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In Stockholm, a Russian-born Swedish man, Sergei Skvortsov, has been cleared by a court of charges relating to alleged unlawful intelligence activities against the US and Sweden. The 60-year-old, who operated import-export businesses, was accused of transmitting Western technology to Russia’s military intelligence service over a nine-year period from 2013 to 2022. Throughout the trial, Skvortsov has maintained his innocence.

His defense lawyer, Ulrika Borg, expressed his relief at the verdict, although prosecutors still have three weeks to appeal. The prosecution, led by Henrik Olin, contended that Skvortsov functioned as a “procurement agent,” facilitating the supply of electronics to Russia’s military and its GRU military intelligence service. Olin sought a five-year prison term for Skvortsov, characterizing him as a serious threat to US and Swedish security.

Skvortsov and his wife were arrested in a dramatic dawn raid conducted by special forces in November 2022. However, his wife was subsequently released without charge. The trial largely took place behind closed doors, and testimony was provided by an FBI official.

Although the judge acknowledged that Skvortsov had engaged in many of the activities outlined by the prosecution, he emphasized that there was no evidence to suggest that Skvortsov’s actions were intended for espionage purposes. Consequently, the court ruled in favor of Skvortsov’s acquittal.

The case occurred amidst a backdrop of heightened tensions in Sweden concerning espionage, with the country applying for membership in NATO in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. In a separate incident, a couple in their mid-50s was arrested on suspicion of handling classified information, with the wife having a background in intelligence work for Sweden’s military. Her husband, a former high-ranking military officer, has denied the allegations.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed accusations that Russia was responsible for the recent damage to the Baltic-connector gas pipeline between Finland and Estonia. Finnish officials, however, suspect external interference and possible Russian involvement.

Estonia’s Defense Minister also suggested that the damage was caused by more than just normal means. Despite this, President Putin denied any knowledge of the pipeline’s existence and suggested that the blame could lie with an anchor or seismic activity.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed solidarity with Estonia and Finland, warning of a united response if the damage is proven to be deliberate. Finnish authorities confirmed that the damage was not due to regular usage or pressure changes and emphasized that the country’s energy security remains intact due to alternative gas sources. The incident has reignited concerns about energy security after previous Nord Stream pipeline incidents.

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Amid growing concerns about the presence of Wagner forces in the region, Poland is making preparations to deploy approximately 10,000 troops to its eastern border with Belarus. The Wagner troops, affiliated with Russia and stationed in Belarus, were reportedly involved in a brief rebellion. Poland’s Defense Minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, revealed that out of the total troop count, 4,000 soldiers will directly support border guards, while the remaining 6,000 will be in reserve.

Blaszczak cited alleged instances of Polish airspace violations by Belarusian military aircraft as a justification for the deployment. Belarus dismissed these accusations, labeling them as unfounded. Blaszczak emphasized the significance of such airspace violations and termed them a provocative act.

Blaszczak further asserted that events in Belarus are closely coordinated with Russia’s actions. Additionally, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu discussed plans to bolster Russian forces along its western borders, attributing the decision to increased militarization in Poland.

Poland has recently raised concerns about Wagner forces within Belarus. Notably, heightened activity has been observed in the Suwalki gap, a narrow land strip between Poland and Lithuania. Wagner forces appear to be moving in that direction, possibly to exert pressure on NATO and EU member states. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki even warned about the possibility of Wagner fighters disguising themselves as migrants to cross the border.

Lithuania, another neighboring country of Belarus, has also fortified its borders, citing the threat posed by Wagner fighters.

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given his support to Sweden’s bid to join NATO, according to the alliance’s chief, Jens Stoltenberg. Erdogan has agreed to forward Sweden’s application to the Turkish parliament for ratification, ending months of Turkish opposition.

The decision comes after Sweden addressed Turkey’s security concerns by amending its constitution, changing laws, intensifying counter-terrorism efforts against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), and resuming arms exports to Turkey. The announcement was made following discussions between Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The NATO chief hailed the agreement as a “historic step” but couldn’t provide a specific timeline for Sweden’s accession as it depended on the Turkish parliament. The United States and other NATO members have welcomed Turkey’s support and expressed readiness to work with both Turkey and Sweden to enhance defense and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area.

