Finland joins NATO in historic realignment sparked by Russian invasion of Ukraine


BRUSSELS (AFP) – Finland’s blue-and-white cross-Nordic flag was raised outside NATO headquarters on Tuesday as the alliance’s 31st member, in the first step of a historic realignment of European defenses prompted by Russia’s war on the Ukraine.

Western officials will pressure their reluctant allies in Hungary and Turkey to lift their bloc on Sweden, so they can join it too.

Already Helsinki’s strategic shift – which ended decades of military non-alignment – has doubled the length of the US-led alliance’s land border with Russia and drawn angry warnings of “countermeasures” from the Kremlin.

Finland’s foreign minister formally sealed Helsinki’s membership by depositing the accession papers before the Finnish flag was raised between the French and Estonian flags to a chorus outside NATO’s imposing headquarters in Brussels.

“Finland now has the strongest friends and allies in the world,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said.

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin was “trying to slam NATO’s door.” Today we show the world that it has failed, that aggression and intimidation do not work.”

(CD) Danish Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib and German Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock speak together as they come to the North Atlantic Council. NAC) Meeting of Foreign Ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 4, 2023. (Photo by Olivier MATTHYS / POOL / AFP)

Joining NATO places Finland under Article Five of the Alliance, the mutual defense commitment that an attack on one member “will be regarded as an attack on them all”.

This was the guarantee Finland’s leaders decided they needed as they watched Putin’s disastrous attack on Ukraine.

“The era of military non-alignment in our history has come to an end, a new era begins,” said Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.

“NATO membership strengthens our international position and our ability to maneuver,” he said.

US President Joe Biden said the newest member strengthened the alliance and pledged to “defend every inch of NATO territory.”

But Moscow was angered by the move, which takes its border with NATO member states to 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles), making it an “attack” on Russia’s national security and interests.

“This forces us to take countermeasures… in tactical and strategic terms,” ​​Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) display Finland’s Instrument of Ratification on the sidelines of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) Foreign Ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 4, 2023 . (Photo by Olivier MATTHYS / POOL / AFP)

Powerful military

Invaded by its giant neighbour, the Soviet Union, in 1939, Finland – which shares a 1,300 kilometer border with Russia – remained out of NATO throughout the Cold War.

Its membership now brings a strong army into the alliance with a wartime strength of 280,000 and one of the largest artillery arsenals in Europe.

Its strategic location bolsters NATO defenses on a border that stretches from the fragile Baltic states to the increasingly competitive Arctic.

NATO’s senior military commander, Admiral Rob Bauer, told AFP that Finland had so far not asked its troops to station new allies on soil.

NATO officials say the war in Ukraine has overwhelmed Moscow’s forces, but the alliance is monitoring how Russia responds to gauge its future steps.

Turkey and Hungary, seeking leverage over allies in separate political battles, have delayed Finland’s bid to come under NATO’s umbrella – and Stockholm’s progress remains blocked.

But last week, the Turkish parliament voted to clear Finland’s final hurdle.

Completion of ratification in less than one year makes this the fastest membership process in the Alliance’s recent history.

NATO was created as a counterweight to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War era which began immediately after the Allies defeated Nazi Germany.

A Ukrainian policeman takes cover in front of a burning building hit by a Russian airstrike in Avdiivka, Ukraine, Friday, March 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Sweden soon?

However, the arrival of Finland is a bittersweet moment for the alliance as it was hoped that Sweden would come on board at the same time.

It is Budapest and Ankara that have long agreed to go through with the Helsinki offer.

Sweden has upset Hungarian leader Viktor Orban — one of Putin’s closest allies in Europe — by threatening the rule of law in Hungary.

She also angered Turkey by refusing to extradite dozens of people suspected of ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s failed coup attempt in 2016 and the decades-long Kurdish independence struggle.

The calls for Sweden to join as soon as the Finnish flag fluttered in the cold wind in Brussels were led by the United States and other NATO members.

“Sweden is also a strong and capable partner that is ready to join NATO,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Swedish Prime Minister Tobias Billstroem (R) speak together as they arrive at the North Atlantic Council (NAC) Foreign Ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 4, 2023. (Photo by Olivier MATTHYS/POOL/AFP)

“We urge Turkey and Hungary to ratify the accession protocols for Sweden without delay.”

Ukraine is also finally pushing for NATO membership, but Western diplomats say that remains a distant prospect.

“There is no better strategic solution to ensure strategic security in the Euro-Atlantic region than Ukraine’s membership in the alliance,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

NATO members meanwhile insist they are focused on providing Ukraine with the weaponry and support it needs to win the war with Russia.

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