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Tags: EU | Finland | Sweden | NATO

Finnish Report Highlights Russian Threat of NATO Membership

Friday, 29 April 2016 09:04 AM EDT

HELSINKI (AP) — Finland could expect "harsh" reactions from Russia if it decided to join NATO, but would be better off doing so together with neighboring Sweden, an expert panel told the Finnish government on Friday.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned of a "military-technical" response if its "neutral neighbors" became members of the alliance.

NATO supporters in the two non-aligned Nordic countries have stepped up calls for membership following the Ukraine crisis and increased assertiveness by Russian forces around the Baltic Sea. Both Finland and Sweden have deepened their partnership with the alliance in recent years but have so far not sought membership, partly because of concern over the Russian reaction.

"It's one thing to have neutral neighbors in the north and another to have neighbors who are members of the North Atlantic alliance," Lavrov told Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter in an interview published Friday.

Asked how Russia would react if Sweden joined the alliance, Lavrov said Moscow "will of course take all necessary military-technical measures at our northern borders, since on the other side of the border there is a military-political bloc that considers Russia as a threat and is trying to contain her in every way."

The interview coincided with the release in Finland of a government-commissioned report on the implications of joining NATO.

Referring to Russia's reactions to NATO's enlargement in the past, the report said the "political and economic reactions may be strong, even harsh, notably during the transition phase. Even while stopping short of the use of force, specific counter-measures would be difficult to predict."

Both countries are concerned about Russian military activities in the region, underscored by hunts for unidentified foreign submarines in Swedish and Finnish waters, and occasional airspace violations by Russian aircraft.

In a brief conclusion, the 60-page report stresses the importance of mutual cooperation between the Nordic neighbors when decisions are made about joining NATO, saying it would be "considerably more benign for Finland" if the two countries joined at the same time than if Finland joined alone.

"Similarly, a Swedish decision to join NATO and a Finnish decision not to join would leave Finland isolated and exposed," said the report.

The two neighbors have worked with the alliance since the mid-1990s when they joined NATO's Partnership for Peace and have actively contributed forces to NATO-led peacekeeping and monitoring missions. Also, they engage in dozens of exercises annually with alliance members and their militaries' weaponry is NATO-compatible.

Visiting Helsinki this week, NATO Gen. Petr Pavel told reporters that should Finland decide to join the Atlantic alliance, "it's a matter of just technical procedures."

Swedish researchers say it would be even easier for Sweden to integrate.

"Sweden is often referred to as the best non-NATO member or partnership country No.1," said Fredrik Doeser, from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and National Defense University.

Joining might be easy technically, but finding the political will is more difficult.

Polls in Sweden suggest that the country is split on membership, while a majority in Finland continues to oppose membership.

Both countries have a history of neutrality. Sweden became a neutral nation at the end of the Napoleonic wars and stayed out of World Wars I and II. It has deepened its partnership with NATO in recent years, and Swedish fighter jets participated in a NATO-led air campaign in Libya in 2011.

Finland, which gained independence from Russia in 1917 after a century of being part of Czarist Empire, didn't declare itself neutral until the mid-1950s, with the memory of two bitter wars against its huge eastern Soviet neighbor hanging over it.

In Sweden, opponents of NATO membership, especially among the left and the Greens, feel the nation would lose sovereignty and would be only a minor player in the alliance. Others fear NATO might install nuclear weapons on its soil.

Sweden's center-right opposition is positive toward membership and reacted angrily to Lavrov's comments.

"Our foreign and security policy is decided by Sweden, not by Russian threats," said Annie Loof, leader of the Center Party.

Karin Enstrom, the foreign policy spokeswoman for the main opposition Moderate Party, urged the Swedish Foreign Ministry to summon the Russian ambassador to explain Lavrov's words.

In Finland, NATO membership is more of a hot potato. It's not much discussed in a country of coalition governments where consensus rules. Generally, politicians talk about the "NATO option," meaning that Finland has the possibility of applying for membership — someday.

"It's a controversial subject and politicians are reluctant to speculate and disagree because consensus would be impossible," says Mika Aaltola from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. "And Finnish foreign policy is dominated by consensus."

He also points to fears of Moscow's reaction.

"Finns don't usually speculate about the possibility of war, but in the case of NATO membership they fear Russia's reaction could be disastrous," he said.

© Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Finland could expect "harsh" reactions from Russia if it decided to join NATO, but would be better off doing so together with neighboring Sweden, an expert panel told the Finnish government on Friday.In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned of a...
Friday, 29 April 2016 09:04 AM
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