(CNSNews.com) – The Kremlin has reiterated that it regards the further expansion of NATO into former Soviet countries as a “life and death” matter, but Moscow is also making clear that it objects to Sweden and Finland, nations that were not part of the USSR, joining the alliance.
Ahead of talks with the West next month, which Russia hopes will result in a halt to additional NATO enlargement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russia 1 television network on Sunday that the prospect of Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova being admitted into NATO was a question of “life and death for us.”
Peskov said it was a subject over which President Vladimir Putin becomes “emotional.”
“Over the past two decades, even more, we’ve been consistently deceived [by the West], and as a result of this deception we came to a situation where our security is under threat.”
Earlier in the day Putin told the same network that he hoped that planned talks would produce the binding security guarantees Russia is seeking from NATO and the United States.
If not, he said, Russia’s response would depend on what options military chiefs provide him with.
The foreign ministry on December 17 released two draft documents – a proposed Russia-U.S. agreement on security guarantees, and a draft Russia-NATO security agreement.
Russia hopes to hold talks in January on the proposals contained in the drafts, which include a halt to NATO expansion, and no further alliance “military activity” in countries bordering or near Russia.
While the focus has been primarily on Ukraine, not least because of Russia’s seven-year military intervention and a recent buildup of Russian forces near its border, the foreign ministry is also warning Finland and Sweden not to pursue membership.
The two Nordic democracies are members of the European Union but not of NATO. Both governments have objected to Russia’s recent hostile conduct towards Ukraine and threats about alliance activities and expansion.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said NATO’s attempts to draw Finland and Sweden “into the orbit of its interests and opportunistic policies” had not gone unnoticed by Russia.
Finland and Sweden joining NATO “would have serious military and political consequences that would require an adequate response from the Russian side,” she said.
Zakharova added that Russia has viewed the traditional Finnish and Swedish policy of remaining out of NATO as “an important factor in ensuring stability in northern Europe.”
Under a program launched by NATO in 2014, Finland and Sweden are “Enhanced Opportunity Partners” which work with the alliance to ensure interoperability of armed forces in preparation for involvement in some future NATO operations. (The other countries in the initiative are Ukraine, Georgia, Australia, and Jordan.)
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg visited Finland and Sweden in October, met jointly with their defense ministers, and spoke highly of the strengthening ties.
“Over the years, we have been working more and more closely together. And we have seen the security situation in the region deteriorate, with Russia’s aggressive posturing and its military build-up,” he said. “This makes our cooperation even more important.”
When Russia earlier this month began a fresh push for guarantees against further NATO expansion, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö issued a statement stressing the importance of his country’s “national room to maneuver and freedom of choice,” including the possibility of alignment with and membership in NATO.
Finnish Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen in a subsequent interview did tell the Helsinki daily Helsingin Sanomat that there were no plans at this stage to apply for NATO membership.
National sentiment on the question is divided, although with opposition to joining NATO apparently declining slightly in recent years – from 61 percent opposed in 2016 to 51 percent opposed three years later.
As the Russia-Ukraine tensions have risen in recent weeks, Niinistö spoke by phone with Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and President Biden. In the latter conversation he said Finland appreciates the fact that NATO maintains an “open door” policy.
The “open door” policy means that any country can join NATO if all current allies agree, and if the aspirant meets certain criteria, mostly involving military reforms.
Last week Sweden’s foreign minister also rejected Russia’s demand that NATO stop admitting new members.
“Sweden and Finland are very much affected by this,” said Foreign Minister Ann Linde. “Rejecting any future expansion of NATO will reduce the opportunities to make independent political choices.”
“We must have a rules-based world order, where we have international law and each country has the right to make its own security policy choices,” she said.
Sweden earlier this month updated a 20-year-old defense agreement with Ukraine involving cooperation in military training and information exchange, and expressed support for Kyiv in the face of Russia’s threatening behavior.
As in Finland, opposition among Swedes to joining NATO also appears to have dropped in recent years, according to some polling – from 50 percent opposition in 2016 to 35 percent early this year (with around the same proportion undecided).
Cooperation between Russia and NATO has been suspended since 2014 over Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. The main forum for exchanges, the NATO-Russia Council, has met occasionally since then, but not since mid-2019.
Russian media are now reporting that a NATO-Russia Council meeting could be held in Brussels on January 12, for the first time in two-and-a-half years.