Finland has said it will apply to join NATO “immediately” and is expected to be followed by Sweden, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seemed to lead to the very expansion of the military alliance that Vladimir Putin sought to prevent.
The decision of the two northern countries to renounce the neutrality they maintained throughout the Cold War will be one of the biggest shifts in European security in decades.
Russia called Finland’s statement a direct threat to the country and threatened a response, including inaccurate “military-technical” measures.
It came at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine was another major setback, with Ukrainian forces pushing Russian troops out of the region around Kharkiv’s second-largest city, the fastest advance of Ukraine since Russia was forced more than a month ago. move away from the capital and the northeast of the country.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Finns would be “warmly welcomed” and promised a “smooth and quick” accession process.
French President Emmanuel Macron has said he fully supports Finland’s choice to join the alliance.
Finland’s 1,300-kilometer border will more than double the length of the border between the U.S.-Russia-led alliance, and NATO guards will be within hours of driving off the northern outskirts of St. Petersburg.
“Finland must immediately apply for NATO membership,” said President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin in a joint statement, hoping that steps to take a decision would be taken soon within the next few days.
Asked whether Finland’s accession posed a direct threat to Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “Of course. NATO enlargement does not make our continent more stable and secure.”
“This can not but cause us regret and is the basis for appropriate symmetrical responses on our part,” – added Peskov.
The Foreign Ministry said that Russia would be forced to take “retaliatory steps, both military-technical and other,” without giving any details.
In the past, Russian officials have talked about possible measures, including the deployment of nuclear missiles in the Baltic Sea.
Asked on Wednesday whether Finland would provoke Russia by joining NATO, Niinista replied: “My answer will be that you contributed to this. Look in the mirror.”
Five diplomats and officials told Reuters that NATO allies expect both countries to gain membership soon, paving the way for increased troop presence in the Northern Region to protect them within a one-year ratification period.
Putin, the president of Russia, called the potential enlargement of NATO one of the main reasons for launching a “special military operation” in Ukraine in February.
NATO describes itself as a defense alliance built on a treaty that states that an attack on one member is an attack on all, giving US allies protection of the power of a superpower, including its nuclear arsenal.
Russia sees this as a threat to its security.
But Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has changed Nordic public opinion, and political parties that have long maintained neutrality now hold the view that Russia is a threat.
In particular, Finland has a centuries-old difficult history in the shadow of Russia.
Ruled the Russian Empire in 1809-1917, it fought off Soviet invasions on the eve of World War II and took some Soviet influence as a price for not taking sides in the Cold War.
Controversy erupted on Thursday over Russia’s energy supplies to Europe, still Russia’s largest source of funds and Europe’s largest source of heat and electricity.
Russia has said it will cut off gas flows to Germany via a main pipeline through Poland, while Ukraine has said it will not open a pipeline route that was closed this week unless it regains control of areas from pro-Russian militants.
Gas prices have risen in Europe.
In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council decided to launch an investigation into possible war crimes by Russian troops during the occupation of the territory near Kiev before they were expelled in late March.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michel Bachelet said there were many examples of possible war crimes, including unlawful killings and executions.
Russia denies deliberate attacks on civilians.
In recent days, Ukraine has launched a counteroffensive on the front line, pushing Russian troops out of villages north and east of Kharkiv that they have held since the beginning of the invasion.
Reuters confirmed that Ukraine now controls the territory stretching to the banks of the Seversky Donets River, about 40 km east of Kharkov.