Finnish leaders call for NATO membership ‘without delay’

HELSINKI (AP) – Finland’s leaders said on Thursday they favor a swift application for NATO membership, paving the way for a historic alliance expansion that could deal a serious blow to Russia if its military struggles with 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 to take before the application process can begin. Neighboring Sweden expected to decide NATO membership pursuit 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 needed to make this decision will be taken quickly within a few days.”

Russia responded to the development with a warning. Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Finland’s accession to NATO would “inflict serious damage on Russian-Finnish relations and stability and security in Northern Europe”.

“Russia will be forced to retaliate from military-technical and other characteristics to confront emerging threats to its national security,” the ministry said.

“History will determine why Finland had to turn its territory into a stronghold of military confrontations with Russia, while losing its independence in making its own decisions,” it added.

Before the ministry issued its statement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Finland’s decision would not promote stability and security in Europe. Peskov said Russia’s response would depend on NATO’s steps to expand its infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders.

Finland has the longest border with Russia of all 27 members of the European Union.

Earlier, the Kremlin had warned of “military and political consequences” if Sweden and Finland decide to join NATO. Should they wish to join the alliance, there would be an interim period from applications being submitted to ratification by legislators in all 30 existing member states.

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In NATO member Estonia, which also borders Russia, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted that “history is being written by our northern neighbors”. She pledged to support “a rapid accession process” for Finland 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 sign a military cooperation agreement.

The UK pledged on Wednesday to come to the aid of Sweden and Finland if the two Scandinavian countries are attacked.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Johnson in Helsinki this week, Niinisto said Moscow can only blame itself if its nation of 5.5 million joins NATO.

“You (Russia) caused this. Look in the mirror,” the Finnish head of state said on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Niinisto tweeted that he spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about Finland’s strong 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 British-led Joint Expeditionary Force, which is designed to be more flexible and responsive than the larger NATO alliance. The force uses NATO standards and doctrine so that it can work 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 consider joining NATO themselves. Public opinion in the two countries quickly began to shift towards membership, first in Finland and a little later in Sweden, after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

The latest poll conducted by the Finnish public broadcaster YLE earlier this week found that 76% of Finns are in favor of joining NATO, a big change from previous years when only 20-30% of respondents are in favor of joining NATO. was of such military affiliation.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told European Union lawmakers on Thursday when Niinisto and Marin made their announcement that Russia’s unpredictable behavior is a serious concern for Finland. He mentioned Moscow’s willingness to carry out “risky operations” that could lead to many casualties, including among Russians.

Should Finland join NATO, it would mark 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 so as not to provoke the Soviet Union, instead choosing to remain a neutral buffer between the East and the West, while maintaining good relations with Moscow and also with the United States .

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said the military alliance would welcome Finland and Sweden – both of which have strong, modern armies – with open arms and that he expects the accession process to be swift and smooth.

NATO officials say the Nordic duo’s accession process could be completed “in a few weeks”. The most time-consuming part of the process — the ratification of the country’s protocol by existing NATO members — was 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 application.

“These are not normal times,” a NATO official said this week, discussing possible applications from Finland and Sweden. The official briefed reporters on the accession process on the condition that he not be named, as the two countries have not applied.

Lorne Cook in Brussels and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

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