For years, President Vladimir V. Putin viewed NATO expansion as an existential threat that would leave Russia stuck with Western missiles on its doorstep. Now, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine appears to bring the Russian leader’s nightmare to life as NATO is about to begin its biggest potential expansion in nearly two decades.
Having weathered the post-war period in non-alignment and neutrality, Sweden and Finland are actively exploring ascension to the military alliance forged during the Cold War, with officials from both countries set to meet their counterparts in the NATO on Saturday.
Russia reacted immediately, halting electricity exports to Finland and promising an unspecified “military-technical” response after warning that the move would pose a clear threat to its own national security.
Some analysts feared that Russia was preparing the ground to threaten the deployment of nuclear weapons near the border with Finland. But Swedish and Finnish officials played down that threat, noting that with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad just 200 miles away, Moscow already has nuclear-capable missiles within easy range.
An acceptance of Sweden and Finland into NATO, a process that could take up to a year to finalize, would bring the Western military alliance to the 810-mile-long Russian border with Finland and mark a another profound change in the European strategic landscape caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine. At the same time, the Pentagon is sending new troops to Europe to bolster the alliance’s eastern flank, signaling that the temporary troop boost is likely to become permanent.
As the Western powers hounded what Ukraine’s defense minister called a “new and long phase” of the war, developments on the ground confirmed the notion that Ukraine was still fighting hard against Russia at east and signaled that it was gaining ground.
In recent days, Ukrainian forces have begun to consolidate their control over the major city of Kharkiv after months of Russian attacks and heavy shelling. In an apparent rejoinder of Russia’s retreat from kyiv, its battalions are pulling back to protect critical supply lines in the east and reinforce struggling units elsewhere in eastern Donbass, officials said. Ukrainian officials.
The head of the Kharkiv regional military administration said on Saturday that Ukrainian forces had launched a counteroffensive against Russian forces around the northeastern town of Izium, which Russia captured last month. last and hoped to use as a base to head south into other major cities.
In a whirlwind of US diplomacy, Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky made a surprise visit to Ukraine on Saturday to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky. The accompanying delegation of US lawmakers was just the latest to visit the country as the United States deepened its engagement in kyiv’s fight against the Russian invasion.
US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was due to travel to Germany on Saturday to meet his NATO counterparts ahead of talks with Sweden and Finland.
In a phone call on Saturday, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said he told Russian President Vladimir V. Putin that his country was seeking to join NATO because Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine had “fundamentally” changed the world. Finland’s security environment.
Mr Putin warned the Finnish leader that it was a “mistake” to abandon Finland’s longstanding policy of military neutrality, the Kremlin said in a statement.
“By joining NATO, Finland strengthens its own security and assumes its responsibility,” the Finnish president said in a statement, adding that Finland wants to “deal with the practical issues arising from being a neighbor of the Russia in a correct and professional manner”. ”
There was initial alarm when Turkey, a longtime NATO member, signaled this week that it may seek to block the Nordic countries from joining the alliance. But on Saturday, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan backtracked on any potential challenges, saying Turkey was simply trying to ensure the security concerns of all alliance members were taken into account.
NATO’s potential growth added to a growing list of setbacks for Mr Putin. The Russian military offensive in eastern Ukraine remains stalled and the Institute for the Study of Warfare, a Washington think tank, said in its latest assessment that the Ukrainians have now won the battle from Kharkov.
Having failed in its initial campaign to take the Ukrainian capital and overthrow the government, the Kremlin cannot afford to accept another defeat in the East.
In an interview with Britain’s Sky News on Saturday, the country’s military intelligence chief, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, said the coming months would be decisive.
“The breaking point will be in the second half of August,” he said. “Most of the active combat actions will be completed by the end of this year.”
But as Moscow’s forces around Kharkiv are pushed back towards the Russian border, they are expected to fight hard to keep critical supply routes through the region open. Russia also controls a large swath of land in southeastern Ukraine, where it is increasingly strengthening its position. The military campaign, analysts say, will continue to turn into a protracted one characterized by heavy casualties on both sides and devastating long-range bombardments.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov warned of “extremely difficult weeks” ahead. “No one can say for sure how many there will be,” he said in a statement.
President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that the struggle to regain control of Russian-occupied territories would be long and difficult, but he vowed that they would not be abandoned.
“The gradual liberation of the Kharkiv region proves that we will not leave anyone to the enemy,” he said.
The impact of clashes on the battlefield continues to be felt around the world.
The war has interrupted wheat production in Ukraine and Russia, two major suppliers, while fighting and naval blockades in the Black Sea have disrupted grain transportation. And poor harvests in China, along with a heat wave in India and drought in other countries, have further strained global supplies.
But India, the world’s second-largest wheat producer, said it was banning exports with few exceptions, a move that could deepen a global deficit worsened by war in Ukraine and worsen already dire forecasts of world hunger. .
India has about 10% of the world’s grain reserves, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture, a large surplus resulting from its heavy subsidies to its farmers. It has been touted for months as a country that could help fill global supply shortages.
“Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most serious food and energy crises in recent history,” the leaders of the world’s wealthiest democracies, the Group of 7, said in a statement on Saturday. adding that the problem “now threatens the most vulnerable across the world.
The report was provided by Carlotta Gall from Kharkov, Ukraine; Marc Santora from Krakow, Poland; Steven Erlanger from Tallinn, Estonia; Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Cassandra Vinograd from London; Emily Cochrane from Washington; and Samir Yasir from New Delhi.