If NATO welcomes Finland and Sweden, Putin may head to Moldova

Finland is resolutely pursuing full NATO membership. In a joint statement issued on May 12, Finish President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin declared, “Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay. We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”  Sweden on Sunday announced that it, too, will be voting to join NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be pleased. Their entry into the alliance will be one more humiliating strategic defeat as he chases after some kind of Pyrrhic victory — having first failed in his blitzkrieg of Kyiv, and his troops now stalling in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

NATO admission for Helsinki and Stockholm is nearly a fait accompli. Early this month, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, “We have an American [security] assurance,” if Sweden applies to join NATO. White House press secretary Jen Psaki expanded this assurance to Finland, noting, “We are confident that we could find ways to address any concerns either country may have about the period of time between a NATO membership application and the formal accession to the alliance.” The United Kingdom went even further, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson extending substantive “written security assurances” to Finland on May 11.

Russia’s vowing “retaliatory steps” and cutting electricity to Finland will not be enough. Optically, Putin must react strategically, given his May9 Victory Day speech blaming NATO and its Eastern European expansion for making his “special military operation” a necessity in Ukraine. He may try again to assuage public fears by aggressively repositioning Russia Federation forces — possibly nuclear weapons as well — in forward positions along the Finnish border, though they were earlier withdrawn to fight in Ukraine.

Nuclear submarine penetrations of Finnish and Swedish territorial waters, long a Kremlin favorite military provocation, and Russian MiGs violating their airspace no longer will be an option under NATO’s Article 5. If he chooses to escalate, Putin will need to send a much harsher rejoinder to NATO expansion — Odessa and Moldova (and possibly Georgia) likely will be foremost in his crosshairs.

Odessa is one target of initial opportunity Putin may consider. The Russians repeatedly have struck Ukraine’s last remaining Black Sea port since the war began. In recent days, missile and aerial attacks have intensified. Seizing Odessa, however, likely would be only a stepping stone for a Russian invasion of Moldova, specifically the Russian-backed separatist region of Transnistria. Success there might well motivate Putin to subsequently attack Georgia, thereby bringing Tbilisi and all of the northern territory along the Black Sea coastline under Moscow’s control.

None of this would be easy, however. Putin already is struggling to advance his forces more than a kilometer or two in Donbas. Russia’s ground forces are badly depleted; its supply lines are under constant threat from highly effective Ukrainian rearguard action. Most prudent general officers would cut their losses and live to fight another day.

Yet, the Pentagon still surmises that Putin intends to be in the war for the long haul. Putin may decide to acquiesce on seizing all of Ukraine, but if he is in it for the duration, and willing to risk doubling down on defeat in search of a victory, then focusing in the near term on Russia’s aspirations of a land bridge extending from Donbas to Kherson to Odessa and all the way to Moldova may be his most likely course of action. If he can achieve it, he could permanently strangle Ukraine’s Black Sea centric economy in the process.

But can he? Short of a declaration of war against Ukraine, his ability to mobilize reserve forces and draft conscripts — which officials say Russia desperately needs amid a growing manpower shortage — is restricted. As Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, once said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” Putin’s army is not what his commanders lead him to believe. His ground forces may have hit their culmination point; estimates of nearly 25 percent casualty rates from their 190,000-strong invasion force have hampered his offensive capability. Much like Kyiv and Mariupol, Odessa would be a street fight and casualties would be high. This may force Putin’s military to go on the defensive, consolidate their gains and make the most of a bad situation. 

Russia’s attempts to entrench and solidify its land bridge is already underway. The first of what likely will be many “referendum votes” in captured territory took place on May 12. The Russian-installed puppet government in the Ukrainian city of Kherson said that it would be asking Putin to annex the Kherson oblast. A familiar tactic, “democratic referenda” were passed at the behest of Russian-backed separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts in 2014 during Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Neither Ukraine nor the international community likely will recognize any vote.

Securing Transnistria first, before moving on to Odessa, would be the most obtainable immediate objective in Putin’s playbook. It too, would come at a cost, but Russian forces have occupied the “breakaway state” in Moldova since 1992. They are familiar with the terrain and have the support of the Russian loyalist population. Once secure, combat power could be built up, threatening Odessa from the West.

Putin must make a move — all roads, at least those presently open to him, lead to either Odessa or Moldova. The expansion of NATO is the number one threat to Putin and his aspirations, and it severely undercuts his domestic propaganda and justification for the war in Ukraine. Nuclear saber-rattling is likely to continue, along with demonstrations of military force and capabilities, including menacing moves along Finland’s borders, aerial feints toward Finland’s and Sweden’s airspace, and aggressive naval challenges in the Baltic Sea. 

Yet, even Putin would have to concede that fighting a two-front war, with one against NATO, as unwinnable. Consequently, taking the road to Moldova and bypassing Odessa for now may be his only decisive way of reacting to two more European states deciding to join NATO.

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.

Mark Toth is an economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.

Tags Antony Blinken Finland Jen Psaki Moldova NATO Russian invasion of Ukraine Sanna Marin Sauli Niinistö Sweden Vladimir Putin

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