NATO foreign ministers convene on April 7 at NATO headquarters in Brussels to discuss bolstering support for Ukraine against Russia's military campaign. File Photo by Stephanie LeCocq/EPA-EFE
May 12 (UPI) -- Russia threatened retaliation against Finland Thursday shortly after Finland's president and prime minister publicly supported applying for NATO membership "without delay."
"Finland joining NATO is a radical change in the country's foreign policy," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The statement said Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps, including military-technical measures, to stop threats to its national security arising.
The Russian statement said Finland's decision to join NATO will do serious damage to bilateral Russian-Finnish relations and to the stability and security of the northern European region.
Finland's president and prime minister announced support for joining NATO on Thursday, moving the historically neutral nation closer to membership in the 73-year-old defensive military alliance -- a move that Russia warned against after its invasion of Ukraine.
For weeks, Finland has signaled a desire to join the bloc -- as has Sweden -- but Thursday brought the first clear overture.
The Russian statement claimed Russia has repeatedly noted that Finland's national security choices are Finland's to make. But the Russian statement warned that Helsinki must be aware of the responsibility and consequences of such a move.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin signaled support for the change.
"Finland must apply for NATO memberships without delay. We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days," they said in a statement.
The Russian statement Thursday also asserted that Finland joining NATO would violate the Paris Treaty of 1947, which Russia claimed obligates the parties not to enter into alliances of participate in coalitions directed against one of them. Russia sees NATO eastward expansion as a national security threat.
Last month, the Finnish government adopted a report on changes to its security environment amid the Russian war. And while it didn't present an opinion on whether the country should join NATO, it said the alliance's collective defense will "be strengthened in the long term."
The report also said support for NATO membership has "risen significantly" in Finland and Sweden, which is similarly expected to join the alliance soon.
"Now that moment of decision-making is near, we state our equal views, also for information to the parliamentary groups and parties," Niinisto and Marin added. "NATO membership would strengthen Finland's security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance."
Ukrainian soldiers walk down a road that's strewn with debris from Russian shelling in the northern part of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI
Russia has cautioned Finland and Sweden -- and other nations -- against becoming NATO members. Ukraine has expressed a desire to join the alliance as well as the European Union.
Germany and France Thursday both welcomed Finland's desire to join NATO.
"The President of the [French] Republic has told the President of Finland that France fully supports Finland's sovereign choice to quickly join NATO," the Elysee Palace said in a statement.
The United States has also voiced support for Finland and Sweden becoming part of NATO. Julianne Smith, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, told reporters at a briefing last month that "we would welcome these two members."
"We find that they already bring tremendous value to the alliance," she added. "They have a very close relationship. And, of course as I noted, they are now joining us for some North Atlantic Council meeting here in NATO headquarters on a regular basis."
Smith noted that both nations have made "important contributions" to Ukraine and have aided NATO in several operations over the years.
"We've exercised, we've trained with them. They bring very capable militaries. They are some of our closest allies in Europe, and so I can't imagine a situation where there would be tremendous resistance to this idea," she said. "Quite the contrary, I think NATO allies would be generally enthusiastic."
Finland's ministry of foreign affairs said recently that Helsinki has deepened its cooperation with the alliance.
The announcement on Thursday comes a day after Finland and Sweden signed mutual security protection declarations with Britain. The declarations include protections for traditional and cyberattacks amid growing threats from Russia. The declarations are expected to remain in effect during the two countries' yearlong process to join NATO.
NATO has 27 member states, but talk of expansion has risen dramatically in the three months since Russian forces have been fighting in Ukraine. United Nations officials have said that at least 3,500 civilians have been killed and 6 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers at a budget congressional hearing Wednesday that Russia is unlikely to attack a NATO member.
"NATO has the most advanced capabilities of any alliance in the world, in terms of aircraft, ships, types of weaponry that the ground forces use," he said. "This is a fight that [Russian President Vladimir Putin] really doesn't want to have."
Priest Andrii Gavalin presides over the funeral of Eugene Bogdanov, 35, in Bucha, Ukraine, on May 10. Bogdanov went missing two months ago. His wife, Natalia Bogdanova, was searching for him throughout the Kyiv and Bucha regions when his body was found at a morgue in Belaya Tserkov on May 9. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo