Putin warns Finland’s NATO membership would damage relations

HELSINKI (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin warned his Finnish counterpart on Saturday that relations between the two neighbors could be “negatively affected” if Finland follows through on its plan to seek NATO membership.

The Kremlin press service said in a statement that Putin had said that Sauli Niinisto Finland’s abandonment “of its traditional policy of military neutrality would be a mistake because there is no threat to Finland’s security.”

“Such a change in the country’s foreign policy could negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations, which have been built in the spirit of good neighborliness and partnership for many years, and are mutually beneficial,” the statement added.

The response came after Niinisto told Putin in a phone conversation that the militarily non-aligned Nordic country, which has a complex history with its huge eastern neighbor, “will decide to apply for NATO membership in the next days”.

Niinisto’s office said in a statement that the Finnish head of state told Putin how dramatically Finland’s security environment had changed after Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24.and highlighted Russia’s demands that Finland refrain from seeking membership in the Western 30-nation military alliance.

“The discussion (with Putin) was direct and unambiguous and took place without exaggeration. Avoiding tensions was seen as important,” said Niinisto, Finland’s president since 2012 and one of the few Western leaders to engage in regular dialogue with Putin over the past decade.

Niinisto pointed out that he had already told Putin at their first meeting in 2012 that “each independent nation would maximize its own security”.

” It’s always like that. By joining NATO, Finland will strengthen its own security and assume its responsibilities,” Niinisto said.

Niinisto stressed that Finland, despite its likely future NATO membership, wants to continue to deal bilaterally with Russia on “practical issues generated by the border neighborhood” and hopes to engage with Moscow “in a professional manner.”

According to the Kremlin statement, the two leaders also discussed Russia’s “military operation” in Ukraine and the possibility of reaching a political solution. Putin said talks between Moscow and Kyiv had been suspended due to Ukraine’s “lack of interest in serious and constructive dialogue”.

The phone call was made at the initiative of Finland, Niinisto’s office said.

Finland shares a 1,340 kilometer (830 mile) border with Russia, the longest of any member of the European Union.

Niinisto and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin on Thursday jointly endorsed their country’s NATO candidacy and recommended that Finland “must apply for NATO membership without delay” to guarantee its security.

An official announcement from Niinisto and Marin of Finland’s intention to apply for NATO membership is expected on Sunday. Marin’s ruling Social Democratic Party approved the membership application on Saturday, paving the way for a parliamentary vote next week to approve the move. He should pass with overwhelming support. A formal membership application would then be submitted to NATO Headquarters in Brussels.

Neighboring Sweden is due to decide its position in NATO on Sunday at a meeting of the ruling Social Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.

A possible obstacle to Finland and Sweden joining the alliance came from NATO member Turkey, whose president said on Friday he was “not in favor” of the idea.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan cited support in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries for Kurdish militants – whom Turkey considers terrorists.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said on Saturday he had already called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, “to lower tensions”.

“I am sure that we will find a solution to this problem as well,” he told reporters at the start of an informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Berlin on Saturday evening.

US President Joe Biden held a joint call with Niinisto and Andersson on Friday where, according to a White House statement, he “underlined his support for NATO’s open door policy and the right of Finland and Sweden to decide their own future, foreign policy and security arrangements.”

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Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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

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