Finland’s president and prime minister said on Thursday their country must apply to join the NATO military alliance “without delay”, a major policy shift triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Sweden is also close to a decision on asking to join NATO after decades of following a neutral path.
The announcement is a big setback for Russia, which had partly tried to justify its invasion of Ukraine as a means to protect itself from NATO’s eastwards expansion.
Finland, which shares a 1,300 km (810 mile) border and a difficult past with Russia, has gradually stepped up its cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a partner since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
But until the February 24 invasion of Ukraine – which has seen thousands of people killed, cities razed, and forced millions to flee their homes – the Nordic country had refrained from joining NATO in order to maintain friendly relations with its eastern neighbour.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay, “President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement.
“We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”
NATO allies expect Finland and Sweden to formally apply to join the alliance in the coming days and will grant membership quickly, five diplomats and officials told Reuters ahead of the Finnish announcement.
The Finnish parliament will debate the announcement on Monday. A majority of lawmakers have already signalled their support for membership.