Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö on Saturday reiterated his country’s right to join Nato if it wants to, in a dismissal of Russian demands for no further expansion of the Western military alliance near its borders.
“Finland’s room to manoeuvre and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for Nato membership, should we ourselves so decide,” President Niinistö said in his New Year address.
Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin sought guarantees that Finland would not join Nato. In a statement released by the Kremlin, President Putin said Russian wants “international legal security guarantees” ruling out “Nato’s further movement eastward”.
Opinion polls suggest that 40 per cent of Finns oppose joining Nato, with 26 per cent in favour.
On Thursday US President Joe Biden spoke to Mr Putin for the second time in a month over tensions with Nato, again threatening a tough response including unprecedented sanctions should Russia invade Ukraine.
“I made it clear to President Putin that if he makes any more moves into Ukraine we will have severe sanctions,” Mr Biden said Friday. “We will increase our presence in Europe with Nato allies.”
Russia has deployed 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, using the prospect of an invasion to pressure Nato to give guarantees it will not expand.
President Niinistö said Russia ultimatums “are in conflict with the European security order” and demanded that European states must not be excluded from negotiations between Russia, the United States and Nato.
Senior US and Russian officials are set to meet in Geneva in less than two weeks, seeking a pathway to reduce tensions.
In addition to written security guarantees that Ukraine and other former Soviet countries will be excluded from any Nato expansion, Moscow is demanding that the alliance remove offensive weaponry from countries neighbouring Russia. The US and Nato allies say the Russian demands are non-starters.
“In this situation Europe cannot just listen in,” President Niinistö said. “The sovereignty of several member states, also Sweden and Finland, has been challenged from outside the Union. This makes the EU an involved party. The EU must not settle merely with the role of a technical coordinator of sanctions.”
His comments came as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was criticised for taking a milder stance against Russia in his New Year address.
“Transatlantic cooperation is also essential for security in Europe,” he said. “In this area, we are currently facing new challenges regarding Ukraine. The inviolability of borders is precious, and is not negotiable.”
Andrew Weiss, a specialist on US-Russia Relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said there were “glaring differences between Mr Scholz’s comments and how President Niinistö “lays it all out there with regard to the Russia problem.”
“Read both messages and judge for yourself who understands power politics in the Year 2022,” Mr Weiss tweeted.
On Saturday Ukraine said one of its soldiers was killed in fighting with pro-Moscow separatists, a day before President Volodymyr Zelensky was due to speak with President Biden.
Russia meanwhile has promised to take “all measures” to pursue its interests.
“We will not allow our initiatives to be drowned in endless discussions,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the state RIA-Novosti news agency. “If no constructive answer comes in a reasonable time and the West continues its aggressive course, Russia will have to take all necessary measures to maintain a strategic balance and remove unacceptable threats to our security.”