Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the pending addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO in recent statements as a non-factor as he focuses on the Ukraine war.
In a public statement last week, Putin said that the two countries could “go ahead” and enter the alliance. This tacit approval was in stark contrast to comments he made last May where the Russian president threatened “retaliatory steps” if Finland was to go through with the move.
It looked as if NATO was not going to be accepting the new members due to a member country signaling it would block the process. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had previously indicated he would object, citing the two countries’ willingness to harbor Kurdish militants.
It is possible that Putin was relying on Turkey to scuttle the deal for him. Turkey and Russia have a complicated relationship, with some in the alliance questioning where Erdoğan’s loyalty lies.
Putin’s tone may now have softened because he can’t really do anything about it and the Ukraine war continues to drag on. Even though strategic points in the east of Ukraine continue to fall, it has come at a great cost to the invading army with some experts citing a 50% casualty rate.
NATO war planners have warned that the war could stretch on for years. Given this reality, Putin can ill afford to take additional steps to antagonize the west.
An argument can be made that the inclusion of Sweden and Finland into the alliance is just a matter of semantics. The two countries already conduct exercises with NATO and lend material support to its various missions.
The formal request to join did come as a surprise, however, given that leaders in both countries have historically maintained a non-aligned posture.
Finland especially has always tried to adhere to a policy of neutrality. It is one of the reasons it was not occupied by Stalin after World War II and mostly escaped the negative effects of the cold war.
The changing strategic environment on the ground has made a neutral position an impossible one, even one that is ceremonial in nature. In private Putin is probably seething about the change, but in public, he is forced to adopt a neutral tone.