Finland’s government has declared a “new era” is underway as it inches closer to seeking NATO membership
By FRANK JORDANS and JARI TANNER Associated Press — 16 May 2022, 04:01
BERLIN — Finland’s government declared a “new era” is underway as it inches closer to seeking NATO membership, hours before Sweden’s governing party on Sunday backed a plan to join the trans-Atlantic alliance amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Russia has long bristled about NATO moving closer to its borders, so the developments will be sure to further anger Moscow. President Vladimir Putin has already warned his Finnish counterpart on Saturday that relations would be “negatively affected.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Sunday the process for Finland and Sweden to join could be very quick. He also didn’t expect Turkey to hold up the process.
Speaking after top diplomats from the alliance’s 30 member states met in Berlin, Stoltenberg also expressed his hope that Ukraine could win the war as Russian military advances appear to be faltering.
In Finland, President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin confirmed earlier statements that their country would seek membership in NATO during a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki. The Nordic country, which was nonaligned before changing its stance on NATO, shares a long border with Russia.
“This is a historic day. A new era begins,” Niinisto said.
The Finnish Parliament is expected to endorse the decision in the coming days. A formal membership application will then be submitted to NATO headquarters in Brussels, most likely at some point next week.
Sweden, also nonaligned, moved a step closer to applying for NATO membership after the governing Social Democratic party met Sunday and backed joining the trans-Atlantic alliance.
The plan to join the alliance will be discussed in Sweden’s parliament on Monday, and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s Cabinet will make an announcement later that day.
The decision by the Social Democrats breaks with the party’s long-standing position that Sweden must remain nonaligned and means there’s a clear majority for NATO membership in Parliament.
Sweden has not been a member of a military alliance since the Napoleonic Wars. Finland adopted neutrality after being defeated by the Red Army in World War II and losing about 10% of its territory.
“Our 200-year-long standing policy of military nonalignment has served Sweden well,” Andersson said during a news conference in Stockholm late Sunday. “But the issue at hand is whether military nonalignment will keep serving us well?”
“We’re now facing a fundamentally changed security environment in Europe.”
Finland and Sweden abandoned traditional neutrality by joining the European Union in 1995.
Public opinion in both countries was firmly against joining NATO until the Russian invasion on Ukraine on Feb. 24, when support for membership surged almost overnight, first in Finland and later in Sweden.
NATO’s secretary-general, meanwhile, sought to highlight Russian military setbacks.
“Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going as Moscow had planned,” Stoltenberg said by video link to the NATO meeting in Berlin as he recovers from a COVID-19 infection.” “They failed to take Kyiv. They are pulling back from around Kharkiv. Their major offensive in Donbas has stalled. Russia is not achieving its strategic objectives.”
“Ukraine can win this war,” he said, adding that NATO must continue to step up its military support to the country.
The ex-Soviet republic of Georgia’s bid to join NATO is again being discussed despite dire warnings from Moscow about the consequences. Both countries fought a brief war in 2008 over Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Nordic NATO member Norway said it strongly welcomed Finland’s decision to seek membership. Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt described Helsinki’s move as “a turning point” for the Nordic region’s defense and security policies.
Stoltenberg said he was confident the accession process for Finland and Sweden could be expedited. In the meantime, the alliance would increase its presence in the Baltic region to deter Russian threats, he said.
“All allies realize the historic magnitude of the moment,” Stoltenberg added.
That sentiment was echoed by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
“Sweden and Finland, if you’re ready, we’re ready,” she said.
But NATO member Turkey has raised concerns about the two countries joining, alleging they support Kurdish militants that Ankara considers terrorists.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has waged an insurgency against Turkey since 1984 and the conflict has killed tens of thousands of people. Turkey has also been infuriated by U.S. support for PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish militants to fight the Islamic State group.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters in Berlin that Finland and Sweden had also imposed restrictions on defense sales to Turkey that he called “unacceptable.”
“It’s not because we are against the expansion of NATO, but because we believe countries who support terror and follow such policies against us should not be NATO allies,” Çavuşoğlu said.
