Russian officials were quick to promise retaliation Thursday as Finland‘s top leaders confirmed they were ready to abandon decades of neutrality and apply to join the NATO military alliance “without delay.”
The Finnish application, which was greeted with enthusiasm by top NATO and Western leaders, would represent a major geopolitical blowback for Russian President Vladimir Putin for his decision to invade neighboring Ukraine in late February. The Kremlin explicitly justified the operation in part as a way to protest and prevent further NATO expansion eastward.
Sweden, another country that has long resisted formal membership in NATO, is widely expected to follow Helsinki’s lead in the coming days. In both Scandinavian countries, public opinion that had long been on the fence swung sharply in favor of NATO membership virtually from the day Russian forces entered Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“Time has been needed to let Parliament and the whole society establish their stands on the matter. Time has been needed for close international contacts with NATO and its member countries, as well as with Sweden,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in their statement.
Adding Finland to the NATO alliance also would strengthen Europe’s collective security, the Finnish leaders said.
“We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days,” they said.
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Leaders from Germany, the Baltic states and other countries across Europe quickly issued statements praising the Finnish decision. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg predicted Helsinki’s application would sail through.
“Should Finland decide to apply, they would be warmly welcomed into NATO, and the accession process would be smooth and swift,” Mr. Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.
Moscow reacted furiously to the news and promised to take steps against a country with which it shares an 830-mile border.
“Finland joining NATO is a radical change in the country’s foreign policy,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday. “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.”
A Russian newspaper said Moscow was considering a cutoff of oil shipments to its neighbor to express its displeasure. The official Tass news service ran an analysis predicting Helsinki would lose influence as just the 28th country inside NATO instead of playing the role of “honest broker” between Russia and the West.
“Of course, it will,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters when asked if Finland‘s bid posed a threat to Russian interests, according to the official Interfax news service. “Another enlargement of NATO does not make our continent more stable and secure.”
Just as a matter of geography, having Finland inside NATO will more than double the length of the border between the Western alliance and Russia, putting NATO forces just a few hours’ drive from the northern outskirts of St. Petersburg.
Finland‘s Mr. Niinisto, meeting with visiting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week, said Mr. Putin himself was responsible for the swift shift in attitudes in Finland toward NATO.
Russia “caused this,” he said Wednesday. “Look in the mirror.”
The Finnish president said in a Twitter message Thursday that he had spoken with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about Finland‘s intention to join NATO. Mr. Zelenskyy “expressed his full support for it,” Mr. Niinisto said.
A recent opinion poll by Finnish public broadcaster YLE found that 76% of Finns are now in favor of joining NATO, a major reversal from earlier years, when only 20% to 30% of respondents favored such military alignment.
While bolstering and expanding NATO membership in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is expected to enjoy bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, some analysts say the Biden administration shouldn’t mindlessly expand the alliance roster merely to punish Russia.
Officials with the libertarian-leaning Defense Priorities think tank argued that Washington should not support adding Finland to NATO until European members offer assurances that they will take the lead in defending the Nordic countries “rather than relying, as usual, on U.S. efforts.”
“The question of Finland and Sweden joining NATO is, if anything, less urgent today because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Defense Priorities policy director Benjamin H. Friedman said in a statement. “The war has eroded Russia’s conventional power and demonstrates its capability is not what was once feared.”
Several Republican lawmakers who have been critical of some of Mr. Biden’s decisions on Ukraine quickly came out in favor of the Finnish bid.
“The United States should welcome Finland into the NATO alliance with open arms,” Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said in a statement. “Finland has a proud history of resisting Russian aggression and will be a valuable ally in Europe. Finland’s military will soon exceed NATO military spending requirements and averages, demonstrating its ability to contribute to the alliance.”
The State Department announced that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Berlin on Friday for an informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers. The Finnish decision likely will be a major part of the discussion.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.