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In Sweden, a Kurdish man has been sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for various crimes, including an attempt to finance terrorism. This is the first instance where Sweden’s updated anti-terrorism laws have been utilized in a case involving the Kurdish militant group PKK. Turkey has long urged Sweden to take action against Kurdish separatists. Sweden’s aspirations to join NATO have been delayed, primarily due to Turkey’s demand for the extradition of individuals it considers terrorists.

Ahead of a NATO summit, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson is set to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Lithuania. Sweden is hopeful for NATO membership and has received support from President Joe Biden. The timing of the court case was emphasized by commentators, who noted that it conveyed a message to Ankara that Sweden was cracking down on the PKK.

The convicted Kurdish man, who has Turkish origins, will be deported after serving his sentence. The judge highlighted that Sweden’s NATO bid did not influence the court’s decision. Last month, Sweden strengthened its anti-terrorism laws to criminalize arranging meetings to provide financial or other assistance to banned groups. Critics raised concerns about potential impacts on freedom of speech.

The sentencing coincided with a significant meeting in Brussels involving the foreign ministers of Sweden, Turkey, and Finland, ahead of the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius. Finland’s Foreign Minister expressed hopes for a swift announcement regarding Sweden’s NATO membership. Turkey’s President has voiced reservations about Sweden’s bid, emphasizing the need for further action.

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The number of soldiers injured in violent fights with ethnic Serbs by the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, KFOR, has increased to 30.

In one of the municipalities in northern Kosovo where ethnic Albanian mayors took office last week, the Serbs had attempted to seize control of the offices.

According to the statement released on Tuesday, 19 Hungarian and 11 Italian soldiers “sustained multiple injuries, including fractures and burns from improvised explosive incendiary devices.”

Three Hungarian soldiers were “wounded by the use of firearms,” the statement continued, although their wounds were not life-threatening.

Some of the clashes happened in Zvecan, a municipality 45 kilometres (28 miles) north of Pristina, the capital.

According to KFOR commander Major-General Angelo Michele Ristuccia, “Both parties need to fully accept responsibility for what happened and prevent any further escalation, rather than hide behind false narratives.”

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In a small crew room near the runway of Estonia’s Amari airbase, members of the Quick Reaction Force for Nato’s Baltic Air Policing mission are gathered. They were watching old episodes of Friends when they receive an alert about a suspicious Russian aircraft, referred to as a “Zombie.” The crew quickly moves to the Operations Room where they analyze incoming data on screens and digital maps marked as “Nato Secret.”

The RAF’s IX Squadron of Typhoon fighter jets, based at Amari airbase, has taken over the mission from Germany’s Richthofen Squadron. Nato’s focus has shifted to securing its eastern borders due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The goal is to deter Russia from further invasions, particularly targeting Nato countries like the Baltic states or Poland.

A “Zombie” aircraft refers to a Russian plane that is not following standard procedures, such as filing a flight plan, communicating with air traffic control, or responding to communication attempts. The Typhoon pilots scramble to their aircraft whenever an alarm sounds, responding as if it were a real threat. They quickly get airborne and intercept the aircraft.

The Baltic Sea is bordered by seven Nato members, soon to be eight with Finland’s inclusion. However, Russia still maintains strategic positions in the Baltic region, with St Petersburg and the exclave of Kaliningrad. Russian aircraft frequently fly between these bases, keeping Nato forces on high alert.

When intercepting the Russian aircraft, the Typhoon pilots identify them, receive further instructions from the Operations Center, and respond accordingly. While the Rules of Engagement are classified, the pilots often take photographs of the intercepted aircraft as they escort them past Nato airspace.

The RAF pilots have conducted eight interception missions, all against Russian aircraft. The illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia has heightened the importance of Baltic air policing. Efforts are also being made to bolster ground forces in the region to deter potential Russian aggression.

Nato’s “enhanced forward presence” policy includes a multinational Battle Group based in northern Estonia. It consists of British-led forces, including main battle tanks, rocket systems, helicopters, and French Foreign Legionnaires. This presence acts as a deterrent, with the hope of avoiding escalation.

