Russian President Vladimir Putin says a bid by Finland and Sweden to join NATO poses no direct threat to his country, but Moscow will respond if the US-led alliance bolsters military infrastructure in the two Nordic states.
"As to enlargement, Russia has no problem with these states - none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion [of NATO] to include these countries," Putin told the leaders of a military alliance of former Soviet states at the Grand Kremlin Palace on Monday.
"But the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response," Putin said.
"What that (response) will be - we will see what threats are created for us," Putin told the leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The Russian leader said the United States uses NATO's possible eastward expansion in an "aggressive" way to aggravate an already difficult security situation in the world.
He went on to say that besides the "endless expansion policy," NATO was reaching far beyond its Euro-Atlantic remit - a trend that Russia was following carefully.
Finland officially announced on Sunday its intention to become a member of NATO despite stern warnings from Russia. Sweden also followed suit shortly after the country's ruling party dropped its long-standing opposition to NATO membership.
Moscow has long expressed grievances to the US about NATO’s eastward expansion, and says Washington has repeatedly ignored the Kremlin's concerns about the security of its borders in the West.
Putin has on several occasions cited the post-Soviet expansion of the NATO alliance eastwards towards Russia's borders as a reason for its latest military operation in Ukraine. Key to its list of security demands from the West prior to the operation in Ukraine was a guarantee that Kiev would never be part of NATO.
Before Putin spoke, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also warned the West on Monday that it will not put up with the Nordic expansion of NATO, saying the latest push by Sweden and Finland to join the US-led military alliance will only make the matters worse.
Ryabkov, who led talks with the United States on a Russian proposal to halt NATO's eastward expansion, warned that the decision by Helsinki and Stockholm to join the alliance was a mistake.
"They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it, and nor should Brussels, Washington and other NATO capitals," Ryabkov said.
Meanwhile, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is one of Putin's closest allies, said last month that Russia could deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad if Finland and Sweden joined NATO.
The Russian leader declared a “special military operation" in the former Soviet state in late February.
The US and its allies have stepped up military support for Ukraine, sending an array of sophisticated weapons meant to hold off Russia's rapid advances. The operation has also drawn unprecedented sanctions from the US and its European allies.
Putin has repeatedly warned that such a flow of weapons to Kiev will prolong Russia's operation. But diplomats from the G7 wealthy nations — Britain, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, the United States and the European Union —said in a joint statement earlier on Saturday that they would continue their military and defense assistance for "as long as necessary.”