Putin Tells Finland That Swapping Neutrality for NATO Is a Mistake
Russian President Vladimir Putin told his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto on Saturday that ditching neutrality and joining NATO would be a mistake that could damage relations between their two countries, the Kremlin said.
The two countries said their presidents spoke by phone two days after Finland declared its intention to join the Western alliance. Moscow has described that as a security threat that will require it to respond, but has not specified how.
Niinisto’s office said he told Putin “how fundamentally the Russian demands in late 2021 aiming at preventing countries from joining NATO and Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 have altered the security environment of Finland”.
He said Finland wanted to handle relations with its Russian neighbor in a “correct and professional manner”.
The Kremlin said: “Vladimir Putin stressed that abandoning the traditional policy of military neutrality would be a mistake, since there are no threats to Finland’s security. Such a change in the country’s foreign policy may have a negative impact on Russian-Finnish relations.”
Moscow described the call as a “frank exchange of views”, normally a diplomatic euphemism for a difficult conversation.
Finland’s President Tells Putin: We Will Apply to Join NATO
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin Saturday that the militarily non-aligned Nordic country that shares a long border and history with Russia “will decide to apply for NATO membership in the coming days.”
Niinisto’s office said in a statement that the Finnish head of state told Putin in a phone conversation how thoroughly Finland’s security environment had changed after Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion on Ukraine, and pointed to Russia’s demands on Finland refraining from seeking membership in NATO, the 30-member Western military alliance.
“The discussion (with Putin) was straightforward and unambiguous and was held without exaggeration. Avoiding tensions was considered important,” said Niinisto, Finland’s president since 2012 and one of few Western leaders who has held regular dialogue with Putin over the past ten years.
Niinisto pointed out that had already told Putin at their first meeting in 2012 that “each independent nation would maximize its own security.”
“That is still the case. By joining NATO, Finland will strengthen its own security and assume its responsibilities. It is not something away from anybody,” Niinisto said.
He stressed that Finland, despite its likely future membership in NATO, wants to continue to deal with Russia bilaterally in “practical issues generated by the border neighborhood” and hope to engage with Moscow “in a professional manner.”
The phone call was conducted on Finland’s initiative, Niinisto’s office said.
Moscow Will Respond If NATO Moves Nuclear Forces Closer to Russia’s Border
Moscow will take adequate precautionary measures if NATO deploys nuclear forces and infrastructure closer to Russia’s border, Russian news agencies quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko as saying on Saturday.
“It will be necessary to respond … by taking adequate precautionary measures that would ensure the viability of deterrence,” Interfax agency quoted Grushko as saying.
Moscow has no hostile intentions towards Finland and Sweden and does not see “real” reasons for those two countries to be joining the NATO alliance, Grushko added.
He also reiterated the Kremlin’s earlier statement that Moscow’s response to NATO’s possible expansion will depend on how close the alliance moves military assets toward Russia and what infrastructure it deploys.
Finland’s plan to apply for NATO membership, announced on Thursday, and the expectation that Sweden will follow, would bring about the expansion of the Western military alliance that Russian President Vladimir Putin aimed to prevent.
Russian Fighter Jets Take Part in Baltic Sea Drills: Interfax
Russian Su-27 fighter jets have taken part in drills to repel a mock air strike on Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, Interfax news agency reported on Saturday, citing the Baltic Sea fleet.
The drills took place two days after Finland announced plans to apply to join NATO, with Sweden likely to follow—moves that would bring about the expansion of the Western military alliance that Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he aims to prevent.
The Russian Baltic Sea fleet’s press service said Su-27 fighter jets “destroyed” the planes of the simulated adversary during the drills, Interfax reported.
According to the report, more than 10 crews of the Baltic Sea fleet’s Su-27 were involved in the exercises.
Ukraine Seeks Evacuation of Wounded Fighters as War Rages On
Very complex talks are underway to evacuate a large number of wounded soldiers from a besieged steelworks in the strategic southeastern port of Mariupol in return for the release of Russian prisoners of war, Ukraine’s president said.
Mariupol, which has seen the heaviest fighting in nearly three months of war, is now in Russian hands but hundreds of Ukrainian defenders are still holding out at the Azovstal steelworks despite weeks of heavy Russian bombardment.
Fierce Ukrainian resistance, which analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals failed to anticipate when they launched the invasion on Feb. 24, has slowed and in some places reversed Russian advances elsewhere in Ukraine too.
As well as losing large numbers of men and much military equipment, Russia is also reeling from economic sanctions. The Group of Seven leading Western economies pledged in a statement on Saturday to “further increase economic and political pressure on Russia” and to supply more weapons to Ukraine.
