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Fact check: has Russia threatened Sweden with military action?

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?

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

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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Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, boosting spirits in the embattled nation fighting off a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Riding a huge wave of public support, Kalush Orchestra beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania”, a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

Music conquers Europe

The win provided a much-needed morale boost for the embattled nation in its third month of battling much-larger Russian forces.

Mahmood & BLANCO  performing for Italy at Eurovision 2022

Mahmood & BLANCO perform on behalf of Italy during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.

“This win is so very good for our mood,” Andriy Nemkovych, a 28 year-old project manager, told AFP in Kyiv.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

‘Ready to fight’
Despite the joyous theatrics that are a hallmark of the song contest, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the festivities this year.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
“Stefania”, written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb
to perform their act.
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” resonated all the more as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.

Kalush Orchestra received special authorisation from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.

Psiuk said he was not sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.

“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.

Britain’s ‘Space Man’

Ukraine beat a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, who sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national healthcare while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.

Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant

Other offerings included Greece’s “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and “Brividi” (Shivers), a duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.

Italy had hoped the gay-themed love song would bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin.