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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Turkey’s Parliament set to vote on Finland’s NATO bid

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, in Ankara, Turkey, last Friday.

By Carly Olson, Steven Erlanger and Eric Schmitt

Turkey’s parliament was expected to ratify Finland’s bid to join NATO on Thursday, removing the Nordic nation’s last obstacle toward membership and sharply enlarging the alliance’s border with Russia.

Less than two weeks ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey gave assurances that Ankara would ratify Finland’s bid. “We decided to start the ratification process in our parliament for Finland’s membership,” Erdogan said at a news conference in the Turkish capital.

For Finland to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after decades of military nonalignment would be a major shift in the balance of power in the region between the West and Russia, adding another alliance member on Russia’s border.

It would also hand a significant diplomatic and strategic defeat to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who made it clear before invading Ukraine last year that he intended to block NATO’s eastward expansion.

Instead, his invasion convinced Finnish and Swedish leaders that there was no real security guarantee for them outside NATO.

Finland shares the longest border with Russia of any European Union nation — more than 800 miles — and has a history of resisting Moscow’s hegemony, having fiercely fought the Soviet Union during the Winter War in 1939, at the beginning of World War II.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Finland did not shrink its military, and 10 months ago, it was Finland that persuaded Sweden that the two countries should apply to NATO together.

But Erdogan made it clear that Turkey was leaving Sweden on the sidelines for now. He has blocked the Swedish application, claiming that Sweden has become a haven for Kurdish separatists and other dissidents he considers terrorists. Stockholm has made efforts to placate him, including a new anti-terrorism law, but the measures have not swayed the Turkish leader.

Ratification by the Turkish parliament would be the final major step for Finland’s ascension into the military alliance. After the vote is taken, an acceptance letter will be sent to the United States to be filed at the State Department alongside Finland’s acceptance letters from other countries, according to NATO’s website.

The United States is the depository of NATO under the alliance’s founding treaty. The State Department will then notify NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that the conditions have been met for Finland to become a member of NATO.

Accepting a new member into the alliance requires unanimous agreement by all 30 member countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Hungary approved Finland’s bid on Monday, leaving consent from Turkey as the last one needed.

Turkey has the support of Hungary in opposing Sweden’s bid. The Hungarian leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has warm relations with Putin.

A statement on Wednesday from a Hungarian government spokesperson, Zoltan Kovacs, said Hungary does not support the Swedish bid because of Sweden’s “openly hostile stance toward” Hungary and Turkey. The Hungarian government understands why Sweden seeks to be a part of the alliance, Kovacs said, but “there is an ample amount of grievances that need to be addressed before the country’s admission is ratified.”

This month during a visit to Turkey, President Sauli Niinisto of Finland said that Finland’s membership “is not complete without Sweden.” But for Finland to reject joining NATO until Sweden is also approved would be politically difficult and strategically risky, and Swedish leaders have made it clear they would continue to pursue membership on their own.

Finland’s ascension to NATO would add one of Western Europe’s most potent wartime militaries to the alliance as well as intelligence and border-surveillance abilities tailored over decades to the threat posed by Russia, U.S. officials said.

The number of active-duty military personnel in Finland’s defense forces is a modest 23,000 troops, but its wartime strength can grow quickly to 280,000 forces because of an extensive conscription system that can mobilize up to nearly 1 million troops.

“Geographically, their addition to the alliance adds a huge, difficult-to-defend border that complicates Putin’s calculus,” James G. Stavridis, a retired four-star U.S. admiral and former top NATO military commander, said in an email. “A huge plus for NATO.”

Finland’s artillery forces, for instance, are the largest and best equipped in Western Europe — with some 1,500 artillery weapons, including 700 Howitzer guns, 700 heavy mortar and 100 rocket launcher systems, according to an analysis by the Wilson Center, a research organization.

A major designer of icebreaker ships, Finland will also play a significant role conducting maritime operations in the increasingly contested Arctic region, officials said.

Finland, long known for such insistent nonalignment that “Finlandization” became synonymous with neutrality, signaled that Russia’s threat to invade Ukraine in February 2022 could change the minds of most Finns.

Finland has a complicated, violent history with Russia. After losing the Winter War, Finland relinquished some territory and agreed to remain formally neutral throughout the Cold War.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland moved to join the European Union in 1992, becoming a member in 1995, while remaining militarily nonaligned and maintaining working relations with Moscow.

Finland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program along with Sweden in 1994 and moved ever closer to the alliance without joining it. Until now.

The declaration by Finland’s leaders last year that they would join NATO — with expectations that neighboring Sweden would soon do the same — quickly reshaped the potential strategic balance in Europe that had prevailed for decades.

Public opinion in the country shifted significantly after Russia invaded Ukraine: Within months, nearly 80% of Finland’s citizens expressed support for joining NATO, compared with some 20% before the war.

It was also an example of how Putin’s war aims have backfired. Instead of weakening NATO, the Russian leader has united the alliance and prompted a new expansion on Russia’s doorstep.

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