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Finnish leaders back joining NATO; Sweden set to follow

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, left, and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin walk prior to a meeting on whether to seek NATO membership, in Stockholm, Sweden, on April 13, 2022. (Paul Wennerholm/TT News Agency/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Finland and Sweden are inching closer to joining NATO in what would be another jolt to the European security landscape following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin, Finland’s highest-ranking policymakers, threw their weight behind an application, and Sweden’s government is likely to do so in the coming days.

“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” Niinisto and Marin said in a joint statement Thursday. Membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would make Finland safer, and “as a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance,” they said.

The shift in Finland’s defensive position was spurred by the full-scale war Russia is waging in Ukraine. Neighboring Sweden plans to send an application on Monday, Expressen newspaper reported on Thursday, citing sources it didn’t identify.

With Russian aggression suddenly changing perceptions in Europe of regional threats, countries including Germany have switched toward rearmament, Sweden’s neighbor Denmark is holding a referendum on joining the European Union’s military cooperation, and NATO is boosting its deterrence in the east.

The Nordic countries are seeking to deter aggression from Russia, which on Feb. 24 invaded Ukraine and has threatened the pair with consequences if they join the bloc. The attack, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly called “inevitable,” shifted popular opinion in both Nordic countries overnight to favoring the entry.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Finland joining NATO would “definitely” be a threat to Russia.

“The expansion of NATO doesn’t make our continent more stable and secure,” he told reporters on a conference call, avoiding a direct response when asked whether the Kremlin expected Finland’s likely move as a potential result of its invasion of Ukraine.

The Finnish president and prime minister’s approval puts one of the final pieces of the puzzle in place, ahead of the biggest coalition party — the Social Democrats — setting their official stance on Saturday, with a formal decision seen coming on Sunday. The parliament, where more than 2 in 3 lawmakers support the application, is preparing for a debate on Monday, Speaker Matti Vanhanen said Thursday.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Finland would be “warmly welcomed” into the alliance should it decide to apply, adding that the accession process would be “smooth and swift.” He backed Niinisto and Marin’s comments saying their country’s membership would strengthen both NATO and Finland’s security, and underscore NATO’s open-door policy.

NATO allies are expected to unanimously back any bids by Finland and Sweden, diplomats said. The membership bids would need to be ratified by NATO countries’ parliaments, a process that can take months, before they gain entry and begin to enjoy collective defense commitments under Article 5.

Both countries have already won security pledges from the U.S. and on Wednesday signed cooperation agreements with the U.K. Finland will on Friday welcome four U.S. A-10 fighter aircraft and a KC-135 Stratotanker into its airspace for an aerial refueling operation, the defense forces said.

Living in the shadow of its eastern neighbor’s military might, Finland’s population of 5.5 million defend a border 800 miles long. Two wars against the Soviet Union in the 20th century, more than 100 years as part of the Russian empire and countless bloody encounters in the preceding centuries have left their mark on pragmatic Finns, armed to the teeth and highly prepared to counter aggression.

Sweden, with 10 million people, has agonized over abandoning its long-held policy of military non-alignment, which followed decades of neutrality during the Cold War and preceding world wars. Even so, its recent direction has been clear: Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, Sweden has gradually ramped up military spending to make up for an earlier shortfall and sought ever closer cooperation with NATO.

Policymakers are now bracing for retaliation from Russia, which has threatened them with “serious consequences” and with bringing nuclear weapons into its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad if they join. Officials in neighboring Lithuania say that move already happened years ago.

Cyberattacks, airspace breaches and other malicious activity are also likely, and Russia could also expel diplomats in protest. Before invading Ukraine, Putin demanded that NATO should guarantee it won’t expand eastward.

Kremlin spokesman Peskov didn’t elaborate on what Russia might do if Finland does join the alliance, saying only the response will depend on “how much military infrastructure moves toward our borders.” He noted that Putin earlier this year ordered the Defense Ministry to come up with proposals to strengthen Russia’s western flank, though no results of that effort have yet been made public.

The war shows Russia is “ready to attack a neighboring country,” Niinisto said on Thursday. “So, when you ask how they see possible Finnish joining,” he said, “my response would be that you caused this, look at the mirror.”

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