Finland Races Toward Likely NATO Membership as Putin's Warnings Backfire

Finland Prime Minister Sanna Marin said Saturday that the country will make a decision on applying for NATO membership by the end of spring, because "Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was."

Finland's relations with Russia have changed in an "irreversible" way, said Marin, reversing course on earlier remarks that it would be "very unlikely" that Finland would apply for membership with the military alliance during her current term of office.

Russian officials have warned of potential retaliation, in the form of military and political consequences, should Finland and Sweden join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Sergei Belyaev, director of the Second European Department of Russia's Foreign Ministry, told Russia's state-run news agency Interfax that Finland and Sweden not joining NATO is "an important factor in ensuring security and stability in northern Europe."

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on February 25—a day after the start of the invasion of Ukraine—said that Moscow would have to respond if Sweden and Finland intended to join NATO.

"Clearly [the] accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO, which is first and foremost a military alliance, would have serious military-political repercussions that would demand a response from our country," she said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said NATO's expansion east poses a security threat to Russia. He cited the alliance's expansion as part of his justification for launching his "special military operation" in Ukraine on February 24.

Moscow's attack in neighboring Ukraine has left Finland with no choice but to reexamine its security policy, Marin said.

The Finnish prime minister said a decision to seek NATO membership would be made "thoroughly but quickly," by this spring, according to Finnish broadcasting company Yleisradio Oy.

Finland is likely to face consequences either way, she said.

"If the president or I voiced strong opinions on the issue, it would be the end of the debate [...] I believe it's very important that all of Finland's most central institutions are involved in the ongoing debate," she said.

Marin previously said that she believed Finland had the right to join NATO if it decided to do so in the future.

"Nobody can influence us, not the United States, not Russia, not anyone else," she told Reuters on January 19, weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.

She said at the time that joining the alliance "would have a very substantial impact and the sanctions [from Russia] would be extremely tough."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN's Dana Bash on Sunday that the alliance has a "good dialogue" with Finland and Sweden about potentially becoming members in response to Putin's aggression in Ukraine.

The decision is ultimately for Finland to decide, said Stoltenberg.

"We respect the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Finland to decide their own future. That's exactly what Russia does not respect, they're actually trying to intimidate and are saying that if Finland decides to join NATO, there will be consequences," he said.

Stoltenberg added that if Finland or Sweden were to apply for NATO membership, he expects that they will be "very much welcomed by all allies" and that "we will find a way to do that in a relatively quick way, to take them into the alliance."

A survey conducted by think tank Finnish Business and Policy Forum Eva in March found that 60 percent of participants backed Finland joining NATO—an increase of 34 percentage points from last autumn—and 19 percent were opposed.

Newsweek has contacted Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Finnish Foreign Ministry and NATO for comment.

Follow our live blog for updates on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin is pictured during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not in the picture) at the Chancellery on February 19, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Marin said Saturday that the country will make a decision on applying for NATO membership by the end of spring. Emmanuele Contini//Getty Images

Update: 04/04/22, 11:55 a.m. ET: This article was updated with additional background information, and to change the word "potential" to "likely" in the headline.