However, the current forces in place are relatively small compared to Russia’s capabilities. Nato acknowledges that its presence in Estonia would act as a “tripwire,” triggering rapid reinforcement if Russian forces were to advance westward. If necessary, Nato forces would move east and engage in combat with Russia.

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As Finland becomes the Western alliance’s 31st member, the Finnish flag will be raised at the Nato headquarters in Brussels. Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland, and the secretary of state of the United States will attend a ceremony to officially join NATO.

The addition of Finland is a blow for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who frequently bemoaned Nato’s growth prior to his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s border with NATO members has now doubled in length.

In response to Russia’s conflict, Finland and Sweden officially asked to join NATO in May. Finland and Russia share an eastern border of 1,340 km (832 miles). They had both previously decided to follow a non-alignment policy. But, following the invasion of Ukraine, they decided to rely on NATO’s Article Five, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

It effectively means that, in the event of an invasion, all Nato countries, including the US, would support Finland. Following Russia’s invasion, support for Finland’s membership in NATO increased to 80%.

According to Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, this will strengthen NATO and make Finland safer. “President Putin has a clear goal of having less Nato along its borders and no more membership in Europe, but he’s achieving exactly the opposite,” said one observer.

The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Stockholm of welcoming Kurdish militants and allowing them to hold public demonstrations, which has put an end to Sweden’s application for the time being. Hungary still needs to ratify Sweden’s membership. Nato, according to Mr. Stoltenberg, will ensure that Sweden becomes the next member to join. 

Nato will now have seven members on the Baltic Sea, further isolating Russia’s coastal access to St Petersburg and its small exclave of Kaliningrad.

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NATO has issued a strong condemnation of what it calls “dangerous” Russian nuclear rhetoric, following recent statements from Moscow regarding the potential use of nuclear weapons.

In a statement released on Friday, the military alliance called on Russia to refrain from using “provocative language” and to abide by international commitments to arms control.

“NATO is deeply concerned by recent statements from Russia regarding its willingness to use nuclear weapons,” the statement read. “This kind of rhetoric is dangerous and destabilizing, and undermines efforts to reduce tensions and promote stability.”

The statement comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin recently warned that Russia would use nuclear weapons in response to any threat to its sovereignty or territorial integrity. Putin’s comments followed the deployment of NATO forces to the Baltic States and Poland in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has also expressed concern over the deployment of Russian missile systems in Europe, which he says violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

“We call on Russia to return to full compliance with the INF Treaty and to engage in meaningful dialogue to resolve the issue,” Stoltenberg said in a statement earlier this month.

The INF Treaty, signed by the United States and Soviet Union in 1987, banned the development and deployment of ground-launched missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

NATO’s condemnation of Russian nuclear rhetoric comes amid heightened tensions between the alliance and Russia over issues including Ukraine, Syria and the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK.

The military alliance has sought to counter what it sees as Russia’s aggressive behavior in recent years, by increasing its military presence in eastern Europe and strengthening its defenses against potential Russian aggression.

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Poland has promised a significant increase in defence budget, citing the conflict in Ukraine as justification. It is the most recent nation in Europe to announce an increase in military spending due to the conflict.

Just under 2.5% of Poland’s GDP is allocated to the military, but the prime minister intends to raise that percentage to 4% this year. Mateusz Morawiecki pleaded with Germany last week to permit the export of Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine.

In addition, he noted that increasing defence spending to 4% “could mean that this will be the highest percentage… among all Nato countries.” Poland, which shares a border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, previously announced that it would purchase 116 US-made Abrams tanks, with the first deliveries scheduled to begin this spring.

Numerous Western nations have reviewed and, in many cases, increased their military spending as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beginning in 2024, members of the Nato Western military alliance will spend at least 2% of their GDP, a measure of a nation’s economic output, on defence. The alliance has long sought to achieve the percentage of 2%.

Recently, France announced plans for a significant expansion of its armed forces, partially in response to the conflict in Ukraine. France said the next seven-year budget will rise from €295 billion to €413 billion (£360 billion) from 2024 to 2030.

As part of their efforts to join NATO, Sweden and Finland have pledged significant increases in their military spending.

Germany committed an additional €100 billion of the budget to the military forces in the days following the invasion in February 2022.

Additionally, the UK committed to raising spending to 2.5% of GDP in June under former prime minister Boris Johnson.

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