BERLIN — The head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said on Sunday that the security bloc would grant Sweden and Finland accelerated membership, increasing pressure on Vladimir V. Putin, who justified his invasion of Ukraine by what he termed the need to military alliance away from Russia’s borders.
“President Putin wants Ukraine to be defeated, NATO to be brought down, North America and Europe to be divided,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Berlin after meeting foreign ministers of members of the United Nations. the alliance. “But Ukraine stands, NATO is stronger than ever, Europe and North America are firmly united.”
Both countries said their applications were imminent. The Finnish parliament is expected to ratify a NATO application on Monday. And Sweden’s ruling Social Democratic Party said Sunday it would vote to join NATO — all but guaranteeing that the Scandinavian nation would end 200 years of neutrality.
The possibility of NATO troops being deployed along Russia’s 810-mile border with Finland comes as Mr Putin faces notable setbacks in the war he started in Ukraine nearly three months ago.
Ukrainian forces have moved near the Russian border in recent days after pushing Russian troops out of the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. And on Sunday, evidence mounted that Russia’s offensive in the Donbas region is faltering further east after initial modest gains.
Estimates based on publicly available evidence suggest that more than 400 Russian soldiers were killed or injured when they tried to cross the Donets River in the village of Bilohorivka, in the eastern region of Luhansk, in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces. The debacle was probably one of the bloodiest battles since the start of the war, prompting even influential pro-Russian bloggers to voice concerns, despite the Kremlin’s efforts to criminalize dissent.
“I kept quiet for a long time,” Yuri Podolyaka, a war blogger with 2.1 million followers on the messaging app Telegram, said in a video posted Friday, in which he said he had avoided criticizing the Russian military.
“The last straw that overwhelmed my patience,” he said, “was the events surrounding Bilohorivka, where stupidity – I emphasize because of the stupidity of the Russian command – at least one tactical battalion group, possibly two.”
British intelligence officials said on Sunday that Russia had lost a third of the ground forces it had deployed in the offensive in Ukraine. The attrition rate, if confirmed, would make it extremely difficult for Russia to secure a decisive victory against a well-motivated and increasingly armed and trained enemy, according to analysts.
But within Russia, the Kremlin’s propaganda and the repression of independent media have effectively protected the majority of the population from the real human cost of the war. The Russian government’s emergency economic measures have so far mitigated the effect of sanctions.
Western and Ukrainian officials say thousands of Russian soldiers have already died in the conflict. But reports of deaths have been heavily censored by the state and concentrated among working-class families across the world’s largest country, preventing local tragedies from merging into national mourning.
Many Russians believe the war is no longer against Ukraine but has turned into a proxy conflict with the United States and NATO, which they say are exploiting the conflict to destroy their nation, according to interviews with half a dozen Moscow residents and in provincial Siberia.
If pushed into a corner, Russia will always fight on, some of them said, even if it risks provoking nuclear war.
Finland’s and Sweden’s decision to apply to join NATO has only played on the siege narrative being put forward by the Kremlin, which played on patriotic feelings in a nation that prides itself on coming together to to fend off foreign threats for centuries.
For their part, both Nordic states have long been wary of Russian power.
Finland was part of the Russian Empire and fought to maintain its independence from the Soviet Union during World War II. Sweden and Russia fought to dominate Eastern Europe in the 18th century.
But Finland and Sweden both remained neutral after the Soviet Union confronted the United States and its allies in the aftermath of World War II. The end of that neutrality is a striking sign of the extent to which Mr Putin’s strategic calculation in Ukraine has backfired and undermined Russia’s long-standing security priorities.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Getting closer to NATO. The Finnish government announced that the nation would apply for NATO membership hours before the Swedish ruling party said it also supported joining the alliance. If accepted into NATO, both countries would set aside a long history of military non-alignment.
As the reason for his invasion of Ukraine, Mr Putin had said he was concerned about NATO’s expansion, and in particular the deployment of new missiles near Russia’s borders. This concern is shared by the majority of Russian citizens, who believe that the United States took advantage of their country’s weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union to bring missiles to its borders.
An application to join NATO must be unanimously approved by the 30 members. One such member, Turkey, has expressed concerns about the pending applications, although it has suggested it would not oppose admission if its own security concerns are removed.
US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Sunday after the Berlin meetings there was strong support among current NATO members to bring the two Nordic states into the alliance. US officials said their application processes should be completed within months, and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Sunday her country would be one of the first to ratify them.
The Baltic states joined NATO in 2004, bringing the alliance to the border with the Russian interior. And in 2008, President George W. Bush promised Ukraine and Georgia could join NATO and forced the alliance to make similar statements.
Western European countries, however, were reluctant to deliver on that promise. Before the war, both the United States and European allies had said that Ukraine would not be eligible to join NATO any time soon.
After Russia invaded, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, insisted that the Western powers heed his government’s desire to join NATO, but has since said he would be more open to a neutral Ukraine if its security is guaranteed.
On Sunday morning, Mr Blinken met in Berlin with Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, to discuss the war. The State Department said the two men were discussing details of further US security assistance to Ukraine.
Kuleba posted a photo of the two smiling in a room on Twitter. “More weapons and other aid are on their way to Ukraine,” he wrote.
Edward Won reported from Berlin, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Mexico City. Reporting contributed by Anton Trojanovskic from New York; Carlotta Gallo from Prudyanka, Ukraine; Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia; and Marc Santora from Krakow, Poland.