Vladimir Putin has warned Nato against building military bases or positioning missile systems in Sweden or Finland, declaring that doing so would “certainly provoke a response”.
“There is no immediate threat to Russia,” the Russian leader said of the Nordic nations’ decision to join the security alliance.
“But the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response.”
Magdalena Andersson, Sweden’s prime minister, announced yesterday that her country would apply to join Nato, ending the country’s two centuries of neutrality.
“We are leaving one era and entering another,” Ms Andersson said.
“A Swedish Nato membership will increase the threshold for military conflict in Sweden and in our neighbourhood.”
Ms Andersson’s announcement came just a day after Finland’s president and prime minister made a similar announcement, with the two countries’ parliaments both holding marathon debates to celebrate the shift yesterday.
Mr Putin’s statement, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation in Moscow, was the latest of the threats Russia has levied at the two countries in the three-month run-up to their decisions to join the alliance.
Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and Putin ally, threatened in April that Russia would respond to Swedish Nato membership by positioning nuclear weapons in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
Earlier yesterday, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, described the two countries’ decision to join the alliance as “another grave mistake with far-reaching consequences”.
“The general level of military tensions will increase. They should have no illusions that we will just put up with this,” he said.
In the short term, it seems unlikely that Nato will position infrastructure on its new members’ territories.
In a speech to Sweden’s parliament ahead of the decision, Ms Andersson said her country would follow the example of Denmark and Norway and declare that it would not host nuclear weapons or permanent Nato military bases.
She did, however, concede that Sweden would be vulnerable in the gap between the application and accession to the alliance, although she said this “shouldn’t take more than a year”.
Britain and the United States have both given Sweden “security assurances” and Denmark, Norway and Iceland yesterday promised to defend Sweden and Finland “by all means necessary” if they become “victims of aggression on their territory before obtaining Nato membership”.
The move is a dramatic turnaround from the two countries’ military non-alignment policies, dating back more than 75 years for Finland and two centuries for Sweden.
Both countries are expected to join Nato at the same time.
The Nordic nations’ application was expected to be largely a formality, as both boast modern, well-equipped armies.
However, Turkey has said it could block Sweden’s application because it wanted the Nordic countries to halt support for Kurdish militant groups present in their territory, and lift bans on sales of some weapons to Ankara.
Both countries were reported to have rejected Turkish requests for the repatriation of 33 people with alleged links to Kurdish militants.
Sweden will send diplomats to Turkey to try to overcome Ankara’s objections to its Nato membership plans, Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defence minister, said yesterday.
Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State said on Sunday he was confident the objections would be overcome.
Meanwhile, Russia yesterday said it would evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers from the Azovstal steel plant, but only to a hospital under Moscow’s control.
More than 1,000 Ukrainian troops remain in the gigantic steelworks that has become the sole pocket of resistance in the devastated city of Mariupol.
The soldiers, some of whom are members of the Azov battalion, have resisted Russian bombing and attempts to storm their labyrinthine hideout.
Video released last week showed Azov fighters lobbing grenades at advancing Russian troops and engaging in fierce gun battles in the smoking ruins of the plant.
Given that Russia refers to the nationalist Azov unit as a Nazi front, many of its fighters have said they would rather die than surrender.
Photographs taken by one of the trapped soldiers show large numbers of wounded, with missing limbs covered in dirty bandages.
The Russian ministry of defence said troops that surrendered would be taken to hospital in a nearby town in separatist-held Ukraine, making them prisoners of war.
“An agreement was reached with representatives of the Ukrainian military blocked at Azovstal in Mariupol to evacuate the wounded,” the ministry said.
It added that a “regime of silence” was introduced for the duration of the evacuation.
Desperate families of the soldiers visited Turkey yesterday, calling on the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to lobby Putin on behalf of their loved ones.