Finland shares a 1,300 kilometer (800 mile) border with Russia. (Photo: AFP)
HELSINKI (Reuters) – Finland’s president and prime minister said on Thursday they were in favor of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and that a formal decision would be taken this weekend , after Russia’s war in Ukraine triggered a rapid turnaround in public opinion.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement.
Niinisto often served as a mediator between Russia and the West.
“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a NATO member, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance,” the statement said.
A special committee will announce Finland’s formal decision on a membership application on Sunday, the statement added.
Both leaders were expected to come out in favor of joining the Western military alliance.
“Joining NATO would not be against anyone,” Niinisto told reporters on Wednesday, amid Russian warnings of the consequences if Helsinki were to apply for membership.
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 candidacy would be “highly unlikely” during his current term, which ends in April 2023.
But after its powerful eastern neighbor invaded Ukraine on February 24, political and public opinion in Finland shifted dramatically in favor of joining as a deterrent against Russian aggression.
A poll released by public broadcaster Yle on Monday showed that a record 76% of Finns now support joining the alliance, up from a regular 20-30% in recent years.
Finland shares a 1,300 kilometer (800 mile) border with Russia and has been militarily non-aligned for decades.
In 1939, it was invaded by the Soviet Union.
The Finns fought a bitter struggle during the Winter War, but were eventually forced to cede a large swathe of their province of East Karelia in a peace treaty with Moscow.
Iro Sarkka, a NATO expert from the University of Helsinki, said AFP ahead of the news that Niinisto, who had refrained from revealing his stance on membership, had nevertheless hinted that he was leaning towards supporting a candidacy.
“The president no longer talks about the defense option of the EU or Finland’s role as a mediator between East and West,” she said.
– Next steps –
On Wednesday, the Finnish parliament’s defense committee also concluded that NATO membership would be the “best option” for Finland’s security, as the Russian invasion has eroded the security situation in Europe.
A large majority in the Finnish parliament supports membership.
“It is 100% certain that Finland will apply and most likely will be a member by the end of the year,” said researcher Charly Salonius-Pasternak of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. AFP ahead of Thursday’s announcement.
Neighboring Sweden is also considering joining the military alliance and the two countries are expected to submit a joint bid.
For Finland, the next step is for the president and the ministerial committee on foreign and security policy – a body made up of the president, prime minister and up to six other ministers – to meet on Sunday.
The committee will take the formal decision for Finland to submit a candidacy, with the proposal then being presented to parliament.
Once a formal candidacy has been submitted to the alliance, lawmakers from all 30 NATO member states will need to ratify its candidacy, a process that can take months.
Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said on Tuesday he believed Finland could become a full member of the bloc “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 could be closer to four months than 12 months,” Haavisto said.