NATO expansion: Russia cuts off electricity to Finland

JON QUEALLY

The small portion of electricity supplied to Finland by Russia was cut off Saturday just hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin told his Finnish counterpart directly that it would be a “mistake” for his country to join NATO.

The call between Finland President Sauli Niinistö and Putin was the first direct talk between the two leaders since Finland said it will soon apply for NATO membership after decades of neutrality that has kept it out of the U.S.-European military alliance.

According to a report of the call released by the Kremlin, the two leaders “had a sincere exchange of views over the announced decision by Finland’s leadership to apply for NATO membership.”

“Putin,” the Kremlin said, “stressed that rejecting the traditional policy of military neutrality would be wrong since there are no threats to Finland’s security. Such a change in the country’s foreign policy course could have a negative effect on Russia-Finland relations, which have been built over the course of many years in the spirit of neighbourliness and partnership cooperation and have a mutually beneficial nature.”

A statement from the Finnish side after the call said Niinistö 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.” Niinistö officially told Putin of Finland’s intention to apply for NATO membership.

“The conversation,” the readout continued, “was direct and straight-forward and it was conducted without aggravations. Avoiding tensions was considered important.”

Earlier in the day, authorities in Finland confirmed the electricity supply from Russia—which makes up only about 10% of the nation’s overall usage—had been choked off.

“It is at zero at the moment, and that started from midnight as planned,” Timo Kaukonen, a manager at Fingrid, which controls the nation’s electrical grid, told Agence France-Presse early Saturday.

While energy supplier RAO Nordic said the energy cutoff had to do with payments that had not been made, Russia earlier this week had said Finland should expect “retaliatory steps” if it moved closer to joining NATO.

It’s not just Finland. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said Friday that Sweden was also moving ahead with its application because “Swedish NATO membership would raise the threshold for military conflicts and thus have a conflict-preventing effect in northern Europe.”

Critics of further NATO expansion have warned that Finland and Sweden, though perhaps rightly concerned about their own security after seeing what Putin has done in Ukraine, still have very little to gain from joining the bloc and that much could be lost if such moves are finalized.

“By joining NATO, Finland is throwing away whatever remote possibility exists of playing a mediating role between Russia and the West, not just to help bring about an end to the war in Ukraine, but at some point in the future to promote wider reconciliation,” wrote Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute of Responsible Statecraft, on Friday.

Moreover, added Lieven, “Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO may also be seen to have marked the symbolic moment when European countries as a whole abandoned any dream of taking responsibility for their own continent and resigned themselves to complete dependence on Washington.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had a phone conversation with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Friday in which Austin reportedly, based on unnamed Pentagon sources, urged Russia to embrace a ceasefire in Ukraine. The Russian ministry acknowledged the call between Austin and Shoigu took place—the first of its kind since February 18—but declined to offer any substantial details of what was discussed.

In a tweet responding to that reported conversation, Benjamin said she was “so glad to see Russian and U.S. military talking and having lines of communication,” and that it was “good to hear” Austin had called for a ceasefire.

However, she added with a reference to a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine passed by the U.S. House this week and likely heading to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature next week, “sending billions more in weapons sends the opposite message.”