For years, President Vladimir W. Putin has seen the expansion of NATO as an existential threat that would encircle Russia with Western missiles on its doorstep. Now Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine seems to be bringing the Russian leader’s nightmare to life as NATO is about to embark on its biggest potential expansion in nearly two decades.
Having weathered the post-war period in non-aligned and neutral positions, Sweden and Finland are now actively exploring promotion into the Cold War-forged military alliance, with officials from both countries set to meet their NATO counterparts on Saturday.
Russia struck immediately, halting electricity exports to Finland and pledging an unspecified “military-technical” response after warning that the move would pose a clear threat to its own national security.
Some analysts feared Russia was laying the groundwork to threaten to station nuclear weapons near the border with Finland. But officials in both Sweden and Finland downplayed that threat, noting that with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad just 200 miles away, Moscow already has nuclear-capable missiles within reach.
Admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO, a process that could take up to a year to complete, would put the western military alliance squarely on Russia’s 810-mile border with Finland and mark another profound change in Europe’s strategic landscape as a result of Russia’s war in the 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 buildup is likely to become permanent.
As the western powers rallied for what Ukraine’s defense minister called a “new, long phase” of war, developments on the ground confirmed the idea that Ukraine was still doggedly fighting Russia in the east and reported that they were on the move ground gains.
In recent days, after months of Russian attacks and heavy shelling, Ukrainian forces have begun to tighten control of the major city of Kharkiv. In what appears to be a repeat of Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv, its ailing battalions are withdrawing to protect critical supply lines east and reinforce fighting units elsewhere in the Donbass region of the east, Ukrainian officials said.
The head of Kharkiv regional military administration said on Saturday that Ukrainian forces had launched a counter-offensive against Russian forces around the northeastern city of Izium, which Russia captured last month and hoped to use as a base for a push south into to use other major cities.
In a flurry of US diplomacy, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, paid a surprise visit to Ukraine on Saturday to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The accompanying delegation of American lawmakers was just the latest to travel to the country as the United States deepens its commitment to Kiev’s fight against Russian invasion.
United States Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was due to travel to Germany on Saturday to meet with NATO colleagues ahead of talks with Sweden and Finland.
In a phone call on Saturday, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said he had told Russian President Vladimir V Putin that his country was seeking NATO membership because Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine had “fundamentally” changed Finland’s security environment.
Mr Putin warned the Finnish leader it would be 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 responsibilities,” the Finnish president said in a statement, adding that Finland “wants to take care of the practical issues arising from Russia’s neighborhood in a correct and professional manner.” . ”
Concerns arose when Turkey, a long-time NATO member, signaled this week that it could try to block the Nordic countries’ entry into the alliance. But on Saturday, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed any possible challenge, saying Turkey was simply trying to ensure all alliance members’ security concerns were heeded.
NATO’s potential growth added to Mr Putin’s growing list of setbacks. Russia’s military offensive in eastern Ukraine remains stalled, and the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said in its latest assessment that the Ukrainians have now won the battle for Kharkiv.
Having failed in its first campaign to seize the Ukrainian capital and overthrow the government, the Kremlin can hardly 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 crucial.
“The breaking point will be in the second half of August,” he said. “Most active combat operations will be completed by the end of this year.”
But as Moscow’s forces around Kharkiv are driven back towards the Russian border, they are expected to fight hard to keep critical supply routes open through the region. Russia also controls a large tract of land in south-eastern Ukraine, where it is increasingly consolidating its position. The military campaign, analysts say, will continue to escalate into a protracted drudgery, marked by heavy casualties on both sides and devastating long-range bombardments.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov warned of “extremely tough weeks”. “No one can say for sure how many there will be,” he said in a statement.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledged that the struggle to regain control of the Russian-held territories would be long and hard, but he vowed they would not be relinquished.
“The gradual liberation of the Kharkiv region proves that we will not leave anyone to the enemy,” he said.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Two countries approach NATO. The foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland are ready to meet their NATO counterparts to discuss the prospect of joining the alliance. In apparent retaliation, Russia halted electricity exports to Finland after declaring that NATO enlargement would pose a threat to its own national security.
The effects of the battlefield clashes continue to resonate around the world.
The war has disrupted wheat production in Ukraine and Russia, both major suppliers, while fighting and naval blockades in the Black Sea have disrupted grain transportation. And poor harvests in China, combined with a heatwave in India and droughts elsewhere, have further impacted global supply.
But India, the world’s second-largest wheat producer, says it is banning exports with some exceptions, a move that could exacerbate a global deficit made worse by the war in Ukraine and an already grim forecast for starvation around the world could deepen.
India has about 10 percent of the world’s grain reserves, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, a large surplus resulting from heavily subsidizing its farmers. For months, it has been considered a country that could help offset global supply shortages.
“Russia’s war of aggression has unleashed one of the worst food and energy crises in recent history,” the leaders of the world’s wealthiest democracies, the Group of Seven, said in a statement on Saturday, adding that the problem “now threatens those most endangered around the world.”
Reporting was contributed by Carlotta Gall from Kharkiv, Ukraine; Markus Santora from Kraków, Poland; Stephen Erlanger from Tallinn, Estonia; Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Kassandra Vinograd from London; Emily Cochrane from Washington; and Samir Yasir from New Delhi.
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