NATO on Wednesday formally invited Sweden and Finland to join the US-led military alliance, in a historic expansion of the 30-member bloc, triggering strong reaction from Russia that called it “a purely destabilizing factor.”
The military bloc in a collective decision approved the applications of Sweden and Finland a day after Turkey dropped its objections to the move.
"The accession of Finland and Sweden will make them safer, NATO stronger, and the Euro-Atlantic area more secure. The security of Finland and Sweden is of direct importance to the Alliance, including during the accession process," the joint statement said.
The decision will now be referred to the parliaments and legislatures of the NATO member states for final ratification. The process, however, is likely to move swiftly as the US-led military alliance seeks to build a bigger front against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Citing “security” concerns, Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO after Russia launched a special military operation in its neighbor Ukraine on February 24.
The military operation was launched in late February, following Kiev’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements and Moscow’s recognition of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin said one of the goals of what he called a “special military operation” was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
"I said Putin's looking for the Finlandization of Europe. He's going to get the NATOization of Europe. And that is exactly what he didn't want, but exactly what needs to be done to guarantee security for Europe. And I think it's necessary," US President Joe Biden said at the summit in Madrid.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov issued a blunt reaction to the fresh development, calling it a "destabilizing move".
"We consider the expansion of the North Atlantic alliance to be a purely destabilizing factor in international affairs. It does not add security either to those who are expanding it, those joining it, or to other countries that perceive the alliance as a threat," Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
Moscow has repeatedly warned against the alliance’s further expansion towards its borders.
In his remarks last month on the Nordic countries’ bid to join NATO, Putin said the expansion of [the alliance’s] military infrastructure into this territory would "certainly provoke our response."
On Tuesday, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg took a swipe at the Russian leader, saying with Finland and Sweden’s accession to the alliance, Putin was now "getting more NATO on his borders."