HELSINKI – Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Thursday that Finland must apply “without delay” to join the NATO military alliance, a major policy shift triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But the Nordic country stayed out of the mix until Russia invaded Ukraine to maintain friendly relations with its eastern neighbor.
“Finland must apply to join NATO without delay,” Niinisto and Marin said in a joint statement.
“We hope to take the national steps needed to make this decision swiftly in the coming days.”
NATO allies expect Finland and Sweden to apply to join the alliance in the next few days and to grant membership quickly, five diplomats and officials told Reuters ahead of Finland’s announcement.
The Baltic states, once ruled by Moscow and now a member of NATO, welcomed Finland’s announcement.
“Finland has decided to join the alliance. NATO is about to become stronger. The Baltic Sea is about to become safer,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabriel Landsbergis.
Finnish public support for joining NATO has hit record highs in recent months, with 76% of Finns in favour and only 12% against, according to the latest poll by public broadcaster YLE It hovered around 25% for years before the Ukrainian war.
While military non-alignment has long satisfied many Finns as a way to avoid conflict, Russia’s invasion of sovereign Ukraine has led more and more Finns to dismiss friendly relations with Russia as empty words.
Ukraine’s fate is particularly troubling for Finland, as it fought two wars with Russia between 1939 and 1944, repelling an invasion attempt, but lost about 10 percent of its territory in a subsequent peace deal.
Finland’s quick turn to NATO is likely to pull neighbor Sweden.
Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats are expected to decide on Sunday whether to overturn a decades-old opposition to joining NATO, a move that will almost certainly lead Sweden to also demand membership in the 30-nation alliance.
Russia has repeatedly warned both countries not to join the alliance. As recently as March 12, its foreign ministry said that if they did, “there will be serious military and political consequences”.
The speed with which Finland decided to apply came as a surprise to many, with most political discussions taking place behind the scenes amid fears of a Russian reaction.
In March, the Finnish government launched a security policy review and in April submitted a report for parliamentary discussion, as well as discussions with all parliamentary groups to ensure support for the decision to join the treaty.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has previously said it was possible to have Finland and Sweden join “very soon”.