Finland is expected to announce its intention to join Nato on Thursday with Sweden likely to follow soon after, diplomats and officials have said, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reshapes European security and the Atlantic military alliance.
Nato allies expect Finland and Sweden to be granted membership quickly, five diplomats and officials told Reuters, paving the way for increased troop presence in the Nordic region during the one-year ratification period.
In the lead-up to their Nato accession, British prime minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday promised to defend Sweden and Finland against potential Russian threats as he travelled to both countries to sign mutual security agreements.
In the wider Nordic region, Norway, Denmark and the three Baltic states are already Nato members, and the addition of Finland and Sweden would probably anger Moscow, which says enlargement of the organisation is a direct threat to its own security.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has cited the issue as a reason for his actions in Ukraine, which has also expressed a desire to eventually join the alliance. Moscow has also repeatedly warned Finland and Sweden against joining the alliance, threatening “serious military and political consequences”.
Asked on Wednesday if Finland would provoke Russia by joining Nato, President Sauli Niinisto said Putin would be to blame. “My response would be that you caused this. Look at the mirror,” Niinisto said.
On Thursday European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned Russia was the “most direct threat” to the international order because of its “barbaric” war in Ukraine.
Von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel are in Japan for talks that have touched on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but also growing concerns about China’s role in Asia and beyond.
Russia “is today the most direct threat to the world order with the barbaric war against Ukraine, and its worrying pact with China,” she said after talks with Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida.
On the frontlines, Ukraine on Wednesday said it had pushed back Russian forces in the east and shut gas flows on a route through Russian-held territory, raising the spectre of an energy crisis in Europe.
Ukraine’s armed forces’ general staff said it had recaptured Pytomnyk, a village on the main highway north of the second-largest city of Kharkiv, about halfway to the Russian border.
In another village near Kharkiv recaptured by Ukrainian forces in early April, resident Tatyana Pochivalova returned to find her home blasted to ruins.
“I have not expected anything like this, such aggression, such destruction,” a weeping Pochivalova said. “I came and I kissed the ground, I simply kissed it. My home, there is nothing. Where am I to live, how am I to live?”
The advance appears to be the fastest that Ukraine has mounted since it drove Russian troops away from the capital Kyiv and out of northern Ukraine at the beginning of April.
If sustained, it could let Ukrainian forces threaten supply lines for Russia’s main attack force, and put rear logistics targets in Russia itself within range of artillery.
However, a senior US military official has warned that neither side can win in the present circumstances and that Russian and Ukrainian forces appear to be settling into a gruelling and deadly stalemate in Ukraine’s east.
Despite an announcement from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, that Ukrainian counter-offensives around the city of Kharkiv were pushing invading Russian forces back, Ukrainian successes appeared to be confined for now to the far north-eastern and south-western flanks of the 300-mile frontline.
“The Russians aren’t winning, and the Ukrainians aren’t winning, and we’re at a bit of a stalemate here,” said Lt Gen Scott Berrier, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, who gave evidence on Tuesday alongside Avril Haines, the US national intelligence director, to the Senate armed forces committee.
The assessment was delivered as the Russian military claimed its forces had advanced as far as the border between the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, potentially edging to securing control of the Donbas region despite losing ground around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
The developments came as Ukraine said it was shutting down Russian gas flows through territory held by Russian-backed separatists – the first time the conflict has directly disrupted shipments to Europe.
For its part Moscow has imposed sanctions on the owner of the Polish part of the Yamal pipeline that carries Russian gas to Europe, as well as Gazprom’s former German unit, whose subsidiaries service Europe’s gas consumption.
The implications for Europe, which buys more than a third of its gas from Russia, were not immediately clear. Berlin said it was looking into the announcement. An economy ministry spokesperson said the German government was “taking the necessary precautions and preparing for various scenarios”.
In southern Ukraine, where Russia has seized a swathe of territory, Kyiv has said Moscow plans to hold a fake referendum on independence or annexation to cement its occupation.
Russian forces have also continued to bombard the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, last bastion of Ukrainian defenders in a city
“If there is hell on earth, it is there,” wrote Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to the Mariupol mayor, Vadym Boichenko, who has left the city.
Ukraine says it is likely that tens of thousands of people have been killed in Mariupol. Ukrainian authorities say between 150,000 and 170,000 of the city’s 400,000 residents are still living there amid the Russian-occupied ruins.