Finland will apply to join NATO, ditching decades of neutrality despite Russia’s threats of retaliation

The decision was announced at a joint press conference on Sunday with President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who said the move must be ratified by the country’s parliament before Finland can formally apply for membership with NATO.

“We hope that the parliament will confirm the decision to apply for NATO membership,” Marin said during a press conference in Helsinki Sunday. “During the coming days. It will be based on a strong mandate, with the President of the Republic. We have been in close contact with governments of NATO member states and NATO itself.”

“We are close partners to NATO but it is a historic decision that we will join NATO and hopefully we are making the decisions together,” she added.

The move would bring the US-led military alliance up to Finland’s 830-mile border with Russia, but could take months to finalize as legislatures of all 30 current members must approve new applicants.

It also risks provoking Russia’s ire, whose President Vladimir Putin told his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinistö on Saturday that abandoning military neuterality and joining the bloc would be a “mistake,” according to a Kremlin statement. On Saturday, Russia cut its electricity supply to the Nordic country following problems in receiving payments.

Since the end of World War II, during which Finland was invaded by the Soviet Union, the country has been militarily non-aligned and nominally neutral in order to avoid provoking Russia. It has indulged the Kremlin’s security concerns at times and tried to maintain good trading relations.

The invasion of Ukraine has changed that calculation.

On Saturday, Niinistö called to inform Putin of Finland’s intentions to join the bloc, saying “the Russian demands in late 2021 aiming at preventing countries from joining NATO and Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 have altered the security environment of Finland,” according to a statement from the Finnish president’s office.

Prime Minister Marin reiterated the sentiment on Sunday, telling reporters that in regards to a nuclear threat, “we wouldn’t make these decisions that we are making now, if we didn’t think that they are enhancing our strength or security. So of course we believe these are the right decisions and they will these decisions will enhance our national security.”

Sweden has expressed similar frustrations and is also expected to make a similar move to join NATO.

Both countries already meet many of the criteria for NATO membership, which include having a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; treating minority populations fairly; committing to resolve conflicts peacefully; the ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations; and committing to democratic civil-military relations and institutions.

NATO member Turkey, which has presented itself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, has expressed reservations about integrating Finland and Sweden to the alliance. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday he is not looking at Finland and Sweden joining NATO “positively,” accusing both counties of housing Kurdish “terrorist organizations.”

Finnish President Niinistö said he was “confused” by Erdogan’s skepticism, saying that during a telephone discussion with Erdogan a month ago the Turkish President seemed “favorable” to Finland joining the bloc.

“I thanked him and he was very pleased receiving my fax. So you got to understand that I’m a bit confused,” he said.

“I think that what we need now is a very clear answer. I’m prepared to have a new discussion with President Erdogan about the problems he has raised,” he added.

He conceded that any NATO member could “block the process” therefore it is “important” to maintain “good contacts” with everyone, adding that Finland wants to keep its border with Russia peaceful.

Putin sees the alliance as a bulwark aimed at Russia, despite the fact that the bloc had spent much of the post-Soviet years focusing on issues like terrorism and peacekeeping.

Before Putin invaded Ukraine, he made clear his belief that NATO had edged too close to Russia and should be stripped back to its borders of the 1990s, before some countries that either neighbor Russia or were ex-Soviet states joined the military alliance.

Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance, and its status as a NATO partner — seen as a step on the way to eventual full membership — was one of the numerous grievances Putin cited in an attempt to justify his country’s invasion of its neighbor.

The irony is that the war in Ukraine has, effectively, given NATO a new purpose.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, public support for joining NATO in Finland has leaped from around 30% to nearly 80% in some polls. Most Swedes also approve of their country joining the alliance, according to opinion polls there.

Vladimir Chizhov, Russian Ambassador to the European Union, told Sky News on Thursday that if Finland joins the bloc, “this will necessitate certain military technical measures like improving or raising the degree of defense preparations along the Finish border.”

CNN’s Joshua Berlinger, Nic Robertson and Chris Liakos contributed to this piece.

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