By Luke McGee, CNN
Finland’s president and prime minister announced their support for joining NATO on Thursday, moving the Nordic nation which shares an 800-mile border with Russia one step closer to membership of the US-led military alliance.
The statement of support for NATO from President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin had been expected, after the Finnish government recently submitted a report on national security to the country’s parliament which outlined the path to joining the alliance as one of Finland’s options.
In the joint statement, Niinisto and Marin said: “NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defence alliance. Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay. We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, public support for joining NATO in Finland has leaped from around 30% to nearly 80% in some polls.
Once parliament has approved the idea in principle and any other domestic legislative hurdles have been cleared, it is expected that NATO would invite Finland to negotiate its accession.
It is also expected that Sweden, Finland’s neighbor to the west, will soon announce its intention to join the alliance through a similar process.
Russia has warned both countries against joining NATO, saying there would be consequences.
European diplomats and security officials widely assume that Finland could join the alliance quickly once negotiations start, as it has been buying military hardware compatible with its Western allies, including the US, for decades and already meets many of the criteria for membership.
Finland joining NATO would have both practical and symbolic consequences for Russia and the Western alliance.
Since the end of World War II, Finland has been militarily non-aligned and nominally neutral in order to avoid provoking Russia. It has indulged the Kremlin’s security concerns at times and tried to maintain good trading relations.
The war in Ukraine, however, has sufficiently changed the calculation, so that joining NATO now seems the best way forward, regardless of what Russia’s reaction might be.
European defense officials who have talked to CNN in recent months assume that NATO countries will offer some guarantees around Finland’s security during the accession process, in case Russia retaliates before it has formally joined.
On Wednesday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new security pacts with Finland and Sweden, pledging to come to either country’s assistance if one of them came under attack.
Finland has historically had high defense spending and still has a policy of conscription, with all adult men liable to be called up for military service. It is widely acknowledged among NATO officials that Finland joining the alliance would be a significant boost in countering Russian aggression because of how seriously the country has historically treated its own security.
It also shares more than 800 miles of border with Russia, which is significant as the Kremlin stated before invading Ukraine that it wanted to see NATO roll back its borders to where they were in the 1990s.
Instead, President Vladimir Putin’s gambit may result in a stronger NATO creeping closer.
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.