HELSINKI, Feb. 22 – Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said today that Russia’s actions during the Ukraine crisis could reignite the debate over his country’s NATO membership.
Helsinki was quick to condemn last night Moscow’s recognition of the pro-Russian separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine.
Asked at a press conference today whether fears of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine had brought Helsinki closer to joining the US-led security alliance, Niinisto replied that ‘He did not know it.
But “we have a heated debate about joining NATO, and it will certainly be activated again if Russia gives a reason,” he said.
“Finland strongly supports Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” added the Finnish leader, who has been in regular contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin as tensions have risen in recent months.
Finland and neighboring Sweden are not members of NATO, but the two countries are partners in the Western military alliance.
Faced with Moscow’s demands not to extend NATO to the East, Helsinki and Stockholm have declared that they refuse any Russian interference in their security policy.
Finland and Sweden have been assured by NATO that the door remains open to them, although the ruling Social Democrats in both countries have no plans to join.
Finland officially regards an application for membership as an “option”, unlike Sweden.
But, Niinisto told reporters, even if the country decided on a bid, the procedures could be lengthy and NATO member states would still have to agree.
“There is no flash process,” he said.
Part of Russia between 1809 and 1917, Finland shares a border of more than 1,300 kilometers with its eastern neighbour.
The two countries clashed militarily during World War II.
During the Cold War, Finland’s leadership agreed to stay out of Western defense cooperation to avoid a Soviet invasion. —AFP