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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

NATO welcomes Finland as a member

The Finnish flag was raised outside NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday.

By Steven Erlanger

Finland’s flag was raised Tuesday afternoon at NATO headquarters, a deeply symbolic moment marking the Nordic nation’s official welcome into the group and the shifting power calculations as the West shores up its allegiances in response to the war in Ukraine.

President Sauli Niinisto of Finland attended the ceremony, on NATO’s 74th anniversary, for the expansion of the organization, which represents a strategic defeat for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has made blocking NATO expansion a goal of his leadership.

NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that with Finland now “a full-fledged member, we are removing the room for miscalculation in Moscow about NATO’s readiness to protect Finland, and that makes Finland safer and stronger, and all of us safer.”

Niinisto stressed the significance of the moment for his country, saying, “It is a great day for Finland.” History has many important moments, he added, but “this is the day most historic to us and to our partners.” Russia tried to restrict Finland’s freedom of choice and “tried to create a sphere around them,” he said. “We are not a sphere.”

With Finland’s membership unlocked by Turkey’s vote last week to ratify its entry, NATO’s border with Russia is doubling and the alliance has gained access to a strong military with a deep history of countering its bigger neighbor.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the new member and said, “Finland is stronger and safer within the alliance, and the alliance is stronger and safer with Finland as its ally.”

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine early last year, Niinisto judged quickly that Finland’s best protection was to drop its military nonalignment and apply to join NATO.

The ceremony Tuesday came as foreign ministers from the alliance were gathering in Brussels for a two-day meeting, Finland’s first as a full-fledged member, although many details about how the country, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, will integrate into the alliance are yet to be determined. Finland’s foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, is among the attendees.

A new Finnish government, still to be negotiated after an election Sunday, will have to decide whether Finland will accept foreign troops on its soil, for example — NATO now has troops in other front-line states with Russia — or even nuclear weapons belonging to allies.

Finnish membership will produce little change for the moment, except for the key psychological boost to the security of Finland and the alliance from NATO’s commitment to collective defense. If Finland should be attacked, it can now call on all members of the alliance for aid, and Finland commits to come to the aid of other alliance members.

Finland must learn to think collectively and adapt its military strategy appropriately, said Matti Pesu, a security expert at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. It must also think through its nuclear strategy and its views toward nuclear arms control, now that it will be covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Pesu said Finland would continue to deepen its existing defense relationships with countries such as the United States, Britain, Estonia, Sweden and Norway. And its Russia policy will become more centered on collective deterrence than on Finland’s own impressive defense capabilities.

NATO will over time have access to Finnish ports, air space and sea lanes, which will greatly enhance its ability to defend the Baltic nations, as well as Sweden.

Finland’s move to join NATO pulled along a more hesitant Sweden, which submitted its own application simultaneously. But the aim of Sweden joining “hand in hand” with Finland has been thwarted, by Turkey’s objections.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who is up for reelection on May 14, continues to express his displeasure with what he considers Sweden’s inadequate commitment to fighting terrorism, focusing on those living in Sweden whom Erdogan regards as terrorists, including certain Kurds and others he believes supported a 2016 coup attempt against him. Hungary is also blocking Sweden’s entry.

Nonetheless, Sweden’s foreign minister, Tobias Billstrom, will also attend this week’s meetings in Brussels.

At the ceremony Tuesday, Stoltenberg and Niinisto said they would continue to press Turkey and Hungary to ratify membership for Sweden rapidly. Blinken urged them “to ratify the accession protocols for Sweden without delay, so we can welcome Sweden into the alliance as soon as possible.”

The two-day NATO meeting will focus on Ukraine and how to accelerate the country’s transition to NATO-compatible military equipment and ammunition. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, will also be there.

During the NATO session, the alliance will convene a NATO-Ukraine Commission, a more formal meeting previously blocked by Hungary. That will focus on how to help Ukraine wage a counteroffensive against Russian troops, expected to begin in late spring or early summer, and how to intensify Ukraine’s partnership with NATO in the future, Stoltenberg said.

That will involve looking not just at Ukraine’s immediate defense needs against Russian forces, but also how to help Ukraine modernize and align its military with NATO standards and doctrines.

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