Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to ratchet up the pressure on Finland over its plans to apply for NATO membership, but Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said Russia‘s own actions were the reason Helsinki decided to change course.
In a weekend phone call initiated by Mr. Niinisto, Mr. Putin warned his Finnish counterpart that joining the Western military alliance would be a “mistake” that would have an unspecified “negative impact” on bilateral relations.
Mr. Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin made it official a day after Mr. Putin called, announcing Sunday at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki that they were formally requesting Parliament approve the bid to join the 30-country alliance.
“This is a historic day. A new era begins,” Mr. Niinisto told a press conference Sunday morning.
The announcement came as NATO foreign ministers were meeting in Brussels to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. Top alliance officials and most European leaders have indicated they are strongly in support of the bid, although Turkey has expressed initial reservations.
Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, has seen public opinion shift sharply toward NATO membership in the wake of Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Sweden, which like Finland has for decades pursued a policy of military neutrality, is also expected to seek NATO membership in the coming days.
In their conversation, Mr. Niinisto’s office said he told Mr. 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,” the Finnish official statement on the call reported.
Mr. Putin launched the Ukraine invasion in February in part as a larger protest against NATO‘s eastward expansion toward Russia‘s borders in the post-Cold War era.
Russian officials said Mr. Putin and Mr. Niinisto had a “frank exchange of views” — diplomatic code for a blunt disagreement about the topics discussed.
The Finnish side said the two leaders laid out their differences candidly without tension. Mr. Niinisto also raised the issue of civilian casualties and human suffering sparked by the Russian military operation.
“In the future, Finland wants to manage correctly and professionally the practical issues that arise due to the neighborhood of the Russian Federation,” the Finnish statement said.