HELSINKI (AP) — Finland’s leaders said Thursday they favor a swift application for NATO membership, paving the way for a historic expansion of the alliance that could deal a serious blow to Russia as his army is fighting his war in Ukraine.
The announcement by President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin means Finland is almost certain to join the Western military alliance, although there are a few steps left before the application process can begin. Neighboring Sweden should decide to apply for NATO membership in the next few days.
“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance,” Niinisto and Marin said in a joint statement.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” they said. “We hope that the national steps still necessary to make this decision will be taken quickly in the coming days.”
Russia reacted to the development with a warning. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Finland’s NATO membership “would inflict serious damage on Russian-Finnish relations as well as stability and security in Northern Europe”.
“Russia will be forced to take retaliatory measures of military-technical and other characteristics in order to counter emerging threats to its national security,” the ministry said.
“History will determine why Finland had to turn its territory into a military bulwark against Russia while losing its independence to make its own decisions,” he added.
Before the ministry released its statement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Finland’s move would not help stability and security in Europe. Peskov said Russia’s response would depend on steps NATO takes to expand its infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders.
Finland has the longest border with Russia among the 27 members of the European Union.
Earlier, the Kremlin warned of “military and political repercussions” if Sweden and Finland decide to join NATO. If they sought to join the alliance, there would be an interim period from when applications are submitted until ratification by lawmakers in the 30 existing member countries.
In NATO member Estonia, which also borders Russia, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted that “history is written by our northern neighbours”. She pledged to support Finland’s “rapid accession process” to NATO.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde tweeted that Finland’s announcement gave an “important message”.
Finland’s announcement came a day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Finland and Sweden. sign a military cooperation agreement.
The United Kingdom pledged on Wednesday to come to the aid of Sweden and Finland if the two Nordic countries were attacked.
At a joint press conference with Johnson in Helsinki this week, Niinisto said Moscow could only blame itself if its country of 5.5 million people became a NATO member.
“It was you (Russia) who caused this. Look at yourself in the mirror,” Finland’s head of state said on Wednesday.
Thusday, Niinisto tweeted that he discussed with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Finland’s strong support for Ukraine and the country’s intention to join NATO. Niinisto said Zelenskyy “expressed his full support for this.”
In 2017, Sweden and Finland joined the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force, which is designed to be more flexible and quick to react than NATO’s largest alliance. The force uses NATO standards and doctrine so it can operate in conjunction with the alliance, the United Nations or other multinational coalitions.
Fully operational since 2018, the force has held a number of exercises both independently and in cooperation with NATO.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has prompted Finland and Sweden to reconsider their traditions of military non-alignment and consider joining NATO itself. Public opinion in both countries quickly began to favor membership, first in Finland and a little later in Sweden, after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
The latest opinion poll by Finnish public broadcaster YLE showed earlier this week that 76% of Finns are in favor of NATO membership, a big change from previous years when only 20-30% of respondents were in favor of such a military alignment.
Addressing European Union lawmakers on Thursday as Niinisto and Marin made their announcement, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said Russia’s unpredictable behavior was a serious concern for Finland. He cited Moscow’s willingness to carry out “high-risk operations” that could cause many casualties, including Russians.
If Finland were to become a member of NATO, it would represent the biggest change in the Nordic country’s defense and security policy since World War II, when it fought the Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from NATO to avoid provoking the Soviet Union, choosing instead to remain a neutral buffer between East and West while maintaining good relations with Moscow and also with the United States.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance would welcome Finland and Sweden – both of which have strong and modern armies – with open arms and that he expects the process membership is quick and smooth.
NATO officials have said the Nordic duo’s membership process could take place “within weeks”. The longest part of the procedure – the ratification of the country’s protocol by current 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 there were only 12 members to ratify their candidacies.
“These are not normal times,” a NATO official said this week, referring to possible candidacies from Finland and Sweden. The official was briefing reporters on the accession process on the condition that he not be named as no applications were submitted by either country.
Lorne Cook in Brussels and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine