Finnish leaders call for ‘immediate’ NATO membership

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.

Finland’s dramatic decision was announced by President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin. This means that Finland is almost certain to join NATO, although there are still a few steps before the application process can begin. Neighboring Sweden should decide to join NATO 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. We hope that the national steps still necessary to take this decision will be taken quickly in the coming days. »

The Kremlin reacted to the development hours later, saying Finland’s decision to join NATO will not help stability and security in Europe. Finland shares a 1,340 kilometer (830 mile) land border with Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia’s response to the move would depend on specific steps NATO takes to bring its infrastructure closer to Russian borders. He noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had already ordered measures to be developed to strengthen the country’s defenses to the west in response to NATO’s expansion closer to Russian territory.

Earlier, the Kremlin warned of “military and political repercussions” if Sweden and Finland decided to join NATO. If they apply, there will be a transitional period from when a request has been made until the parliaments of all 30 NATO members have ratified it.

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.

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 and Niinisto in Helsinki, the Finnish head of state said that Moscow could only blame itself if his country of 5.5 million people became a NATO member .

“It was you (Russia) who caused this. Look in the mirror,” Niinisto said 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. It uses NATO standards and doctrine, so it can operate in conjunction with NATO, 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.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Finland and Sweden have been considering whether to abandon their decades-old historic neutrality and join NATO’s 30 members. After Moscow launched its attack on Ukraine, public support in both countries began to shift rapidly towards NATO membership, first in Finland and somewhat later in Sweden.

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.

Speaking to European Union lawmakers on Thursday during Niinisto and Marin’s announcement, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said “the war started by Russia puts the security and stability of the whole world at risk.” ‘Europe”.

Haavisto said Russia’s unpredictable behavior is a serious concern for Finland, including Moscow’s willingness to carry out “high-risk operations” that could cause many casualties, including among Russians themselves.

If Finland becomes a member of NATO, it would mean the biggest change in the Nordic country’s defense and security policy since World War II, when it fought two losing wars against the Soviet Union. Along with Sweden, Finland joined the European Union in 1995 and has the longest border with Russia among the bloc’s 27 members.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde tweeted that Finland’s announcement gave an “important message” and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said there were “strong messages” from the President and Prime Minister of Finland.

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 expects the membership process be 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 all 30 NATO member countries – could even be completed in less time than the roughly four months it took Germany from West, 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.

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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 coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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