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President Niinistö: Joining NATO now would harm relations with Russia

President Sauli Niinistö says that now is not the right time for Finland to join NATO. In an interview with the Washington Post Sunday evening, Niinistö said that joining NATO "would undoubtedly harm relations with Russia."

Presidentti Sauli Niinistö
Presidentti Sauli Niinistö. Image: Yle

Speaking to the Washington Post’s Griff Witte, President Sauli Niinistö commented on statements made by Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, who has been pinned as being pro-NATO. Niinistö countered that no clear proposals had been made, nor had membership been formally discussed or decided. He added that now would not be the correct time to join the military alliance.

“It is very obvious that if Finland joins NATO, that would undoubtedly harm our relations [with Russia]. You have to keep in mind that 1,300 kilometers is a long, long border, and you just don’t keep it closed. On the contrary, it’s a living border,” Niinistö said.

When pressed about his own pro-NATO stance before he became President, Niinistö responded he saw "NATO as a possibility", an open choice that is part of the country’s balance, he said. He did not disagree with the PM’s statements that Finland should have joined 20 years ago.

“It would have been a very easy step. Russia was very weak at that time,” the President observed.

Asked if he thought it was a missed opportunity, Niinistö responded:

“It was an opportunity, undoubtedly.”

Niinistö said that recent airspace violations by Russian military aircraft showed that Russia was testing reactions and wanted to show "we are here". However he pointed out that while Finland is not a NATO member, the country has maintained conscription, has a 250,000-strong member army and has recently increased defence spending.

He described the Finland’s current view of the security situation as "a balance" and pointed to the country’s membership in the European Union.

“We all know according to the Lisbon Treaty we have given a guarantee that we will help member states if they face severe problems,” Niinistö said, describing its EU affiliation as “a strong political statement.”

Tuomioja: NATO not an issue in upcoming elections

The Washington Post also spoke with Foreign Minister and Social Democrat Erkki Tuomioja about the current security situation. Tuomioja said that Russia’s airspace incursions were meant to send a message of power politics, but noted that its military powers are far from what they were during Soviet times.

He said that while the sabre-rattling has prompted a debate about NATO membership in Finland, there has been no shift in the general opposition to joining the alliance.

“What has happened is that those people who have always been for NATO membership have found more arguments for this. But those people who have been against NATO membership have also found more arguments. So it is sort of a polarization of opinion more than any shift,” Tuomioja added.

Tuomioja stated that he did not see NATO membership as being a major platform issue for general elections due next spring, pointing out that party leaders are likely to respect voters’ lack of support for joining the alliance.

“The Conservative Party and the Swedish Party are very much in favor of NATO membership. But the electorate is not, so they are not going to win if they do it. And neither are we, the Social Democrats, going to make this into a bigger issue,” he remarked.

The Foreign Minister said that Finland is not offering itself- as any kind of mediator between Russia and the West. He said that while there are bilateral talks with Russia, they don’t involve EU issues such as sanctions, although Ukraine is often on the agenda.

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