BERLIN (AP) — Finland’s government says a “new era” is upon us after announcing its intention to seek NATO membership, hours before Sweden’s ruling party on Sunday backed a plan to joining the transatlantic alliance amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The developments are sure to anger Moscow further, with President Vladimir Putin already warning his Finnish counterpart on Saturday that relations would be “negatively affected”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking on Sunday after senior diplomats from the alliance’s 30 member states met in Berlin, said the process of joining Finland and Sweden could be very fast. He also expressed his hope that Ukraine can win the war as Russian military advances appear to be running out of steam.
In Finland, President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced that their country would apply for NATO membership during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in Helsinki. The previously neutral Nordic country shares a long border with Russia.
“It’s a historic day. A new era begins,” Niinisto said.
The Finnish Parliament is expected to approve the decision in the coming days. A formal membership application will then be submitted to NATO headquarters in Brussels, most likely sometime next week.
Sweden also moved closer to applying for NATO membership after the ruling Social Democratic Party backed joining the transatlantic alliance.
“At its meeting today, the board of the Social Democratic Party decided that the party will work for Sweden to apply for NATO membership,” the party said in a statement.
The plan to join the alliance will be discussed in the Swedish parliament on Monday, and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s office will make an announcement later today.
“Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going the way Moscow planned,” Stoltenberg said via video link at the NATO meeting in Berlin as he recovered from a COVID-19 infection. “. Their major offensive in the Donbass has stalled. Russia is not achieving its strategic goals.”
“Ukraine can win this war,” he said, adding that NATO should continue to strengthen its military support to the country.
Sweden has also already taken steps to join the alliance, while Georgia’s candidacy is being discussed again despite dire warnings from Moscow about the consequences if its neighbor becomes a NATO member.
Norway, a Nordic member of NATO, said it warmly welcomed Finland’s decision to apply for membership. Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt described the Helsinki decision as “a turning point” for defense and security policies in the Nordic region.
“Finland’s NATO membership will be good for Finland, good for the Nordic region and good for NATO. Finland has Norway’s full support,” Huitfeldt said in comments emailed to The Associated Press.
Huitfeldt said the Norwegian government would facilitate “prompt consent to ratification by the Norwegian Parliament” for Finland’s NATO membership.
“We are now witnessing an unprecedented unity within NATO. With Finnish membership, we will further strengthen the northern flank of the military alliance,” Huitfeldt said.
Stoltenberg said he was convinced that the accession process for Finland and Sweden could be accelerated. In the meantime, the alliance will increase its presence in the Baltic region to deter Russian threats, he said.
“All allies realize the historic magnitude of the moment,” Stoltenberg added.
This sentiment was shared 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 whom Ankara considers terrorists.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has been waging an insurgency against Turkey since 1984 and the conflict has killed tens of thousands of people. Turkey has also been enraged by US support for PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish militants to fight the Islamic State group.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters in Berlin on Sunday that Finland and Sweden had also imposed restrictions on defense sales to Turkey which he described as “unacceptable”.
“It is not because we are against NATO enlargement, but because we believe that countries which support terrorism and conduct such policies against us should not be NATO allies,” Çavuşoğlu said.
However, Stoltenberg said he understood that Turkey was not aiming to exclude Finland or Sweden, but rather to ensure that their concerns were addressed first.
“Turkey has made it clear that its intention is not to block accession,” he said.
Nonetheless, Turkey’s grievances have raised fears in Washington and Brussels that other NATO members are also using the admissions process as a way to extract concessions from their allies, potentially complicating and delay joining.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke with Çavuşoğlu and will see him again on the sidelines of a special UN Security Council meeting later this week in New York, declined to comment on the concerns. But he said he was confident that all NATO members would support the offers.
“I have heard almost everywhere very strong support for Finland and Sweden to join the alliance, if that is what they choose to do, and I am very confident that we will reach a consensus”, a- he said after the meeting in Berlin.
On the sidelines of the Berlin meeting, Blinken met his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba earlier on Sunday to discuss the impact of the war and how to get Ukrainian grain to international markets.
Britain’s top diplomat said NATO members would also discuss security issues beyond Europe when they meet on Sunday – a reference to growing unease among democratic nations over the rise of China.
“In addition to protecting Euro-Atlantic security, we must also look after Indo-Pacific security,” Foreign Minister Liz Truss said.
Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod dismissed suggestions that Putin’s objections could prevent the alliance from bringing in new members.
“We now see a world where the number one enemy of democracy is Putin and the thought he represents,” Kofod said, adding that NATO would also stand with other countries, like Georgia, which , according to him, were “instrumentalised” by Russia. .
Jari Tanner reported from Helsinki. Matthew Lee in Berlin and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Frank Jordans and Jari Tanner, Associated Press