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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Russia sees threat as Finland moves closer to joining NATO

NATO, Swedish and Finnish flags.

By Shashank Bengali, Steven Erlanger and Ivan Nechepurenko

As Russia’s grinding war pulverizes eastern Ukraine and eats away at the global economy, it is also creating unintended consequences for President Vladimir Putin, whose aggression is bringing more European nations closer to NATO’s fold and strengthening Western ties, the very thing the Russian leader had hoped to weaken.

Finland’s leaders announced Thursday that their country should “apply for NATO membership without delay,” while Swedish leaders were expected to do the same within days. It is a remarkable shift by two nations on Russia’s doorstep that had long remained nonaligned militarily — but where public opinion has lurched strongly toward joining the alliance in the 11 weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine.

The Kremlin said that Finland’s membership in NATO was “definitely” a threat, and that it was prepared to “balance the situation” to ensure Russia’s security.

NATO’s secretary-general promised Finland a “smooth and swift” accession process if it applied, but that could take a year or longer, leaving it and Sweden vulnerable to Russian retaliation while not covered under the alliance’s collective defense pact. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain sought Wednesday to fill that gap, committing Britain, one of Europe’s strongest militaries, to defending Finland and Sweden if attacked — even if they ended up not joining NATO.

But the hardening of Western resolve has not persuaded Russia to ease its assault, which has occupied large chunks of southern and eastern Ukraine. It could also help Putin — who has described NATO’s eastward expansion as one of the reasons he was compelled to send troops into Ukraine — reinforce his argument to Russians that it is the West, not Russia, that is driving the conflict.

In other developments:

— Ukrainian and Western officials say Russia is reportedly withdrawing forces from around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, where it has been losing territory. They say it may redirect troops to the southeast, where Russian troops are making greater progress.

— The U.S. Congress is likely to approve $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, the latest package of support intended to help Ukrainian forces bring the fight to the invading Russians.

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