Vladimir Putin has warned Sweden off joining NATO
In a sinister speech the Kremlin chief said relations between Stockholm and Moscow would plummet in the event of the former acceding to the trans-Atlantic military alliance.
And Mr Putin strongly hinted he would take retaliatory action in such a scenario, saying Russia could not stand by and tolerate NATO moving ever closer to its borders.
It is thought highly unlikely that any response would be military, although tensions have risen so much in recent months that the Kremlin has unnervingly been forced to deny that it has “any plans to invade Sweden”.
Instead Moscow would probably take diplomatic steps, such as reducing cooperation, and possibly even introduce economic measures designed to demonstrate its displeasure at the expansion of NATO.
Mr Putin said: “If Sweden joins NATO this will affect our relations in a negative way because we will consider that the infrastructure of the military bloc now approaches us from the Swedish side.”
In an interview with Russian state news agency TASS last week, he added: “We will interpret that as an additional threat for Russia and we will think about how to eliminate this threat.”
However, he immediately dismissed the possibility of military action against Sweden, saying it would represent a “hysterical” reaction that the Kremlin would never take.
He said that “only a sick person” would suggest Moscow is ready to launch missile strikes on Stockholm, but also noted that NATO membership would add “simply nil” in the way of defense capability improvements to Sweden.
We will think about how to eliminate this threat
The Kremlin chief said: “This does not quite mean that we will become hysterical and we will aim our nuclear missiles at Sweden.
“But we will be obliged to undertake something because we see this as an additional threat to Russia.”
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Sweden, alongside its neighbour Finland, is currently not a member of NATO with the duo having chosen not to join the alliance in the aftermath of the Second World War.
But in recent months the election of Donald Trump, combined with unease over Russian actions in the Ukraine and the Baltic, have led to growing calls for Stockholm to sign up.
A NATO review, carried out by a panel of experts last year, warned that Sweden and Finland should stick together on defence cooperation, meaning either both join NATO or neither does.
NATO countries' heads of states gather in Brussels Thu, May 25, 2017
NATO countries' heads of states and governments gather in Brussels for a one-day meeting
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U.S. President Donald Trump and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May react during a ceremony at the new NATO headquarters in Brussels
Russian officials view the expansion of the Western military alliance with alarm and believe that it is a threat attempting to encircle Moscow and weaken its clout on the global stage.
But NATO itself is a defence-orientated organisation, and many of its new members on Russia’s frontiers have joined up because they are worried about increasing aggression from the Kremlin.
Currently only Montenegro, which is part of the former USSR but is far from Moscow’s land borders, is on the list of potential countries set to be inducted into the alliance.
The three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania plus Poland, which shares a border with the enclave of Kaliningrad, are currently the only NATO states with direct land frontiers with Russia.