One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies warned NATO on Thursday that if Sweden and Finland joined the US-led military alliance then Russia would deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in an exclave in the heart of Europe.
Finland, which shares a 1,300km (810-mile) border with Russia, and Sweden are considering joining the NATO alliance.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said that, should Sweden and Finland join NATO, then Russia would have to strengthen its land, naval and air forces in the Baltic Sea.
Medvedev also explicitly raised the nuclear threat on Thursday by saying that there could be no more talk of a “nuclear-free” Baltic – where Russia has its Kaliningrad exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.
“There can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic – the balance must be restored,” said Medvedev, who was Russian president from 2008 to 2012.
Medvedev said he hoped Finland and Sweden would see sense. If not, he said, they would have to live with nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles close to home.
Russia has the world’s biggest arsenal of nuclear warheads and, along with China and the United States, is one of the global leaders in hypersonic missile technology.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked about Medvedev’s comments by journalists, said that “this has been talked about many times” and President Vladimir Putin has issued an order on “reinforcing our western flank” due to NATO’s growing military potential.
Asked if this reinforcement would include nuclear weapons, Peskov said, “I can’t say … There will be a whole list of measures, necessary steps. This will be covered at a separate meeting by the president.”
Lithuania said Russia’s threats were nothing new and that Moscow had deployed nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad long before the war in Ukraine.
There was no immediate comment from NATO on Russia’s warning. Still, the possible accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO – founded in 1949 to provide Western security against the Soviet Union – would be one of the biggest strategic consequences of the war in Ukraine.
Moscow’s military actions in Ukraine have sparked a dramatic U-turn in public and political opinion in both Finland and Sweden about long-held policies of military non-alignment.
Finland said this week it will decide whether to apply for NATO membership within weeks and Sweden is also discussing membership.
Kaliningrad, formerly the port of Koenigsberg, capital of East Prussia, lies less than 1,400km from London and Paris and 500km from Berlin.
Russia said in 2018 it had deployed Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, which was captured by the Red Army in April 1945 and ceded to the Soviet Union at the Potsdam conference.
The Iskander, known as SS-26 Stone by NATO, is a short-range tactical ballistic missile system that can carry nuclear warheads. Its official range is 500km but some Western military sources suspect it may be much greater.
“No sane person wants higher prices and higher taxes, increased tensions along borders, Iskanders, hypersonics and ships with nuclear weapons literally at arm’s length from their own home,” Medvedev said.
“Let’s hope that the common sense of our northern neighbours will win.”
While Putin is Russia’s paramount leader, Medvedev’s comments have reflected Kremlin thinking and he is a senior member of the security council – one of Putin’s main chambers for decision making on strategic issues.
Lithuanian Defence Minister Arvydas Anusauskas said Russia had deployed nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad even before the war.
“Nuclear weapons have always been kept in Kaliningrad … the international community, the countries in the region, are perfectly aware of this,” Anusauskas was quoted as saying by BNS. “They use it as a threat.”
Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine has killed thousands of people, displaced millions and raised fears of a wider confrontation between Russia and the US – by far the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.
Putin has said the “special military operation” in Ukraine is necessary because the US was using Ukraine to threaten Russia and Moscow had to defend against the persecution of Russian-speaking people.
Ukraine has said it is fighting an imperial-style land grab and that Putin’s claims of genocide are nonsense. US President Joe Biden has said Putin is a “war criminal” and a “dictator”.
Putin has claimed the conflict in Ukraine is part of a much broader confrontation with the US which he said is trying to enforce its hegemony even as its dominance over the international order declines.