NATO boss says Finland and Sweden are warmly invited to apply for membership

NATO would be quick to welcome Finland and Sweden into its ranks with open arms if they decided to bid, the military alliance’s top civilian official said on Wednesday, as Russia’s war on Ukraine has soured public support in the two Nordic countries encouraged to become a member.

The military organization could also be ready to give countries security guarantees in case a possible membership bid angers Russia, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

A poll by Finnish broadcaster YLE last month showed that for the first time more than 50% of Finns support joining the western military alliance. In neighboring Sweden, a similar poll showed that supporters of NATO membership outnumbered opponents.

“If they decide to apply, I expect that all allies will welcome them,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels as NATO foreign ministers met to discuss the war in Ukraine. “We know that if they decide to apply, they can easily join this alliance.”

Before the war against Ukraine began, President Vladimir Putin demanded that the 30-nation military organization stop expanding and withdraw its troops from Russia’s borders. It is therefore unlikely that the accession prospects of the neighboring countries Finland and Sweden will be welcomed in Moscow.

To shield them, Stoltenberg said NATO member countries could be willing to provide a security guarantee that would cover the two neutral nations from announcing a possible bid for membership to approving their requests.

Once members, they would benefit from NATO’s Collective Defense Clause, which obliges all members to come to the aid of any ally that is under attack.

“I’m sure we will find ways to address any concerns you may have about the time between potential application and final ratification,” Stoltenberg said. He declined to speculate on what those security guarantees might entail.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said his country’s lawmakers will discuss a government white paper on security this month, including an option to join NATO. He said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed public opinion.

“In three or four weeks, for the first time ever, we’ll have a majority” in favor of joining, Haavisto said.

He said Finland knows that “Russia is willing to take bigger risks, as we can see in Ukraine, bigger risks also for its own security. We can also see that Russia is capable of assembling more than 100,000 men against just one country, even without touching its reserves.”

Haavisto added that “at least in the debate, the threshold over Russia’s possible use of tactical nuclear or chemical weapons has been lowered.”

He too was reluctant to elaborate on any security guarantees that Finland might need, especially as the debate on accession at home continues. But Haavisto said it’s something his country wants to discuss with “key” NATO members and that Finnish leaders have been in touch with US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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