HELSINKI ( Associated Press) – Finland’s leaders said on Thursday they were in favor of expediting applications for NATO membership, paving the way for a historic expansion of the alliance that could deal a severe blow to Russia as its military The conflict is in Ukraine with its war.
The announcement by President Souli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin means that Finland is certain to join the Western Military Alliance, although there are a few steps left before the application process can begin. In the coming days, neighboring Sweden may decide on joining NATO.
“NATO membership will strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland will strengthen the entire defense alliance,” Niinisto and Marin said in a joint statement.
“Finland should apply for NATO membership without delay,” he said. “We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken swiftly over the next few days.”
Russia reacted to the development with caution. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Finland’s joining NATO would cause “serious damage to Russian-Finnish relations as well as to stability and security in Northern Europe.”
“Russia will be forced to take counter-measures of military-technical and other characteristics to counter emerging threats to its national security,” the ministry said.
“History will determine why Finland needed to turn its territory into a military face-off with Russia while losing independence in its decision-making.”
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 steps to expand its infrastructure closer to Russian borders.
Of all the 27 members of the European Union, Finland has the longest border with Russia.
Earlier, the Kremlin had warned of “military and political repercussions” if Sweden and Finland decided to become NATO members. Should they wish to join the coalition, there will be an interim period from submission of applications until ratification by lawmakers in all 30 existing member states.
In NATO member Estonia, which also shares borders with Russia, Prime Minister Kaja Kailas tweeted that “history is being made by our northern neighbours.” It pledged to support a “rapid entry process” for Finland into NATO.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde tweeted that Finland’s announcement carried 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.
Britain promised on Wednesday that it would come to the aid of Sweden and Finland if the two Nordic countries were attacked.
During a joint news conference with Johnson in Helsinki this week, Niinisto said Moscow could only blame itself if its country of 5.5 million people became a member of NATO.
“You (Russia) caused this. Look in the mirror, ”the Finnish head of state said on Wednesday.
on Thursday, ninisto tweeted that he spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about Finland’s firm support for Ukraine and the country’s intention to join NATO. Niinisto said Zelensky “expressed his full support for it.”
In 2017, Sweden and Finland joined the British-led Joint Operations Force, which is designed to be more resilient and respond more quickly than the larger NATO alliance. The force uses NATO standards and doctrine to enable it to work in conjunction with a coalition, the United Nations, or other multinational coalitions.
Fully operational since 2018, the force has conducted several exercises independently and in collaboration with NATO.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine prompted Finland and Sweden to reconsider their traditions of military non-alignment and consider joining NATO. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, public opinion in both countries quickly shifted in favor of membership, first in Finland and later in Sweden.
The latest opinion poll conducted by the Finnish public broadcaster YLE earlier this week showed that 76% of Finns are in favor of joining NATO, a major change from earlier years when only 20-30% of respondents chose such a military alignment. was supported.
Niinisto and Marin made their announcement while speaking to EU lawmakers on Thursday, with Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Havisto saying Russia’s unexpected behavior was a serious concern for Finland. He cited Moscow’s readiness for “high-risk operations” that could result in many casualties, including those of the Russians.
Should Finland 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 against the Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from NATO to avoid provoking the Soviet Union, opting instead to remain a neutral buffer between East and West while maintaining good relations with Moscow and the United States.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said the military alliance will welcome Finland and Sweden – both have strong, modern armies – with open arms and hopes the accession process will be fast and smooth.
NATO officials say the Nordic pair’s entry could take place “in a couple of weeks”. The most time-consuming part of the process – the ratification of the country’s protocol by current NATO members – could be completed in less than four or so months for West Germany, Turkey and Greece to join in the 1950s, when only There were 12 members who confirmed their applications.
“These are not normal times,” a NATO official said this week, discussing possible applications for Finland and Sweden. The officials were briefing reporters about the accession process on the condition that they would not be named as no applications have 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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Jari Tanner, Associated Press