Finland’s leaders advocate NATO membership ‘without delay’

Finland's President Sauli Niinisto
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto makes a point during a news conference Wednesday.
(Frank Augstein / Pool Photo)

Finland’s leaders said Thursday that they’re in favor of rapidly applying for NATO membership, paving the way for a historic expansion of the alliance that could deal a serious strategic blow to Russia as its military struggles with its war in Ukraine.

The dramatic announcement by President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin means that Finland is virtually certain to seek membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, though a few steps remain before the application process can begin. Neighboring Sweden is expected to decide on joining NATO 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. We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”

Russia responded to the development with a warning from its Foreign Ministry that Finnish membership in NATO would “inflict serious damage to Russian-Finnish relations as well as stability and security in Northern Europe.”

“Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps of military-technical and other characteristics in order to counter the emerging threats to its national security,” the ministry said in a statement. “History will determine why Finland needed to turn its territory into a bulwark of military face-off with Russia while losing independence in making its own decisions.”

The statement followed Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s comment earlier Thursday that a Finnish move to join NATO would not help stability and security in Europe. Finland shares an 830-mile land border with Russia.

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Peskov said Russia’s response to the move would depend on what specific steps NATO will take to bring its infrastructure close to Russian borders. He noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had already ordered work on strengthening the country’s western defenses in response to NATO’s expansion closer to Russian territory.

Previously, the Kremlin had warned of “military and political repercussions” if Sweden and Finland decided to join the Western alliance.

Should they apply, there will be an interim period from when an application is submitted until all 30 NATO member nations’ parliaments have ratified it.

In NATO member Estonia, which also borders Russia, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted that “history [was] being made by our northern neighbors.” She pledged to support “a rapid accession process” for Finland to the alliance.

Helsinki’s announcement came a day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Finland and Sweden to sign a military cooperation agreement. Britain pledged to come to the aid of Sweden and Finland if the two Nordic nations came under attack.

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During a joint news conference with Johnson in Helsinki, Niinisto said Moscow would have only itself to blame if his nation of 5.5 million people became a NATO member.

“You caused this. Look at the mirror,” Niinisto said Wednesday, addressing Russia.

On Thursday, Niinisto tweeted that he had spoken with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about Finland’s firm support for Ukraine and its intention to join NATO. Niinisto said
Zelensky “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 respond more quickly than the larger NATO 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.

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Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Finland and Sweden have been pondering whether to abandon their decades-old neutrality and join NATO. After Moscow launched its attack on Ukraine, public support in the two countries started to quickly shift toward membership in NATO, first in Finland and then in Sweden.

The latest opinion poll conducted by Finnish public broadcaster YLE showed earlier this week that 76% of Finns are in favor of joining the alliance, a big change from earlier years when only 20% to 30% of respondents favored such military alignment.

Speaking to European Union lawmakers as Niinisto and Marin made their joint announcement Thursday, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said that “the war started by Russia jeopardizes the security and stability of the whole of Europe.”

Haavisto said Russia’s unpredictable behavior was a serious concern for Finland, especially Moscow’s readiness to wage “high-risk operations” that could lead to many casualties, including among Russians themselves.

Should Finland join 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. It has the longest border with Russia among the bloc’s 27 members.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde tweeted that Finland’s announcement sent an “important message.” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said that they were “strong messages” from Finland’s president and prime minister.

During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from NATO to avoid provoking the Soviet Union, instead opting to remain a neutral buffer between East and West and maintaining good relations with both Moscow and Washington.

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

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NATO officials say the Nordic duo’s accession process could be done “in a couple of weeks.” The most time-consuming part of the procedure — ratification of the country’s protocol by the 30 NATO member countries — could even be completed in less time than the four months or so that it took West Germany, Turkey and Greece to join in the 1950s, when there were only 12 members to ratify their applications.

“These are not normal times,” one NATO official said this week, discussing the possible applications from Finland and Sweden. The official was briefing reporters about the accession process on condition that he not be named, as no application has yet been made by the two countries.