HELSINKI (AP) — Finland’s leaders said on Thursday they favor a swift application for NATO membership, paving the way for a historic expansion of the alliance that could deal a major blow to Russia as its military struggles with its war in Ukraine is struggling with.
The announcement by President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin means Finland is all but certain to join the western military alliance, although there are still steps to be taken before the application process can begin. Neighboring Sweden is expected to decide on NATO membership in the coming days.
“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the overall defense alliance,” Niinisto and Marin said in a joint statement.
“Finland must immediately apply for NATO membership,” they said. “We hope that the national steps still necessary for this decision will be initiated quickly in the next few days.”
Russia responded to the development with a warning. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Finland’s NATO entry “would cause serious damage to Russian-Finnish relations and to stability and security in northern Europe.”
“Russia will be forced to take retaliatory measures of a military-technical and other nature to counter the emerging threats to its national security,” the ministry said.
“History will determine why Finland had to turn its territory into a bulwark of military conflicts with Russia while losing its independence in making its own decisions,” it added.
Before the ministry made its statement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Finland’s decision would not help stability and security in Europe. Peskov said Russia’s response would depend on NATO’s efforts to expand its infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders.
Of all 27 member states of the European Union, Finland has the longest border with Russia.
The Kremlin had previously warned of “military and political consequences” if Sweden and Finland decided to join NATO. Should they attempt to join the alliance, there would be a transition period from the submission of applications to ratification by legislators in all 30 existing member states.
In NATO-member Estonia, which also borders Russia, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted that “our northern neighbors are making history.” She pledged to support Finland’s “rapid accession process” to NATO.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde tweeted that Finland’s announcement was an “important message”.
Finland’s announcement came a day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited both Finland and Sweden to sign a military cooperation agreement.
The UK on Wednesday promised to come to the aid of Sweden and Finland if the two Nordic nations were attacked.
During a joint press conference with Johnson this week in Helsinki, Niinisto said Moscow has only itself to blame should its nation of 5.5 million become a NATO member.
“They (Russia) caused this. Look in the mirror,” said the Finnish head of state on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Niinisto tweeted for speaking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about Finland’s firm support for Ukraine and the country’s intention to join NATO. Niinisto said Zelenskyy “expressed his full support for it”.
In 2017, Sweden and Finland joined the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, which is designed to be more flexible and responsive than the larger NATO alliance. The force uses NATO standards and doctrines so it can operate in conjunction with the Alliance, the United Nations or other multinational coalitions.
The force has been fully operational since 2018 and has conducted a number of exercises both independently and in cooperation with NATO.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine prompted Finland and Sweden to reconsider their traditions of military non-alignment and thinking about joining NATO yourself. Public opinion in the two countries quickly began to shift in favor of membership, first in Finland and somewhat later in Sweden after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
The latest public opinion poll, conducted by Finnish public broadcaster YLE earlier this week, showed that 76% of Finns are in favor of joining NATO, a big change from previous years when only 20-30% of respondents wanted such a military one endorsed alignment.
When Niinisto and Marin made their announcement on Thursday, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, speaking to European Union lawmakers, said Russia’s unpredictable behavior was a serious problem for Finland. He referred to Moscow’s willingness to conduct “high-risk operations” that could result in many casualties, including among Russians.
Should Finland join NATO, it would be the biggest shift in the Nordic country’s defense and security policies since World War II, when it fought the Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from NATO so as not to provoke the Soviet Union, choosing instead to remain a neutral buffer between East and West while maintaining good relations with Moscow and also the United States.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance will welcome Finland and Sweden – both of which have strong, modern militaries – with open arms and he expects a quick and smooth accession process.
NATO officials say the Nordic duo’s accession process could be completed “in a couple of weeks”. The most time-consuming part of the process – the ratification of the country’s protocol by existing NATO members – could be completed in less time than the roughly four months it took West Germany, Turkey and Greece to join in the 1950s when it only gave 12 members ratifying their motions.
“These are not normal times,” a NATO official said this week, discussing possible requests from Finland and Sweden. The official briefed reporters on the accession process on the condition that he not be named as no application had been made by the two countries.
Lorne Cook in Brussels and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark contributed to this report.
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