Russian President Vladimir Putin has condemned NATO’s “imperial ambitions”, accusing the military alliance of seeking to assert its “supremacy” through the Ukraine conflict.
The Russian leader also said on Wednesday that he would respond in kind if NATO deployed troops and infrastructure in Finland and Sweden after the two Nordic countries join the military alliance.
Putin made his comment a day after NATO member Turkey lifted its veto over the bid by Finland and Sweden to join the alliance when the three nations agreed to protect each other’s security.
Helsinki and Stockholm joining NATO marks one of the biggest shifts in European security in decades.
“With Sweden and Finland, we don’t have the problems that we have with Ukraine. They want to join NATO, go ahead,” Putin told Russian state television after talks with regional leaders in the central Asian ex-Soviet state of Turkmenistan.
“But they must understand there was no threat before, while now, if military contingents and infrastructure are deployed there, we will have to respond in kind and create the same threats for the territories from which threats towards us are created,” he said.
Moscow’s relations with Helsinki and Stockholm would inevitably sour over their NATO membership, he added.
“Everything was fine between us, but now there might be some tensions, there certainly will,” Putin said.
“It’s inevitable if there is a threat to us.”
‘Shattered peace in Europe’
Putin also denied that Moscow’s forces were responsible for a missile raid on a crowded shopping centre in the Ukrainian town of Kremenchuk earlier this week, in which at least 18 people were killed and many remain missing in the rubble.
“Our army does not attack any civilian infrastructure sites. We have every capability of knowing what is situated where,” Putin told a news conference in the Turkmenistan capital of Ashgabat.
“I am convinced that this time, everything was done in this exact manner,” Putin said.
Ukraine accuses Russia of targeting the shopping centre and civilian shoppers.
Putin made his comment as NATO on Wednesday branded Russia the biggest “direct threat” to Western security after its invasion of Ukraine. The military alliance also agreed on plans to modernise Kyiv’s beleaguered armed forces, saying it stood fully behind Ukrainians’ “heroic defence of their country”.
“President Putin’s war against Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe and has created the biggest security crisis in Europe since the Second World War,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference.
“NATO has responded with strength and unity,” he said.
US President Joe Biden announced more land, sea and air force deployments across Europe, including a permanent army headquarters with accompanying battalion in Poland – the first full-time US deployment on NATO’s eastern fringes.
Top US intelligence official Avril Haines said on Wednesday the most likely near-term scenario for the war is a grinding conflict in which Moscow makes only incremental gains but no breakthrough on its goal of taking most of Ukraine.