On March 23, the historic process of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) enlargement passed a critical milestone as Finnish President Sauli Niinistö signed into law legislation on accession to the Alliance approved by parliament.
In response, the Kremlin merely expressed regret about this development and reiterated the absence of any threat from Russia to its North European neighbors (Rossiiskaya gazeta, March 16).
A failure of Russian foreign policy
The Russian Foreign Ministry described the accession, which will be finalized at the Vilnius summit in mid-July, as “counterproductive” and rushed without “proper public discussion” (RIA Novosti, March 23).
This veiled moderation did not camouflage a major failure of Russian foreign policy, which for many decades had hoped to cultivate special relations with Finland, and the profound shift in the geo-strategic situation in Northern Europe caused by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
The urge to deliver a more assertive response came clear in Putin’s announcement of the plan to deploy Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, where specialized storage could be constructed by July 1 (Svoboda, March 25).
Conventional countermeasures to the increased proximity of Russia to NATO — now, only separated by a mere 1.34 kilometers — were outlined by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who promised to form a new army corps in Karelia (Karelinform.ru, January 17). Furthermore, the headquarters for a new grouping will presumably be created in St. Petersburg, which is due to become the center of a new military district (RBC, December 21).
These plans, however, are as detached from the reality of Russia’s deteriorating strategic posture as were the designs for a blitzkrieg aimed at capturing Kyiv and Odesa. The Russian army is suffering such heavy losses in the seemingly never-ending attacks on Ukrainian positions in Donbas that the units gathered through the mobilization at the end of last year are practically exhausted. Moreover, the new proposition for recruiting up to 400.000 contracted servicemen clashes with the deteriorating demographic situation within Russia and the deepening discontent in Russian society (Sibir Realii, March 15; see EDM, March 20).
Arming the new units imagined by Shoigu is next to impossible as the legacy T-54 and T-62 tanks from the old Soviet arsenals are presently being deployed to the combat zone (Topwar.ru, March 25).
For its part, Ukraine is equipping its new brigades with modern armor, and Finland — in a move fitting for a new NATO member — has contributed several Leopard 2 main battle tanks to the pool gathered by the “tank coalition” (Izvestiya, March 23). Putin tried to belittle this development and promised to deploy three times more tanks than Ukraine; however, the Russian president’s boasting alone will not alter the shift in the balance of military capabilities (Meduza, March 25).
Claims of nuclear escalation
Concerned about the outcome of tank battles in late spring, the Russian top brass has resorted to spreading disinformation about the risk of radioactive contamination from the depleted uranium shells for the British Challenger 2 tanks delivered to Ukraine (Interfax, March 24). Putin picked up this issue in his concluding words at the meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, alleging a risk of nuclear escalation (Novayagazeta.eu, March 23).
The Russian leader’s vague reference to “nuclear components” in such shells was ridiculed even by some “patriotic” bloggers (Topwar.ru, March 24). Yet, he opted to reiterate this false claim and used it as a pretext for the transportation of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus (RIA Novosti, March 25).
Shortage of conventional capabilities
Putin’s desire to wield nuclear instruments is driven by Russia’s growing shortage of conventional capabilities, which is denied by the Kremlin but has been exposed by the uncharacteristically feeble responses from the Russian high command to the NATO exercises Joint Warrior and Joint Viking in Norway and the Barents Sea, respectively (Barents Observer, March 22).
The Northern Fleet can hardly muster any response, as one of its two modern frigates, the Admiral Kasatonov, is returning slowly after a year-long deployment to the Mediterranean. Additionally, its sister ship, the Admiral Gorshkov, is exercising in the Gulf of Oman, together with Chinese and Iranian ships (Severpost.ru, March 17).
Russian fighter jets conduct occasional sorties in the direction of the NATO exercises, but Northern Europe’s airspace is effectively controlled by the newly integrated air forces of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden (Kommersant, March 25). Russian combat planes may feel more confident over the Black Sea, where a US MQ-9 Reaper drone was forcefully intercepted on March 14; however, the ongoing NATO naval and air exercises of Sea Shield 2023 in Romania stand as a strong warning against further provocations (TASS, March 15).
The role of Turkey
Russia’s major concern in the Black Sea theater is Turkey, which also happens to have a say in approving the Finnish application for joining NATO and in delaying the progress of Sweden’s request (Kommersant, March 17; Izvestiya, March 18).
Putin has already held six phone calls with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this year, including most recently on March 25. Yet, according to official transcripts, neither NATO enlargement nor nuclear matters were ever touched upon (Kremlin.ru, March 25).
The Syrian crisis usually provides a key theme for these conversations, and Shoigu discussed the rise in tensions there with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar over the phone last week (Interfax, March 22). Moscow seeks to dissuade Ankara from launching a new operation in Northern Syria aimed primarily at boosting Erdogan’s campaign in the presidential elections scheduled for May 14 (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 23). Putin is keen to help his long-term partner in retaining his grasp on power, even if Turkey’s military modernization and export of modern weapon systems to Ukraine unnerve some Russian military planners (Rossiiskaya gazeta, March 8).
Turkey is the anchor of NATO’s strategic posture in the Black Sea region. Thus, Moscow is wary about any nuclear gestures in this high-risk theater.
The northern flank
On the northern flank, where Finland will now make a solid contribution to the Alliance’s defense capabilities, Russia cannot risk an escalation of tensions by staging a nuclear demonstration (or indeed, a nuclear test) because its conventional forces are too weak. While Belarus may seem the most convenient place for Russian attempts at exploiting nuclear weapons for political propaganda, it will only undercut President Alyaksandr Lukashanka’s domestic standing and strengthen the cause of the Belarusian opposition. In this regard, Russia’s nuclear bluff is too transparent and does not warrant any response from NATO. However, it emphasizes the urgency of the need to supply Ukraine with arms and ammunition sufficient for executing a powerful and far-reaching spring offensive.