with Ukraine prior to Russia’s invasion of the Donbas and annexation of Crimea in 2014, however, this explanation is less than credible. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko reinforced Putin’s statement that Russia’s response will depend specifically upon what NATO military infrastructure the alliance deploys to the new member states.

Why this apparent shift in Russia’s position? It likely represents an effort by Putin to ensure that the Russian public does not view his war against Ukraine as a failure that has increased the military threat to Russia. Russians can see that two countries with historically strong non-aligned policies decided to overturn those policies as a direct result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To avoid acknowledging a setback, Putin needs to tell Russians that this new expansion of NATO is not a big deal — as long as NATO hardware stays out of Swedish and Finnish territory.

If Putin is now trying to downplay the threat, he will likely not respond to Finland and Sweden in any meaningful military way, instead resorting to bluster about Peter the Great’s victories in the 18th century’s Great Northern War. Deploying conventional forces to the north (even if he had the forces to do so), would send the wrong signal to the Russian people. Moreover, given that most of the Russian military has been deployed to Ukraine and has achieved only mixed results, a military response might not even be feasible while the war in Ukraine continues. Thus, Russia’s response will likely remain limited to economic and political actions.

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