Finland's President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin expressed their approval Thursday for joining NATO, a move that would complete a major policy shift for the country in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Their announcement drew an immediate rebuke from Moscow.
"NATO membership would strengthen Finland's security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance," the Finnish leaders said in a joint statement. "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."
The leaders said they came to their decision after allowing time for Finland's parliament and the public to consider the matter, and to consult with NATO and neighboring Sweden. Officials in Sweden are expected to consider their own possible NATO application in the coming days.
The Kremlin reacted to the news by threatening to take retaliatory "military-technical" steps and "other characteristics in order to counter the emerging threats to its national security."
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia's Security Council, said, "There is always a risk of such conflict turning into a full-scale nuclear war, a scenario that will be catastrophic for all."
In mid-April, Medvedev there will be "no more talk of a nuclear-free Baltic" if Finland and Sweden decide to join the U.S.-dominated, 30-nation NATO military alliance formed after World War II.
"The balance must be restored," Medvedev said.
Finland's Niinisto told Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, "You caused this. Look in the mirror."
Finland's parliament still has to consider a NATO application, but the announcement by the country's leaders makes it all but certain it will apply although the process could take months before it is completed. The country's border with Russia, stretching more than 1,300 kilometers, would be the longest of any NATO country.
Public opinion in both Finland and Sweden, both neutral countries, shifted markedly after Russia's February 24 invasion of Ukraine, which prompted fears that Russia might also attack them. Putin had hoped to divide NATO countries over their response to his Ukraine invasion, but the West instead has imposed numerous sanctions against Moscow and the oligarchs and Russian officials aligned with him.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in late April that if Finland and Sweden were to apply, "They will be welcomed and I also expect the process to be quick."
For weeks, fighting in Ukraine has been concentrated in the eastern Donbas region, with Ukrainian officials acknowledging that Moscow has achieved "partial success" and has taken some villages. On Thursday, explosions were heard near the town of Bakhmut, an area of the Donbas where heavy fighting has occurred.
Britain's Defense Ministry said Russia's focus on the Donbas has left its remaining troops around the northeastern city of Kharkiv vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks, with Kyiv's forces recapturing several towns and villages around the area.
(Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Press and Reuters.)