Helsinki (AFP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin warned his Finnish counterpart on Saturday that relations between the two neighbors could be “negatively affected” if Finland follows through on its plans to apply for NATO membership.
The Kremlin’s press service said in a statement that Putin told Sauli Niinisto that Finland’s abandonment of its “traditional policy of military neutrality would be a mistake because there are no threats to Finland’s security.”
“Such a change in the country’s foreign policy can negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations, which have been built in the spirit of good-neighbourliness and partnership for many years, and have been mutually beneficial,” the statement added.
The response came after Niinisto told Putin in a phone conversation that the militarily nonaligned Scandinavian country, which has a complex history with its huge eastern neighbor, “will decide to apply for NATO membership in the coming days.”
Niinisto’s office said in a statement that the Finnish head of state told Putin how the Finnish security environment has dramatically changed after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.He referred to Russia’s demands for Finland to refrain from seeking membership in the 30-nation Western Military Alliance.
Avoiding tensions was important,” said Niinistö, who has been Finland’s president since 2012 and one of a handful of Western leaders who have had regular dialogue with Putin over the past decade.
Niinistö noted that he had already told Putin at their first meeting in 2012 that “each independent country will strengthen its security to the maximum.”
“This is still the case. By joining NATO, Finland will strengthen its security and assume its responsibilities.”
Niinistö stressed that Finland, despite its possible future membership in NATO, wants to continue to deal with Russia bilaterally on “practical issues arising from the border neighborhood” and hopes to deal with Moscow “in a professional manner”.
According to the Kremlin statement, the two leaders also discussed the “Russian military operation” in Ukraine, and the possibility of achieving a political solution. Putin said negotiations between Moscow and Kiev had been suspended due to “Ukraine’s lack of interest in conducting a serious and constructive dialogue”.
Niinisto’s office said the phone call was made at Finland’s initiative.
Finland shares a 1,340-kilometre (830-mile) border with Russia, the longest border by any member of the European Union.
Niinisto and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin on Thursday jointly endorsed their country’s bid for NATO and recommended that “Finland should apply for NATO membership without delay” to ensure its security.
An official announcement from Niinistö and Marin about Finland’s intention to apply for NATO membership is expected on Sunday. Marin’s ruling Social Democrats approved the membership application on Saturday, paving the way for a parliamentary vote next week to endorse the move. It is expected to go through overwhelming support. The official membership application is then submitted to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Neighboring Sweden is preparing to make a decision on its position on NATO on Sunday at a meeting of the ruling Social Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.
One potential obstacle to Finland and Sweden joining the alliance came from NATO member Turkey, whose chief said on Friday He was “not in favor” of the idea.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan noted support in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries for Kurdish militants – whom Turkey considers terrorists.
Finland’s Foreign Minister, Pekka Haavisto, said on Saturday that he had already called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, to “reduce tensions”.
“I am sure we will find a solution to this item as well,” he told reporters at the start of an informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Berlin late on Saturday.
US President Joe Biden had a joint call Friday with Niinisto and Andersson in which, according to a White House statement, he “emphasized his support for NATO’s open door policy and the right of Finland and Sweden to determine their own future, foreign policy, and security arrangements.”
Frank Jordan in Berlin contributed to this report.
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