Russia’s geopolitical goals, its overall confrontation with the west, and its war against Ukraine will continue to be key to dimensioning Moscow’s military planning. Its rhetoric and threats are, however, what Russia has left in its arsenal to deter Sweden.

Small countries are, by definition, not sovereign according to Russian thinking. This is clear when Moscow talks about Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO accession. In his annual address to Parliament on 29 February this year, Vladimir Putin warned that Russia will need to answer to the threat that arises as “Sweden and Finland are pulled into NATO.” The notion that NATO accession was a sovereign decision — and came about as a direct consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — appears alien to Moscow’s security thinking.

In military strategic terms, Russia has found itself in a more exposed position in northern Europe since Sweden and Finland joined NATO. Russia has also suffered a political defeat, and Putin has lost face. Rather than pushing NATO back in Europe, the war has resulted in a NATO that has rediscovered a sense of mission and that is able to make plans and practical preparations by involving Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea region. This was not part of Moscow’s plan.

Russia’s Military Response

Only days after Putin spoke at the national legislature, Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu claimed that the Russian decision to re-establish the Leningrad and Moscow military districts was a direct response to Sweden’s NATO accession. However, these plans — first announced by the Defence Ministry in December 2022 — are likely part of a larger reorganisation to meet the military threats that Moscow deems most urgent. Russia braces itself for a long-term confrontation with the west, and the war against Ukraine permeates just about everything in Russian security policy and military planning at present.

Russia finds itself in a worse military strategic position in northern Europe now, compared to pre-February 2022. All other countries around the Baltic Sea are NATO members. Initially, Moscow put on a brave face, claiming that the two Nordic Allies were always part of the “collective west” anyway. However, for Russia’s military planners, NATO enlargement signifies that Finland and Sweden will be integrated into the Alliance’s standing command structure with assigned resources, responsibilities, and tasks. It makes practical preparations within a NATO framework possible, which already manifested in joint exercises such as Nordic Response 2024 in northern Scandinavia this March.

Russia has reiterated its need to respond by “military-technical measures” since 2022. This is an intentionally vague term that Moscow resorts not only in order to emphasise its displeasure but also to influence decision-making in the west. Apart from re-organising the military districts, Moscow intends to upgrade a total of seven motorised infantry brigades to divisions (that is, not only in the Leningrad military district) and to create an army corps in Karelia. The plan is for Russia’s Armed Forces to grow up to 1.5 million troops.

However, these are the plans, and they are probably prompted by the urgency to deliver more manpower to sustain the war in Ukraine rather than by the situation in the Baltic Sea region. It takes time, years to train and equip soldiers and officers, to build units that can act jointly in a large military operation.  So far, satellite images and other reports indicate that units from all five of Russia’s military districts, including in the Baltic Sea region, are being deployed to Ukraine rather than growing in strength and bolstering the new Leningrad formation.

Security Policy Considerations for Moscow

Even before February 2022, Moscow considered itself entangled in a confrontation with the west — the notion that is now deeply entrenched in Russian security thinking. It is difficult to separate what is a Russian response to Swedish NATO accession rather than part of this overall struggle with what Russia terms “the collective west.” Putin’s first comments following Finland’s and later Sweden’s applications to join NATO were cautious. On 16 May 2022, he claimed that this was not an immediate threat but added that any forward positioning of “NATO’s military infrastructure” would elicit a response from Russia. Again, his vagueness was probably intentional.

Moscow misjudged not only Ukraine’s ability and resolve to defend itself against Russia’s full-scale invasion but also the response from the west. In May 2022, Russia was further from achieving its ambition of establishing political control over Ukraine and pushing back NATO in Europe than before the invasion. Preventing further NATO enlargement has been a consistent Russian security policy goal, yet thirteen Allies — out of the sixteen countries that joined after the Cold War — have done so on Putin’s watch. It is a security policy defeat that Putin would rather not be associated with.

Russian Rhetoric and Military Power

The aggression against Ukraine currently demands the majority of military resources that Russia is able to muster, and this will be the case as long as fighting continues at its present intensity. Moscow’s geopolitical goals are long-term, and the overall confrontation with the west as well as the war against Ukraine will remain key to dimensioning Moscow’s military planning.

Harsh rhetoric and threats are, however, the main tools that Russia has in its arsenal in northern Europe in order to deter Sweden from building military power and NATO from prepositioning weapons and equipment. As was the case with the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad in 2016-18, Moscow will repeatedly sabre-rattle with its plans for the Leningrad military district in an effort to deter Swedish military preparations. The goal is to influence decision-making in Stockholm, as well as that in Helsinki and Brussels. There is, however, nothing to indicate that refraining from building a credible western military deterrence in northern Europe will make Russia scale back its own plans and abandon its security policy objectives.

The author is Dr and Deputy Research Director at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), where she heads the Russia and Eurasia Programme ( She is a fellow of RSAWS.
The article was originally published by the ICDS in the special issue of Diplomaatia for the Lennart Meri Conference. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). Link to the article: