This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has informed Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a phone call that his Nordic nation plans to apply for NATO membership, a move Putin warned his counterpart would be a mistake that could endanger the two nations’ neighborly relations.
“President Niinisto told President Putin how fundamentally 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,” a statement by the Finnish government said on May 14.
“The conversation was open and direct, but was conducted without escalation. It was considered important to avoid tensions,” Niinisto said, according to the Finnish presidential office.
The Kremlin said Putin stressed in the call that abandoning Helsinki’s traditional policy of military neutrality “would be a mistake, since there are no threats to Finland’s security. Such a change in the country’s foreign policy may have a negative impact on Russian-Finnish relations.”
With Finland and neighboring Sweden appearing ready to apply for NATO membership, Russia said earlier on May 14 that its response to the Nordic countries joining the Western military alliance would depend on the type of NATO military infrastructure that would be located on their territory.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko told reporters in Moscow that the accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO would require a strategic change, and that the Kremlin would take “adequate response measures” if NATO nuclear forces were moved closer to Russia’s borders.
Grushko added that Russia has no hostile intentions toward Finland and Sweden, where support for joining NATO in the traditionally neutral countries has risen following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February. Russia has cited Ukraine’s ambitions to join NATO as a key reason for launching the war.
Niinisto this week endorsed joining NATO “without delay,” saying it would strengthen security in the country, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia.
The country’s ruling Social Democratic Party later on May 14 announced its support for joining NATO, a step that would pave the way for applying for membership in the coming days.
The government’s decision to apply for NATO membership requires parliamentary approval, which appears highly likely.
The Swedish government has also laid out plans to commit Sweden to applying for NATO membership, and is expected to announce a decision soon.
U.S. President Joe Biden held a joint call with Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on May 13 in which he stressed “close security and defense cooperation” and supported the two Nordic states’ expected NATO bids.
“President Biden underscored his support for NATO’s Open Door policy and for the right of Finland and Sweden to decide their own future, foreign policy, and security arrangements,” the White House account said of the call.
NATO’s foreign ministers will meet in Berlin beginning on May 14 for two days of talks that will include Finland’s and Sweden’s potential membership. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde and Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto are expected to take part in the meeting, which will also include U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Many members of the alliance have already expressed support for applications from Sweden and Finland.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, said on May 13 that he did not have a “positive opinion” of the Nordic countries’ membership, explaining his reservations by citing Sweden and other Scandinavian countries’ alleged support for Kurdish militants and others Turkey considers to be terrorists.
Ankara appeared to ease off in its opposition somewhat on May 14, with a top foreign policy adviser to Erdogan telling Reuters that Turkey has not shut the door to the countries’ potential membership bids.
He said, though, that Ankara wants negotiations with the Nordic countries and to see them clamp down on any support for militants inside Turkey.
“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” Ibrahim Kalin said in an interview in Istanbul.
The potential opposition has fueled suggestions that Turkey could veto Finland’s and Sweden’s applications to join NATO, which to be approved would require unanimous support among the alliance’s 30 member states.
Hours after Erdogan’s comment, the White House and Pentagon said they were “working to clarify Turkey’s position” regarding Sweden and Finland, while stressing that Ankara’s standing in NATO would not change as a result of its position.