Finland’s president and prime minister said on Thursday they were in favour of joining NATO and a formal decision would be taken this weekend, after Russia’s war in Ukraine sparked a swift U-turn in opinion.
The Kremlin immediately responded to the announcement, saying Finnish membership in the Western military alliance was “definitely” a threat to Russia.
Neighbouring Sweden, which like Finland has been military non-aligned for decades, is also expected to announce its decision in the coming days, very likely at a meeting on Sunday of Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s Social Democratic Party.
The two countries are widely seen submitting their membership bids in unison.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement.
“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defence alliance,” the statement said.
A special committee will announce Helsinki’s formal decision on a membership bid on Sunday, it added.
Moscow has repeatedly warned Stockholm and Helsinki of consequences if they were to join the Western military alliance.
“Joining NATO would not be against anyone,” Niinisto, who has often served as a mediator between Russia and the West, told reporters on Wednesday.
His response to Russia would be: “You caused this. Look in the mirror,” he said.
As recently as January, amid tensions between the West and Russia, Marin said a bid would be “very unlikely” during her current mandate, which ends in April 2023.
– Rattled by war –
But after its powerful eastern neighbour invaded Ukraine on February 24, Finland’s political and public opinion swung dramatically in favour of membership as a deterrent against Russian aggression.
A poll published on Monday by public broadcaster Yle showed that a record 76 percent of Finns now support joining the alliance, up from the steady 20-30 percent registered in recent years.
A country of 5.5 million people, Finland shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia.
In 1939, it was invaded by the Soviet Union.
Finns put up a fierce fight during the Winter War but were ultimately forced to cede a huge stretch of its eastern Karelia province in a peace treaty with Moscow.
Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen said Thursday a NATO bid would “significantly raise the threshold for Finland to be the target of a military attack.”
“This is a defensive solution that threatens no one,” he wrote on his blog.
Kaikkonen said he hoped Sweden would come to the same conclusion and “we could apply for membership together.”
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde told news agency TT that “Finland’s decision is naturally of great importance to Sweden” and said her government would announce its decision “soon”.
European Council President Charles Michel wrote on Twitter that Finland joining NATO would “greatly contribute to European security. With Russia waging war in Ukraine it’s a powerful signal of deterrence.”
– Next steps –
There has been broad political support for NATO membership in Finland, amid a general view that Russia’s invasion has eroded the security situation in Europe.
A large majority of parties in Finland’s parliament back a bid, as well as parliament’s defence committee.
Finland and Sweden have long cooperated with NATO, and are expected to be able to join the alliance quickly.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday Finland’s entry would be “smooth and swift”.
The next step is for Finland’s President and Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy — a body made up of the president, prime minister and up to six other cabinet ministers — to meet on Sunday.
The committee will make the formal decision whether to submit a Finnish application.
The proposal will then be presented to parliament for a debate, which is expected to take place on Monday.
After an official bid is submitted to the alliance, negotiations get underway. Lawmakers in all 30 NATO member states then need to ratify Finland’s application, a process that can take months.
Foreign Minister Haavisto said on Tuesday he believed Finland could be a full NATO member “at the earliest” on October 1.
“The NATO secretary general has said that this process will take between four and 12 months. My own impression is that it might be closer to four months than 12 months,” Haavisto said.
As candidate countries are not covered by NATO’s Article 5 mutual defence agreement, both Finland and Sweden have sought assurances from NATO members that they would be protected while awaiting full membership.