Finland must apply to join the NATO military alliance “without delay”, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Thursday, signalling a major policy shift triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Finland, which shares a 1,300 km (810 mile) border and a difficult past with Russia, has gradually stepped up its cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a partner since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
But until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Nordic country had refrained from joining in order to maintain friendly relations with its eastern neighbour.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” Niinisto and Marin said in a joint statement.
“We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days,” they added.
Earlier this week, Niinisto said it was Russian actions that have spurred his country to take this step. “You (Russia) caused this. Look in the mirror.”
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the decision by Finland’s leaders, saying a future membership process would be “smooth and swift”.
“This is a sovereign decision by Finland, which NATO fully respects,” Stoltenberg said, adding that Finland would be “warmly welcomed into NATO”.
Baltic countries, which were once ruled from Moscow and are now members of the US-led alliance, also hailed Finland’s announcement.
“Finland decided to join the Alliance. NATO is about to get stronger. Baltics about to get safer,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said.
Finland’s rapid shift towards NATO is likely to pull along neighbouring Sweden, which signed a mutual defence agreement with Britain on Wednesday.
Finland joining NATO ‘definitely’ a threat, Kremlin says
The speed of the Finnish decision to apply has come as a surprise to many, with most political discussions taking place behind the scenes out of fear over Russia’s reaction.
Finland’s government initiated a security policy review in March and began discussions with all parliamentary groups to secure backing for the decision to join the alliance.
Public opinion has also shifted rapidly since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Finnish public support for joining NATO has risen to record numbers over recent months, with the latest poll by public broadcaster YLE showing 76% of Finns in favour and only 12% against, while support for membership used to linger at only around 25% for years prior to the war in Ukraine.
While military non-alignment has long satisfied many Finns as a way of staying out of conflicts, Russia’s invasion of sovereign Ukraine has led an increasing number of Finns to view friendly relations with Russia as an empty phrase.
Ukraine’s fate has been particularly disturbing for Finland to watch, as it fought two wars with Russia between 1939 and 1944, repelling an attempted invasion but losing around 10% of its territory in the subsequent peace agreement.
The Kremlin said Thursday that Finland joining NATO would “definitely” represent a threat to Russia.
“The expansion of NATO and the approach of the alliance to our borders does not make the world and our continent more stable and secure,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Moscow has repeatedly warned of “serious consequences” if Finland and Sweden join NATO, saying it would have to strengthen its land, naval and air forces in the Baltic Sea.
The Kola Peninsula, in Arctic northwest Russia pointing eastward from the border with Finland and Norway, is a “strategic bastion” Moscow considers key for its national security, and is also the home of the Russian Northern Fleet.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AP)