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Fact check: has Russia threatened Sweden with military action?

Becky Waterton
Becky Waterton - [email protected] • 28 Feb, 2022 Updated Mon 28 Feb 2022 14:47 CEST
Fact check: has Russia threatened Sweden with military action?
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova at a press conference in January. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/AP/TT

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated on Friday that Finland and Sweden's possible Nato membership could have "military and political consequences". How serious are these threats?


What is the context behind this clip?

In a widely-shared clip from a February 25th press conference, Zakharova was posed the following question by a journalist: "Finland has voiced threats to apply to join Nato if it comes to its national security. How does Moscow evaluate such statements, and can the accession of countries neighbouring with Russia to the alliance force re-escalation?"

Zakharova stated in her reply that Moscow see Finland's "policy of military non-alliance as an important factor in ensuring security and stability in northern Europe," but that "we cannot help but note the targeted efforts of Nato and other members of this alliance to involve Finland as well as Sweden in this alliance," citing joint military exercises between Finland, Sweden and Nato as one example.

She then stated that possible Nato membership from Finland and Sweden "could have detrimental consequences" as well as "some military and political consequences".

What does this mean?

This is not a new statement from Russia: Zakharova has used this language in previous press conferences before the invasion of Ukraine, including on December 24th last year, where she described Nato as "primarily a military structure that focuses on aggressive actions, not defence". She further stated that Finland and Sweden's possible accession to Nato "would have serious military and political consequences which would require an adequate response on Russia’s part".

Nato state that the alliance "promotes democratic values and enables members to consult and cooperate on defence and security-related issues to solve problems, build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict," and that the alliance "is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes".

In this speech, as well as in recent comments on February 25th, Zakharova framed Finland and Sweden's accession to Nato as a threat to Russia, describing Nato as "aggressive", and positioning Russia as promoters of peace in Europe who western media paint in the wrong light. She stated that: "security cannot be divided into “our” security and “someone else’s” security. Everyone must be involved, on a global scale."

"This principle has been set forth by the OSCE [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], where Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland are all members. This means that no one has the right to build its own security at the expense of others. This is the kind of approach the Russian Federation has been consistently promoting. However, for some reason quotes to this effect from the statements by the Russian President, Foreign Minister or Defence Minister never make the headlines when covering Russia’s position," she continued.


Is this a threat?

Although Zakharova phrases her response to paint Finland, Sweden and Nato as an aggressive force threatening Russia, the message is clear. If Sweden and Finland were to join the alliance, they would face consequences.

Zakharova does not go into detail on what kind of consequences Sweden and Finland might face, but in a 2016 interview in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister stated that "every country has the right to decide the form their own security takes, but you need to understand that if military infrastructure nears Russian borders, we will obviously take necessary military-technical measures," stating that Russia oppose the "constant expansion of Nato further east".

These threats may sound familiar - Russia's president Vladimir Putin threatened Ukraine with "retaliatory military-technical measures" in December last year following what Russia considered to be aggressive actions by the US and Nato on the Russia Ukraine border.

At that time, Putin sought "reliable and long-term security guarantees" from the US and Nato to stop Ukraine from joining the alliance and "exclude any further Nato moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory.”

Ukraine have repeatedly expressed interest in joining Nato, but are not members of the alliance.

Essentially, it is unclear exactly what this threat entails. Some of Russia's border countries such as Estonia and Latvia are already members of the alliance, and Poland and Lithuania who share a border with Russian enclave Kaliningrad are also members, so Finland would not be the first Nato country on Russia's border if they were join the alliance.

Furthermore, Russia have been threatening Sweden and Finland over potential Nato membership for years, so it is unclear whether the country would actually act on these threats if the Nordic countries were to join the alliance.

Ironically for Russia, these threats and their war in Ukraine may push Sweden and Finland closer to Nato membership.

"I would say that the more aggression you see from Russia with more brutality, the larger the likelihood will be for Sweden and Finland to come to the decision to join Nato. But I wouldn’t say that we are there yet," Patrik Oksanen, Russia expert, journalist and senior fellow at Swedish foreign and security policy-oriented think tank Frivärld, told The Local in an interview on February 24th.


How are Sweden and Finland reacting to this threat?

Neither Sweden nor Finland are taking any measures in response to Russia's threat.

In a press conference on February 25th, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö stated that Russia's threats were "not new", although more "dramatic" given Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Niinistö also noted that both Putin and Lavrov had made similar comments referring to a visit to Finland in 2016 and on another occasion in January of this year.

"I don't see a change," Niinistö stated.

In a separate press conference on the same date, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson commented Russia's threat, stating "I want to be extremely clear. Sweden decides our own security policy, by ourselves, independently. That's the underlying principle of the entire European security policy which is what we are now defending.

Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist told newswire TT prior to Russia's statements on Friday that there was "no immediate threat to Sweden", stating that "if we start changing the foundation of our security doctrine we will put great pressure on Finland who have a long border with Russia. What is important now is to concentrate ourselves on necessary defence measures and also to carry out exercises together with other countries".


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