Finland will apply to join NATO “without delay,” the country’s leaders said Thursday, signalling a major strategic realignment sparked by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The joint statement from Prime Minister Sanna Marin and President Sauli Niinisto said that the Nordic country of 5.5 million people, which has a 1,300 km (810 mile) border with Russia, “must apply for NATO membership.”
“We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days,” the statement said.
Russia, which is opposed to what it sees as creeping Western encroachment into its traditional sphere of influence, responded swiftly, saying it would be forced to retaliate.
“Finland joining NATO is a radical change in the country’s foreign policy,” said a statement from the Russian foreign ministry.
“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.”
In a briefing to journalists on Thursday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Finland’s entry into NATO was “definitely” a threat to Russia – one that would not make the world or Europe more stable, and which would require a symmetrical response from Russia.
Despite deep-rooted fears of aggression from its much larger neighbour, which invaded the country during the Second World War, Finland has previously held off joining NATO to avoid antagonising Moscow – although it ramped up cooperation with the military alliance since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a radical rethink in Finland and neighbouring Sweden, which is also considering joining the alliance.
Prior to the invasion, only about a quarter of people in Finland were in favour of joining NATO – according to a poll by Finnish public broadcaster YLE, 76 percent now want membership.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has previously indicated that the process of joining – which would require the approval of each of the alliance’s 30 members – could take place relatively quickly. Marin and Niinisto’s statement was welcomed by other EU countries including Lithuania, one of the Baltic countries which were once under Soviet rule, and have since joined NATO.
"Finland decided to join the Alliance. NATO is about to get stronger. Baltics about to get safer," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis wrote on Twitter.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also welcomed the news, saying he had spoken to Niinisto and assured him of Germany’s full support.
The announcement came a day after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited both Finland and Sweden to sign military cooperation agreements, pledging to come to their defence if they came under attack. At a news conference in Helsinki alongside Johnson, Niinisto said that Russia could only blame itself if Finland joined NATO.
“You [Russia] caused this. Look at the mirror,” he said.