Putin backs down over Nato expansion as Ukrainian troops reach his border

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The Russian president – who has repeatedly insisted that Nato expansion was a key reason for his onslaught – conceded Stockholm and Helsinki joining the military alliance will not pose an “immediate threat”. He said that “Russia has no problem with these states – none” in joining Nato.

But the despot threatened to respond if Nato bases or weapons systems are established in either nation.

Sweden’s prime minister Magdalena Andersson yesterday confirmed her country will join Finland in a “historic change in our country’s security policy”.

The UK has signed security deals to protect both countries and British troops would be sent to defend them from Russian forces.

Ms Andersson said Sweden would refuse to allow nuclear weapons or Nato bases on its soil, which are similar conditions to neighbouring

Scandinavian nations Norway and Denmark. She added: “We will inform Nato that we want to become a member of the alliance.

“Sweden needs formal security guarantees that come with membership in Nato.”

Putin responded by saying: “There is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion [of Nato] to include these countries.

“But the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response.What that will be – we will see what threats are created for us.”

Like Finland, Sweden was neutral throughout the Cold War but formed closer relations with Nato after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the governments of Finland and Sweden began cross-party discussions about Nato membership and reached out to the US, the UK, Germany and other members of the military alliance for their support. Public backing for joining also soared.

Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin said: “Our security environment has fundamentally changed. The only country that threatens European security, and is now openly waging a war of aggression, is Russia.” Founding

Nato members Norway and Iceland offered to defend both countries in case of attack.

Norwegian leader Jonas Gahr Stoere said: “Together with Denmark and Iceland, Norway stands ready to assist by all means necessary should they be the victim of aggression on their territory before obtaining Nato membership.”

Any decision requires approval by all 30 members of the alliance and their parliaments. Turkey is against Sweden and Finland joining but diplomats believe president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under pressure to yield as the two countries would greatly strengthen Nato in the Baltic Sea.

Meanwhile, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko – Putin’s key ally in the Ukraine war – urged other members of the Eurasia alliance CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) to respond by standing united.

He made his plea to Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as he accused the West of trying to prolong the conflict.

He added: “Without a united front, the collective West will build up pressure on the post-Soviet space.”

Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said Nato expansion would be a “grave mistake with far-reaching consequences”. He added: “The general level of military tensions will increase. They should have no illusions that we will just put up with this. It is a pity common sense is being sacrificed for some phantom ideas.”

Meanwhile, Putin’s invasion suffered a further setback as triumphant Ukrainian soldiers proudly planted the colours of their flag in the ground at the Russian border.

They successfully drove Kremlin forces back after retaking second city Kharkiv.

Regional governor Oleh Synyehubov said: “We are fighting 24/7 so it’s hard to say whether it’s a permanent result.

“We experience Russian conquering from different sides. We still have severe fighting.”

The Russian military has also appeared to give up on encircling Ukrainian troops between the cities of Donetsk and Izyum in the eastern Donbas region.

Moscow is now expected to prioritise seizing the nearby Luhansk area, with Russia now believed to be weeks behind schedule in its invasion plans in the east.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky warned: “We are preparing for new attempts by Russia to attack in Donbas.”

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