Russia’s saber-rattling in Ukraine has sparked a debate in Finland over whether the Nordic country should join NATO, disregarding demands from Moscow seeking to curb the expansion of the military alliance in Europe.
Both President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin used their New Year’s speech to underline that Finland retained the option to seek NATO membership at any time.
“Let it be stated once again: Finland’s room for maneuver and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and to apply for NATO membership, should we decide so ourselves,” Niinisto said.
Marin added in her separate speech that each country had the right to decide its own security policy, emphasizing: “We have shown that we have learned from the past. We will not let our room for maneuver go. ”
As Russia gather about 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, Washington, Moscow and NATO member states will meet in early January for talks. US President Joe Biden will also speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday. Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously refused to exclude military action and warned he had “all kinds” of options if his demands for “security guarantees” to limit NATO expansion were not met.
Finland and near Sweden are both militarily non-aligned but have a growing partnership with NATO as well as strong bilateral relations with alliance members such as the US, Norway and the UK.
There is no feeling from Finland that it is about to apply for NATO membership, but Russia’s activity on the borders of Ukraine and its list of demands just before Christmas has the internal debate in Helsinki to a level last seen after the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Niinisto also warned the west that there was a danger in empowering Russia if it eliminated the threat of possible military action. Referring to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on the path of Nazi Germany, the Finnish president said: “When avoiding war was the primary goal of a group of powers, the international system was at the mercy of of his most ruthless member. “
Petteri Orpo, leader of the main opposition National Coalition Party, a longtime supporter of NATO membership, also said that now was the time to discuss whether Finland should apply and that he believed in joining both its security and that of the neighboring region will improve.
“Russia has recently suggested that the possible NATO membership of Finland and Sweden will force it to retaliate militarily. Such a speech is reprehensible and ultimately says more about Russia’s ultimate goals than Finland’s or Sweden’s. Finland does not now or in any other way pose a threat to Russia, ”Orpo said Thursday in a post on his party’s website.
Atte Harjanne, an active reservist and head of the Green Party’s parliamentary group, a member of the ruling five-party governing coalition, said the arguments for Finland to join were “strengthened” and that the country should join immediately.
Leading politicians in all three Baltic countries believe that Finnish and Swedish membership of NATO is crucial for improving the security situation on Russia’s western border amid concerns not only about Ukraine but also Belarus and its use of migrants to test Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Finland and Sweden joining NATO “can make the whole of Northern Europe much more stable and secure,” said Marko Mihkelson, Head of Estonia’s Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Finland is one of the few European countries that did not cut it significantly military power after the Cold War as its 1,340 km long border with Russia, and memories of the bitter battle 1939-40 winter war against the Soviet Union, ensured that security issues remained a high priority.
Finland has also maintained close diplomatic and commercial ties with Russia, and security experts say Niinisto may be the European leader most respected by his Russian counterpart Putin, with whom he has regular talks.