In a late night address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the plight of people trapped at the Azovstal site.
“At the moment very complex negotiations are under way on the next phase of the evacuation mission—the removal of the badly wounded, medics,” he said, adding that “influential” international intermediaries were involved in the talks.
Russia, which initially insisted the defenders in the sprawling Soviet-era bunkers beneath the steel works give themselves up, has said little publicly about the talks.
Duma Deputy Head Visits Ukraine’s Russian-Occupied Kherson: RIA
Senior Russian lawmaker Anna Kuznetsova visited the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in Ukraine to discuss social and healthcare needs of the local population, the state RIA news agency reported on Saturday.
There have been sparse confirmed reports of Russian senior officials visiting areas of fighting since Russia invaded its neighbor on Feb. 24.
Kherson is the first region set to be annexed after Moscow said in April it had gained full control of the region, which has seen sporadic anti-Russian protests.
Kuznetsova, deputy head of Russia’s Duma or lower house of parliament, discussed the supply of foodstuffs as well as medical and other products needed for children, RIA reported.
Moscow-Administered Kherson to Ask to Be Included in Russia, UK Says
The Russian-imposed military-civilian administration in Ukraine’s Kherson region said it will ask Russia to include it in the Russian federation, British defense ministry said on Saturday.
If Russia carries out an accession referendum in Kherson, it will almost certainly manipulate the results to show a clear majority in favor of leaving Ukraine, Britain said in a regular Twitter bulletin.
Canada’s Joly Says Sweden, Finland Accession to NATO Should Be Quick
Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said on Saturday that there should be consensus at NATO for Sweden and Finland to join the alliance, but that their accession should be quick.
“It is important that we have a consensus,” she told reporters on the sidelines of a G7 foreign ministers meeting in northern Germany when asked about Turkey possibly blocking their accession.
“We wish that there not only be an accession of Finland and Sweden, but a quick accession, which is fundamental in the circumstances as Finland and Sweden are looking for security guarantees.”
Zelenskyy: No One Can Predict Length of War
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said although Ukrainians are doing everything they can to drive out the Russians, “no one today can predict how long this war will last.”
“This will depend, unfortunately, not only on our people, who are already giving their maximum,” he said in his nightly video address to the nation. “This will depend on our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world.”
He said he was thankful to all those who are working to strengthen the sanctions on Russia and increase military and financial support to Ukraine. “This is the only recipe for protecting freedom in the face of the Russian invasion. And for Western countries, this is not simply an expense. This is not about accounting, it’s about the future.”
Ukraine Preparing 41 Russian War Crimes Cases
Ukraine’s prosecutor general said Friday that her office was readying 41 war crimes cases against Russian soldiers.
“We have 41 suspects in cases with which we will be ready to go to court. All of them concern Article 438 of the [Ukrainian] criminal code on war crimes, but different types of war crimes. There is the bombing of civilian infrastructure, the killing of civilians, rape, and looting,” Iryna Venediktova said in a live briefing on Ukrainian TV on Friday evening.
It was not immediately clear how many of the suspects would be tried in absentia.
Friday marked the first war crime prosecution of a member of the Russian military in Kyiv, as a 21-year-old Russian soldier went on trial for the killing of an unarmed Ukrainian civilian in the early days of the war.
Venediktova said that two more of the suspects, who are physically in Ukraine, are likely to face preliminary hearings next week.
Shelling in Donetsk Region Kills 1, Harms 12
One civilian was killed and twelve more people were injured in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region as a result of Russian shelling, the regional governor said Friday.
The Donetsk region, one of two that make up the Donbass, has seen some of the war’s fiercest fighting in recent weeks, as Moscow mounts an offensive to capture Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.
“On May 13, the Russians killed one more civilian of Donbass—in [the city of] Avdiivka. 12 more people were injured today as a result of Russian shelling,” Pavlo Kyrylenko wrote on Telegram.
Turkey Not Supportive of NATO Membership for Finland, Sweden: Erdogan
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan tossed cold water on any potential NATO membership for Finland and Sweden.
“We’re following the developments regarding Sweden and Finland, but we don’t hold positive views,” Erdogan told reporters.
He criticized the Scandinavian countries as “guesthouses” for terrorist organizations and implied that some terrorists are in the parliament in some countries.
“It is not possible for us to be in favor,” he added.
Erdogan also said that allowing Greece to join NATO was a mistake that he doesn’t want to repeat with Finland and Sweden.
Turkey has repeatedly slammed Sweden and other Western European countries for their handling of organizations deemed terrorist organizations by Ankara, including the Kurdish militant groups PKK and YPG, and the followers of U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Allen Zhong, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.