Russia has threatened “retaliatory steps” against Finland after its neighbour with which it shares a 1300km border announced its intention to join NATO “without delay”.
President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin released a joint statement declaring their support for the NATO alliance, abandoning a neutrality Finland had long maintained to keep the peace with Russia.
Moscow reacted to the news saying the move marked a “radical change” in Finland’s foreign policy, and warned that Russia would take measures to protect itself.
“Helsinki must be aware of the responsibility and consequences of such a move,” said Russia’s foreign ministry.
“Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to stop the threats to its national security that arise in this regard.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia’s reaction would “depend on what this expansion process will entail, how far and how close to our borders the military infrastructure will move”.
Finland’s neighbour to the west, Sweden, is also expected to decide on Sunday (local time) whether to overturn decades of opposition to NATO membership.
The two countries abandoning the neutrality they maintained throughout the Cold War would be one of the biggest shifts in European security in decades.
Addressing media, Finland’s president said the decision, which is expected to be confirmed in the next few days, was a direct reaction to Russia’s war on its neighbour.
“Joining NATO would not be against anyone. You caused this. Look in the mirror,” said Mr Niinisto.
Public support in Finland for becoming a member of NATO has soared from around 25 per cent to 80 per cent in various polls since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the Finns would be “warmly welcomed” and promised a “smooth and swift” accession process.
Finland which has a difficult past with Russia, has gradually stepped up its cooperation with NATO as a partner since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
But until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Nordic country had refrained from joining in order to maintain friendly relations with its eastern neighbour.
Russia opposes the expansion of the 30-member NATO alliance which it says is designed to constrain Russia.
Prior to invading Ukraine in February, Moscow was demanding binding guarantees from the United States and NATO that the alliance would not admit new members.
While military non-alignment has long satisfied many Finns as a way of staying out of conflicts, Russia’s invasion of sovereign Ukraine has led an increasing number of them to view friendly relations with Russia as an empty phrase.
Ukraine’s fate has been particularly disturbing for Finland to watch as it fought two wars with Russia between 1939 and 1944, repelling an attempted invasion but losing around 10 per cent of its territory in the subsequent peace agreement.
The speed of the Finnish decision to apply has come as a surprise to many, with most political discussions taking place behind the scenes out of fear over Russia’s reaction.
In March, Finland’s government initiated a security policy review and delivered a report for parliament to discuss in April, while also holding discussions with all parliamentary groups to secure backing for the decision to join the treaty.
In parallel with the domestic process, Finland’s president and prime minister have been touring NATO’s 30 existing member countries to win their support for Finland’s membership.
UN to investigate Russian abuses
The UN Human Rights Council has voted to launch an investigation into alleged abuses by Russian troops in the Kyiv area that Ukraine says amount to war crimes.
A resolution brought by Ukraine and supported by more than 50 other countries mandates a newly-formed Commission of Inquiry to investigate events in the regions around Kyiv that were temporarily held by Russian troops.
“The areas … which have been under Russian occupation in late February and March have experienced the most gruesome human rights violations on the European continent in decades,” Emine Dzhaparova, Ukraine’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, told the council.
A spokesman for the Russian mission to the United Nations in Geneva did not provide an immediate comment on the possibility of a war crimes investigation.
Russia denies targeting civilians and calls its actions in Ukraine since February 24 a “special military operation” to disarm the country and rid it of what the Kremlin calls anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West.
Russia was suspended from the 47-member Council last month over allegations of violations in Ukraine, although Moscow says it quit.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said there were many examples of possible war crimes in the country since the Russian invasion, saying that 1000 bodies had been recovered so far in the Kyiv region.
“The scale of unlawful killings, including indicia of summary executions in areas to the north of Kyiv, is shocking,” she said.
Dozens of countries spoke in favour of the resolution, which would also request Bachelet to provide an update at its June session on violations in the Russian-besieged port city of Mariupol.