Russia says it will ‘reinforce borders’ if Sweden and Finland join Nato

Moscow has said it will be forced to strengthen its defences in the Baltic if Finland and Sweden join Nato, as the war in Ukraine entered its seventh week.Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

The former president Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chair of Russia’s security council, said on Thursday that Russia would bolster all its forces – including deploying nuclear weapons – in the region if the two Nordic countries joined the US-led alliance.

Finland and Sweden are both deliberating whether to abandon decades of military non-alignment and join Nato, with the two Nordic countries’ leaders saying Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine had changed Europe’s “whole security landscape”.

Their accession to the alliance would more than double Russia’s land border with Nato members, Medvedev said. “Naturally, we will have to reinforce these borders” by bolstering ground, air and naval defences in the region, he said.

Medvedev, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, also explicitly raised the nuclear threat, saying Finnish and Swedish Nato membership would mean there could be “no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic: the balance must be restored”.

Russia had “not taken such measures, and was not going to”, he said. “But if our hand is forced, well … take note it wasn’t us who proposed this.” Russia borders the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, said on Wednesday that Finland, which shares a 1,300km (810-mile) border with Russia, was likely to decide on a Nato application “within weeks”, while her Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson, said there was “no point delaying” the decision.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Russian forces, which have pulled back from northern Ukraine after failing to take the capital, were “increasing their activities on the southern and eastern fronts, attempting to avenge their defeats”.

The deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar said on Thursday that Russia was massing troops along the Russia-Ukraine border, in Belarus and in the breakaway Transdniestria region of Moldova, with the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia coming under missile attack.

The US unveiled a new military aid package, including armoured personnel carriers and helicopters, saying it was seeking to provide Ukraine with weapons that would give them “more range and distance” in advance of the anticipated attack.

Moscow said on Thursday that its Black Sea flagship, the Moskva, had been “seriously damaged” by an explosion that the defence ministry said was caused by ammunition detonating “as a result of a fire”. Ukraine said the cruiser had been hit by a missile.

Although the defence ministry later said the fire had been put out, news of the loss overshadowed Russian claims of advances in the devastated southern port city of Mariupol, largely reduced to rubble by a brutal six-week bombardment that the local mayor has said killed more than 21,000 civilians.

Russia claimed on Wednesday that more than 1,000 Ukrainian marines had surrendered in the city, adding later that the port was under its full control. But Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on Thursday the battle over the seaport was “still ongoing today”.

Mariupol is a key target in Moscow’s push to secure a land corridor between the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk in Donbas and Crimea, which Russia occupied and annexed in 2014, and its capture would allow the Kremlin’s military planners to redeploy vital resources farther east.

The Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said nine humanitarian corridors had been agreed to evacuate civilians, including by private car, from Mariupol, Berdiansk, Tokmak and Enerhodar, on Thursday, with others in Luhansk due to open if Russian forces stopped shelling.

The Russian retreat from around Kyiv has led to the discovery of large numbers of apparently massacred civilians, drawing international condemnation and calls for a war crimes investigation. The Hague-based international criminal court, which deals with rights abuses, told reporters the country had become a “crime scene”.

The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, said on a visit to Bucha, where officials say more than 400 civilians died: “We’re here because we have reasonable grounds to believe that crimes within the jurisdiction of the court are being committed.” Moscow has rejected all reports of atrocities, which Putin has dismissed as “fakes”.

Russia’s invasion has so far driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, more than 4.6 million of whom have fled abroad. Western sanctions have triggered Russia’s worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, analysts say. More than 600 western companies have pulled out of country.

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