Finnish leaders announce backing for NATO membership

Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin on Thursday officially endorsed the idea that their country should join NATO, a historic move that sets the stage for a membership application in the coming days.

Until recently, Finnish leaders saw NATO membership as an unnecessary provocation of Moscow, but since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Niinistö and Marin have signaled a new openness to joining the alliance and benefiting from its mutual defense clause.

“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” the two leaders said in a joint statement. “We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”

Marin’s Social Democratic Party is expected to announce its position on Saturday, which is almost certain to favor membership. Finland could then ask to join NATO early next week.

The country is moving toward membership in parallel with neighboring Sweden, a fellow NATO holdout that has also rethought its resistance since Russia’s invasion.

Sweden’s leaders are also expected to come out in favor of NATO membership in the coming days. The two countries may submit their bids together, perhaps as soon as Monday, ahead of a state visit by Niinistö to Sweden on Tuesday.

Tectonic shift

Thursday’s announcement heralds a significant shift in defense policy for Finland.

After fighting two wars against the Soviets between 1939 and 1944, Finland sought in the decades that followed to accommodate several of Moscow’s political demands — including not joining NATO — in order to avoid further conflict. 

However, Finland took a decisive step toward the West when it joined the EU in 1995, four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. NATO membership would mark the culmination of almost three decades of Western political and economic integration for Finland since then. 

There was no immediate reaction from Russian leaders to the Finnish announcement on Thursday, but Moscow has previously threatened to move more weapons, including nuclear arms, closer to Finland if it were to join NATO. 

Leaders in Helsinki have also said Moscow could launch cyberattacks, breach Finnish airspace or undertake other forms of aggression in response to the country’s NATO bid.

Thus far, however, experts have been surprised by the lack of visible Kremlin interference in Finnish affairs in recent weeks, as the NATO decision loomed, something they ascribed to Russia’s focus on its misfiring war efforts in Ukraine. 

A decision by Stockholm and Helsinki to join NATO — effectively turning Russia’s 1,340-kilometer border with Finland into a new front line between the East and the West — would be widely seen as a setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has often sought to cast his attack on Ukraine as part of a broader fight for regional influence between his country and NATO. 

On Wednesday, at a news conference to announce tighter military cooperation between Finland and the U.K., Niinistö, the Finnish president, said Russian aggression had fundamentally changed the security picture in Europe.

“They are ready to attack a neighboring country,” he said of Russia. “So, when you ask how [Russia sees] a possible Finnish joining of NATO … my response would be: You caused this, look in the mirror.”

Talking it out

Several intense days of political discussions will now follow in Finland and Sweden.

After Finland’s Social Democrats announce their position on NATO, Marin and Niinistö will hold a decisive final meeting and press conference on Sunday. 

On the same day, Sweden’s governing Social Democrats will announce whether they back an application to join the alliance. If they come out in favor, which appears likely, both Finland and Sweden could formally apply starting Monday.

Once the two eventual applications have been sent, a ratification process by the 30 current NATO members would start which could take several months. 

Several NATO leaders — including from nearby Denmark and Estonia — were quick on Thursday to repeat their backing for a Finnish entry. 

“You can count on our full support,”  Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said. “We support a rapid accession process.”