May 12, 2022 - World

Finland's leaders declare support for joining NATO

NATO members in Europe
Data: NATO. Map: Thomas Oide/Axios

Finland's president and prime minister announced Thursday that they support an application for NATO membership, setting in motion a process that will culminate in the alliance's ninth enlargement since its founding in 1949.

Why it matters: Finland's membership in NATO would more than double the length of the alliance's borders with Russia. Sweden is expected to make an announcement on applying to NATO on Sunday. The transformation of Europe's security landscape is a nightmare for Vladimir Putin — but one triggered by his own decision to invade Ukraine.

What they're saying: "NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire [defense] alliance," Finland's President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement Thursday.

  • "Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay. We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days," they added.
  • Asked Wednesday if Putin would view the forthcoming announcement as provocative, Niinistö said at a press conference: "My response would be that you caused this. Look at the mirror."

The other side: Russia's foreign ministry issued a statement sharply criticizing Finland's decision and warning that its accession to NATO will cause "serious damage" to Russia-Finland relations and regional security.

  • "Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to stop the threats to its national security that arise in this regard," the foreign ministry said, in an echo of Moscow's rhetoric leading up to the Ukraine invasion.

The big picture: Public support for NATO membership in Finland and Sweden shot up virtually overnight after Russia invaded Ukraine, with a strong majority in both countries now in favor of joining.

  • Both countries have been close NATO partners for three decades, despite their official non-alignment.
  • But the West's refusal to send boots on the ground to defend Ukraine has underscored the difference that NATO's Article V commitment to collective defense — often hailed as "iron-clad" by President Biden — can make in a crisis.
  • "If Ukraine had been part of NATO before the war, there would have been no war," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech Wednesday.

Unlike Ukraine, Georgia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose membership aspirations have each been recognized by NATO, Finland and Sweden are expected to be admitted to the alliance relatively swiftly once they formally apply.

  • Finland's NATO-compatible military has a wartime strength of 280,000 and 900,000 reservists, in addition to some of the most sophisticated intelligence and cyber capabilities in Europe.
  • Its 800-mile border with Russia, a frontier on which two bloody wars were fought with the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1944, has helped foster a society-wide emphasis on security and "survival," according to Finnish security experts.
  • Sweden, meanwhile, has one of the strongest air forces in Europe, and together with Finland will dramatically bolster NATO's presence in the vulnerable Baltic region.

Between the lines: The "gray zone" period between when Finland and Sweden apply for NATO and are formally admitted is expected to give rise to heightened Russian disinformation, violations of air space and other hybrid threats.

  • Finnish media reports that critical infrastructure companies have been on high alert during "NATO Super Week" in anticipation of cyber attacks.
  • Finland and Sweden have already sought and received security assurances in anticipation of their NATO bid, including from the U.S. and U.K.
  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to both countries on Wednesday to sign "historic declarations" vowing to come to their defense if they're attacked.

What to watch: The timeline for Finland and Sweden's accession will depend on how quickly each of NATO's 30 member states sign off, but the alliance will be well on its way to enlargement by the time of its crucial summit in Madrid on June 29-30.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from the Kremlin.

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