Russian president Vladimir Putin once said that any more countries on Russia’s doorstep joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) constituted a threat to Russia, and would provoke “military and political consequences.”
In fact, Putin warned last year that NATO expanding its military infrastructure eastward into Ukraine would be a “red line” for Russia and perceived as a direct threat.
But three months into a Ukraine invasion that’s not going according to plan, and after two other countries close to Russia announced that they are joining NATO, Putin appears to be softening his tone, and resigning himself to the fact that NATO’s eastward expansion is happening anyway.
On Sunday, Finland—which shares an 800-mile border with Russia and was part of the Russian Empire for over a century—said it had applied to join NATO to ensure that its own national security would not be threatened by Russia in the future. On Monday, Sweden followed suit after a meeting amongst ruling party officials over the weekend, who voted to end the country’s 200-year neutrality policy.
“The issue at hand is whether military nonalignment will keep serving us well?” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said on Sunday. “We’re facing a fundamentally changed security environment in Europe.”
For months, Russian officials have warned against the two countries taking this decisive step, but now that it has actually happened, Putin appears to be doing his best to diminish the significance of the act.
"As for the expansion of NATO, including through new members of the alliance which are Finland, Sweden — Russia has no problems with these states,” Putin said Monday at a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance composed of several post-Soviet states.
Putin plays down the threat
For months, Russian officials have been saying that should Finland and Sweden join NATO, Russia would receive it as a threat, and respond by building up its military capabilities in the Baltic Sea. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev even suggested in April that nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles could be deployed. Just last week, Putin warned that Finland joining NATO would be a “mistake,” and suggested that Russia would interpret it as an act of aggression.
But Putin signaled on Monday that Finland and Sweden’s decision to join NATO is one of relative unimportance, and does not constitute a danger to Russia.
"Expansion at the expense of these countries does not pose a direct threat to Russia,” he said.
Putin also called NATO’s geographic expansion “artificial,” suggesting that the alliance’s spread is more symbolic in nature than anything else, despite having previously repeatedly requested assurances that NATO would not expand into Ukraine, something that Putin claims justified the invasion.
Should Finland’s membership be approved, it would double the length of NATO’s border with Russia.
Finland and Sweden joining NATO marks a historic shift in their foreign policy stances, as both countries are reversing their long-standing military neutrality policies in what is widely considered an admonishment to Russia and publicly for the West.
Not so fast
Putin’s apparent reversal on the importance of Sweden and Finland joining NATO was a surprise to many Russia watchers, but the Russian president is suggesting that he will react more aggressively should either country become a military threat to Russia.
Putin signaled on Monday that Russia might step up its military presence in the Baltics if the alliance decides to set up military bases or station weapons in Finland or Sweden, although did not indicate whether he would be willing to authorize sending nuclear weapons or heavy-duty missiles to the region.
“The expansion of military infrastructure into this territory will certainly cause our response. We will see what it will be based on the threats that will be created for us," Putin said.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has said that NATO military bases and nuclear weapons are not welcome in the country, and that it does not intend to militarize to counter Russia.
But even if Putin is playing down the threat, and Nordic countries want to keep militarization out of it, joining NATO will inevitably create more “military tension” in the region, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said recently.
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com