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As Finland and Sweden’s political leadership prepare to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s worst nightmare—Putin is suddenly projecting calm, stating just this week that he has “no problems” with Finland and Sweden joining the collective defense organization.
“As for the expansion, including the accession of two prospective new members, Finland and Sweden, I would like to inform you, colleagues, that Russia has no problems with these states,” Putin said Monday at a summit of the Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). “No problems at all!”
The somewhat frantic claim that he is keeping his cool has garnered headlines around the world, particularly because his comments stand in stark contrast to some of his previous threats. Just earlier this month Moscow warned about consequences of NATO expansion, threatening a military response if Finland were to join NATO.
“Finland’s accession to NATO will cause serious damage to bilateral Russian-Finnish relations and the maintaining of stability and security in the Northern European region,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said earlier this month. “Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to neutralize the threats to its national security that arise from this.”
But the impending expansion of NATO, which was designed to counter Russian influence in Europe in the first place, is almost certainly stirring panic for Putin and his inner circle, and all his statements showing he’s keeping his cool are all just an act, former U.S. intelligence officials and Putin watchers warn.
Rather than turning a new leaf, Putin is now likely just trying his best to tamp down his panic about an expanding NATO and bide his time, rather than let it look like his worst fears about NATO are actually coming true, according to Josh Manning, a former Russian military analyst at the Defense Department’s European Command.
“It was a 180 from where they were a few days ago,” Manning told The Daily Beast. “We’ve seen that… throughout this entire conflict is that there’s all this bluster, but then when you actually kind of call them out or actually try to… poke the bear, the bear kind of yawns a little bit.”
Putin’s veneer of calm about more European nations joining NATO now, just days after his foreign ministry puffed up its chest about the news, is just a classic example of “Russian bluster” faltering, Manning said.
“When you see it play out in real time, it really just kind of falls on its face,” said Manning, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. We’re “seeing that kind of walking back.”
But the statement isn’t just about acting unbothered—the step back from saber-rattling might help give Putin some wiggle room to reposition himself on the world stage to recover from some of his missteps in the war, which has gone on for nearly three months without any decisive victory.
Putin’s military forces have suffered great losses since the beginning of the war—they’ve lost one third of the ground combat force so far, according to British government intelligence analysis shared this week—and they have been incapable of achieving most of Putin’s ambitious goals, such as capturing the Ukrainian capital, since Putin launched the war.
Putin was so confident of his military might that he had drawn up a plan to install a pro-Kremlin puppet regime in Kyiv, which has also fallen flat on its face.
Putin, at this point, is probably feeling quite powerless in the face of an expanding NATO—particularly because his plans in the buildup to the so-called “special” military operation in Ukraine included demands that NATO roll back its military buildup to 1997 levels when NATO membership was significantly smaller—Dan Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow chief of station, told The Daily Beast.
“He’s saying that not because they are not a threat but because he can’t do anything about it,” Hoffman said.
Putin’s seemingly blasé statement this week on Finland and Sweden belies both the fear he has about an expanding NATO and the anxiety he almost certainly feels given the war in Ukraine hasn’t been a swift victory or gone according to plan—an already grim reality for Putin that’s just hastened the interest in NATO, Ronald Marks, a former special assistant to the assistant director of central intelligence for military affairs at the CIA, told The Daily Beast.
“He’s really caught off base here,” Marks, a former CIA clandestine service officer, said. “The invasion didn’t work the way he planned. They certainly didn’t have any idea that he just gave a reason for NATO to come into existence again. And Sweden and Finland are a big blow.”
In many ways, he has precipitated the very outcome he didn’t want—a stronger NATO—instead of downgrading it, and now has to accept sitting back on his haunches and see the consequences of his bad decision-making play out.
“He really blew it and I think is trying to downplay it at this point,” Marks said.
Putin hasn’t abandoned all posturing about NATO’s expansion, though. Although Putin claimed in remarks early this week to have no problem with Finland and Sweden joining NATO, in the same breath, just moments later, Putin clarified he does have a problem if there are military implications from their accession—and there almost certainly will be given NATO is a defense organization.
“There is no direct threat to Russia in connection with NATO’s expansion to these countries,” Putin said. “But the expansion of its military infrastructure to these territories will certainly evoke a response on our part.”
He didn’t go so far as to detail how Russia’s response would take shape or when he would determine what “threats” would come from Finland and Sweden’s accession.
“He really envisioned himself as being… someone who is one of the major players in the world… and I think he was looking at this as a breakout moment… a way of him showing himself off,” Marks said. “And not only did he not do that, but he’s embarrassed himself worldwide.”
Now, Putin is likely looking for some kind off-ramp, and pretending that Finland and Sweden aren’t actually that threatening is the perfect route to take.