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NATO is today holding a huge military drill in the Baltics just a day after Finland and Sweden confirmed their intention to join the alliance, raising tensions with Russia.
Some 15,000 troops from 10 different countries – including Finland, Sweden and a small detachment from Ukraine – will participate in the exercise dubbed ‘Siil’ or ‘Hedgehog’ which will take place just 40 miles from the nearest Russian base.
The drill will simulate an attack from Russia on Estonia and will be one of the largest exercises based out of the country since 1991 – largely bolstered by an additional 900 British troops deployed to Tallin in February before the war in Ukraine broke out.
NATO stressed that Hedgehog has been long-planned, but it none-the-less underscores tensions in the Baltics which have ramped up dramatically after Putin ordered his army across Ukraine’s borders on February 24.
Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, said today that the move is ‘another grave mistake’ which will have ‘far-reaching consequences’ for European security.
NATO is staging a huge military drill on Russia’s border featuring 15,000 troops from 14 countries including Finland and Sweden (file image)
Russian state media last night threatened to deploy additional nuclear weapons to the region after Finland and Sweden formally applied to join NATO.
The move breaks with decades-long neutrality agreements that barred them from joining any military alliance, in return for guarantees from Moscow that they would not be attacked.
However, the Ukraine invasion has prompted a high-level re-think of that strategy and seen a huge shift in public opinion with majorities in both countries now favouring membership as the best way to guarantee their safety.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenburg say the pair will be welcomed into the alliance ‘with open arms’, though the official ratification process involving all 30 current member states could take months.
In the meantime, the pair have struck defence agreements with the US and UK to protect them in the event Russia decides to attack.
Sweden and Finland were taking part in NATO drills before applying to join the alliance, and it is thought their involvement in Hedgehog was pre-planned.
The drill will take place over nine countries and is designed to test how a multi-nation force would respond to a sudden attack by Russia.
A ‘small number’ of troops will also be present from Georgia, which was invaded by Russia in 2008 and still has Kremlin forces on some of its territory.
Major General Veiko-Vello Palm, the deputy commander of the Estonian Defence Forces, told journalists last week that Russia has not been invited to observe this exercise, as has happened in the past.
‘We have notified the international community of the exercise,’ Palm said, according to Newsweek, ‘but we would not have allowed Russian observers.’
NATO stresses that the drill has been long-planned, but it underscores soaring tensions in the region coming off the back of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (file image)
The drill is one of the largest to take place in Estonia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, bolstered by an additional 900 troops from the UK (file image)
Tanks and armoured vehicles are seen moving through Estonia last week, in preparation for military exercises which began today
Finland and Sweden have been signalling their intention to join NATO for months, but on Sunday took the formal step of applying to the alliance.
The move prompted a furious reaction from Moscow, with Russian state media threatening to place more nuclear weapons in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
A commentator on Rossiya One said: ‘Their official reason is fear. But they’ll have more fear in Nato.
‘When Nato bases appear in Sweden & Finland, Russia will have no choice but to neutralise the imbalance & new threat by deploying tactical nuclear weapons.’
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, said weeks ago that Russia could deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in its Kaliningrad exclave between Poland and Lithuania, in responce to NATO’s Nordic expansion.
One of the original supposed rationales for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February was to stop Nato enlargement – but that plan is now in tatters as both Scandinavian nations say they will seek membership of the alliance.
The turnaround by prime minister Magdalena Andersson’s party, which has opposed NATO membership since the start of the alliance, secures a firm majority in Sweden’s parliament in favour of joining.
‘Europe, Sweden and the Swedish public are living a new and dangerous reality,’ said Ms Andersson, announcing the decades-long policy U-turn. ‘The best thing for the security of Sweden and the Swedish people is to join Nato.’
Sweden, which was neutral during the Second World War, stayed out of military alliances for more than 200 years though it forged closer ties with the Brussels-based organisation from the 1990s.
Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin made their announcement at a joint news conference in Helsinki.
Sanna Marin, prime minister of Finland, makes a speech to parliament today after confirming the country will officially apply to join NATO
Finland’s parliament meets today to hear a speech by the prime minister, a day after she confirmed she will apply to join NATO
Pictured: A map showing the current members of NATO in Europe (in blue) – and the possible expansion of NATO should Sweden and Finland (green) join
The Finnish Parliament is expected to endorse the decision in coming days, but it is considered a formality following a swell in public support for doing so.
A formal membership application will then be submitted to NATO headquarters in Brussels, most likely at the some point next week.
Speaking during a NATO conference in Berlin at the weekend, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced confidence that NATO members would support the bid, after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed last-minute objections.
‘I heard almost across the board, very strong support for Finland and Sweden joining the alliance, if that’s what they choose to do, and I’m very confident that we will reach consensus,’ he said from the German capital.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also said on Sunday that Turkey is not blocking potential membership bids by Sweden and Finland and voiced confidence at resolving Ankara’s stated concerns.
‘Turkey made it clear that its intention is not to block membership,’ Stoltenberg said.
The two nonaligned Nordic nations becoming part of the alliance would pose an affront to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has justified the war in Ukraine by claiming it was a response to NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe.
Finland shares a 830-mile border with Russia. Should Finland’s application be ratified, Russia’s border with NATO would roughly double in length.
Yesterday, Putin told the President of Finland he is making a ‘mistake’ by joining NATO as it faces ‘no security threats’ in a phone call.
President Niinistö said his conversation with Putin was ‘conducted without aggravations’ as both parties worked to ‘avoid tensions’.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and cyber-attacks on Finland and Sweden have ‘altered the security environment’ in Helsinki, Putin was told.
Meanwhile, Western military officials said Sunday that Moscow’s campaign in Ukraine, believed to have been launched with the goal of seizing Kyiv and toppling the Ukrainian government, had slowed to a snail’s pace.
They said the invading Russian army had lost up to one-third of its combat strength since February.