Finland’s leaders call for NATO membership ‘without delay’

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 heavy blow to Russia as its military struggles with its 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 a few steps remain before the application process can begin. Neighboring Sweden is expected to decide whether to seek NATO membership in coming 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 that are still needed to make this decision will be taken quickly in the coming days.”

Russia reacted to the development with a warning. Russia’s 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 a military-technical and other nature to counter emerging threats to its national security,” the ministry said.

“History will determine why Finland needed to turn its territory into a stronghold of military confrontation with Russia while losing independence to make its own decisions,” he 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 moves to expand its infrastructure closer to Russian borders.

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

Previously, the Kremlin had warned of “political and military repercussions” if Sweden and Finland decided to become NATO members. Should they seek to join the alliance, there will be an interim period that lasts from when applications are submitted until lawmakers from the 30 existing member nations ratify them.

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In NATO member Estonia, which also borders Russia, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted that “our neighbors to the north are making history.” He pledged to support Finland’s “rapid accession process” to NATO.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde tweeted that Finland’s announcement sent 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 UK pledged on Wednesday to come to the aid of Sweden and Finland if the two Nordic nations are attacked.

During a joint news conference with Johnson in Helsinki this week, Niinisto said Moscow had only itself to blame if its nation 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, niinisto tweeted who 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 him.”

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 operate in conjunction with the alliance, the United Nations or other multinational coalitions.

Fully operational since 2018, the force has conducted a series 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 contemplate joining NATO. Public opinion in the two countries quickly began to tilt in favor of membership, first in Finland and a little later in Sweden, after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

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 big change from previous years when only 20 among and 30% of those surveyed were in favor of such a military alignment.

Speaking before 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 undertake “high-risk operations” that could result in heavy casualties, even among Russians.

If Finland becomes a NATO member, it would represent the biggest change in the Nordic country’s security and defense 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 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 has said the military alliance would welcome Finland and Sweden, which have strong and modern armies, with open arms and that he hopes the accession process will be quick and smooth.

NATO officials say the Nordic duo’s accession process could be done “within a couple of weeks.” The most time-consuming part of the procedure – 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 there were only 12 members to ratify their requests.

“These are not normal times,” a NATO official said this week, discussing possible applications from Finland and Sweden. The official was briefing reporters on the accession process on the condition that he not be named as neither country has submitted an application.

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

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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