Stoltenberg said his understanding is that Turkey wants to have its concerns over Finland and Sweden addressed first.
“Turkey has made it clear that their intention is not to block membership,” he said.
Nonetheless, Turkey’s raising of its grievances has led to concerns in Washington and Brussels that other NATO members might also use the admission process as a way to wring concessions from allies, possibly complicating and delaying accession.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke with Çavuşoğlu and will see him again on the margins of a special U.N. Security Council meeting later this week in New York, declined to comment on those concerns.
But he was optimistic that all NATO members would support bids from Finland and Sweden.
“I’m very confident that we will reach consensus,” he said after the meeting in Berlin.
Jari Tanner reported from Helsinki. Matthew Lee in Berlin, and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul, contributed to this report.
Niinistö to Putin: Finland will seek Nato membership soon
The Finnish president said the phone call was “conducted without aggravations”. He also predicted that Turkey will eventually back Finland’s Nato bid.
14.5. 22:02•Updated 15.5. 01:04
President Sauli Niinistö called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, informing him that Finland will apply for Nato membership within the next few days.
According to the president’s office, Niinistö told his Russian counterpart “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”.
In a tweet on Saturday afternoon, Niinistö said the conversation was “direct and straightforward” and “conducted without aggravations”.
In a statement, he added that “avoiding tensions was considered important” and that ” Finland wants to take care of the practical questions arising from being a neighbour of Russia in a correct and professional manner”.
Niinistö repeated “his deep concern over the human suffering” caused by Russia’s attack and the need to secure the evacuation of civilians.
According to the Russian news agency Ria, Putin warned Niinistö in the conversation that changing Finland’s foreign policy could undermine relations between Finland and Russia.
Putin was quoted as saying that Finland is not under any security threat and that giving up non-alignment could be a mistake.
The day before, Niinistö spoke with his US counterpart Joe Biden in a joint conversation with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.
Niinistö: Turkey unlikely to block membership
Interviewed by Yle on Saturday morning, Niinistö said he does not believe that Turkey will ultimately try to block Finland’s Nato membership.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that it was “impossible” for Turkey to take a positive view of Finland’s and Sweden’s applications for membership. He said that allowing the Nordic countries to join would be “a mistake”, suggesting that they support Kurdish separatists.
Speaking on the Yle current affairs programme Ykkösaamu, Niinistö said that Turkey’s message to Finland has been quite different in the past.
“We should take this calmly. So far, Turkey’s message to us has been quite the opposite,” he said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to speculate that they will ultimately try to throw a spanner in the works.”
The issue may be discussed when Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green) meets with Nato foreign ministers in Berlin on Saturday. Finland and Sweden were invited to join the informal meeting of ministers, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
On Friday Haavisto also called for patience and calm in response to Erdogan’s comments, saying that he has received supportive messages from Turkish officials this spring.
Turkey seeks talks with Nordic countries on PKK
On Saturday, Erdogan’s top foreign policy advisor said that Turkey has not shut the door to Sweden and Finland joining Nato but wants negotiations with the Nordic countries and a clampdown on what it sees as terrorist activities especially in Stockholm.
“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” Ibrahim Kalin told Reuters.
Any country seeking to join Nato needs the unanimous support of all 30 members of the alliance. The US and other member states have been trying to clarify Ankara’s position, Reuters reports.
Kalin said the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union – was fund-raising and recruiting in Europe and Sweden in particular.
“They have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organisations, individuals and other types of presence to…exist in those countries,” Kalin said.
Kalin denied that Russia’s sharp criticism of Finland and Sweden over their plans was a factor in Turkey’s position.
Grushko: “No hostile intentions”
Commenting on the two countries’ likely Nato applications, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said on Saturday that Moscow has no hostile intentions towards Finland and Sweden.
However in an interview with Russian news agency Interfax quoted by Reuters, he warned that Russia will take precautionary measures if Nato deploys nuclear forces and infrastructure closer to its border.
17.28: Added Putin quotes from Ria.
18.04: Added Kalin quotes from Reuters.