Helsinki (AFP) Finland’s leaders said Thursday they support a swift bid for NATO membership, paving the way for a historic expansion of the alliance that could deal a serious blow to Russia as its military struggles in its war in Ukraine..
The announcement by President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin means that Finland will almost certainly join the Western Military Alliance, although there are still a few steps before the application process begins. Neighboring Sweden is expected to decide to seek NATO membership in the coming days.
NATO membership will enhance Finland’s security. “As a member of NATO, Finland will strengthen the entire defense alliance,” Niinistö and Marin said in a joint statement.
“Finland should apply for NATO membership without delay,” they said. “We hope that the national steps that are still necessary to make this decision can be taken quickly within the next few days.”
Russia responded to the development with a warning. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Finland’s accession to NATO “will seriously harm Russian-Finnish relations, as well as stability and security in Northern Europe.”
“Russia will have to take retaliatory steps with military-technical and other characteristics in order to confront emerging threats to its national security,” the ministry said.
“History will determine why Finland needs to turn its territory into a bulwark from military confrontation with Russia while losing independence in making its own decisions,” she added.
Before the ministry issued 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 moves to expand its infrastructure near the Russian border.
Finland has the longest border with Russia of all 27 members of the European Union.
Previously, the Kremlin had warned of “military and political repercussions” if Sweden and Finland decided to join NATO. If they seek to join the coalition, there will be a transition period that will last from the time the applications are submitted until their ratification by lawmakers in all 30 of the current member states.
In NATO member Estonia, which also borders Russia, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted: “History is made by our northern neighbors.” She pledged support for Finland’s “rapid accession process” to NATO.
Swedish Foreign Minister Anne Lind on Twitter that Finland’s announcement gives an “important message”.
Finland’s announcement came a day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Finland and Sweden to sign a military cooperation agreement.
On Wednesday, the United Kingdom pledged aid to Sweden and Finland if the two Scandinavian countries were attacked.
During a joint press conference with Johnson in Helsinki this week, Niinistö said Moscow could only blame itself if his country of 5.5 million people became a NATO member.
“You (Russia) caused this. Look in the mirror,” the Finnish head of state said on Wednesday.
Thursday, Niinistö tweeted He spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about Finland’s steadfast support for Ukraine and the country’s intention to join NATO. Niinistö said Zelensky “expressed his full support for her”.
In 2017, Sweden and Finland joined the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force, which is designed to be more flexible and respond faster than the larger NATO alliance. The force uses NATO standards and doctrine so that it can work alongside the Alliance, the United Nations or other multinational alliances.
The force has been fully operational since 2018, and has conducted a number of exercises independently and in cooperation with NATO.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has prompted Finland and Sweden to reconsider their traditions of military non-alignment And thinking about joining NATO itself. Soon, public opinion in the two countries began to shift toward membership, first in Finland and a little later in Sweden, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
The latest poll conducted by Finnish public broadcaster YLE earlier this week showed that 76% of Finns support joining NATO, a significant change from previous years when only 20-30% of respondents favored such a military alignment.
Speaking to EU lawmakers on Thursday with Niinistö and Marin making their announcement, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said Russia’s unexpected behavior was a major concern for Finland. He noted Moscow’s readiness to launch “high-risk operations” that could lead to many casualties, including among Russians.
If Finland becomes a member of NATO, it will mark the biggest change in the Nordic defense and security policy since World War II, when it fought against the Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, Finland moved away from NATO to avoid provoking the Soviet Union, instead opting to remain a neutral buffer zone between East and West while maintaining good relations with Moscow as well as with the United States.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance would welcome Finland and Sweden – both with strong, modern military – with open arms and that he expected the accession process to be fast and smooth.
NATO officials say the Scandinavian duo’s accession process could take place “within two weeks”. The most time-consuming part of the procedure – ratification of the country’s protocol by current NATO members – could take place in less time than the four months it took West Germany, Turkey and Greece to join in the 1950s, when there were only 12 members to ratify their applications.
“These are not normal times,” a NATO official said this week, discussing potential applications for Finland and Sweden. The official was briefing reporters on the accession process, on condition of anonymity because the two countries did not submit any application.
Lorne Cook in Brussels, and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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