LONDON — Finland’s leaders said it intended to apply for NATO membership “without delay” — prompting Russia to threaten that it would “be forced to take retaliatory steps” if the Nordic country joins the Western military alliance.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and President Sauli Niinistö released a joint statement on Thursday announcing their support for Finland — which shares an 810-mile border with Russia — to join the alliance.
“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security,” the statement said. “As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defence alliance.” The leaders added that Finland must apply “without delay” and expressed hope that the steps needed to make the decision would be “taken rapidly within the next few days.”
Marin’s Social Democratic Party is expected to announce a decision about joining on Saturday, with the five-party governing coalition in Helsinki expected to announce on Sunday.
For a country to be accepted into NATO, there is a list of minimum requirements. This includes having a functioning democracy, treating minority populations fairly and having the ability to make military contributions to NATO operations. Once a country meets the basic requirements, it is asked to join a membership action plan, which prepares it for membership. However, this does not guarantee a place in the alliance.
Although NATO has an “open door policy” for aspiring members, Ukraine has been unable to be formally admitted. The ongoing unrest in regions across Ukraine — from the annexed peninsula of Crimea to the Russian-backed separatist regions in the east — has worried NATO members. For the first month of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the alliance to allow Ukraine to join. But in March, he admitted that he did not expect his country to join anytime soon. Zelensky praised Finland’s decision on Thursday following a phone call with Niinistö.
It was the pretext of stopping Ukraine from joining NATO, and ultimately pushing back on the alliance’s eastward expansion, that was one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reasons for invading its neighbor. But that has seemingly backfired on the Kremlin leader. Putin’s aggressive foreign policy has instead sent other European countries, such as Finland and Sweden, into applying for NATO membership. Since the war in Ukraine began on Feb. 24, Finnish public support for the country to join NATO has jumped from 20-30% to 76%, according to a poll published by broadcaster YLE.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Niinistö said Moscow had only itself to blame: “You caused this. Look at the mirror.”
The Kremlin responded to the announcement by saying that Finland’s membership is “definitely” a threat to Russia. “As we have said many times before, NATO expansion does not make the world more stable and secure,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “[Russia’s reaction] will depend on what this expansion process will entail, how far and how close to our borders the military infrastructure will move.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry added in a statement: “Finland joining NATO is a radical change in the country’s foreign policy. Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to stop threats to its national security arising.”
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday that it was Russia’s unpredictable behavior and its readiness to wage “high-risk operations” that led to Finland’s decision.
Meanwhile, Sweden is also expected to announce its decision to join the alliance in the coming days. On Thursday, it was announced that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had signed security pacts with both Sweden and Finland. Johnson said the agreements would aid both countries if they came under threat.
Asked whether British soldiers would be sent to Finland if there were “possible conflict in Russia,” Johnson said: “I think the solemn declaration is itself clear. And what it says is that in the event of a disaster, or in the event of an attack on either of us, then yes, we will come to each other’s assistance, including with military assistance.”