Russia Demands Ukraine Surrender As NATO Readies For Finland, Sweden Membership

A photograph taken on June 28, 2022 shows the ruins of a school building, partially destroyed by two rockets in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. SERGEY BOBOK / AFP
A photograph taken on June 28, 2022 shows the ruins of a school building, partially destroyed by two rockets in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
SERGEY BOBOK / AFP

 

Western allies vowed on Tuesday to boost NATO’s defences and to back Ukraine to the end as Moscow demanded Kyiv’s surrender.

As NATO leaders gathered in Madrid for a summit, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said Finland and Sweden would be formally invited to join NATO after Turkey lifted its block on their bids.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had stubbornly refused to approve their applications — lodged in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine — despite calls from his NATO allies to clear their path to membership.

But he abandoned his opposition following crunch talks on Tuesday with the leaders of the two Nordic countries in Madrid.

READ ALSO: Russia Adds 43 Canadians To Blacklist, Canada Hits Back

Erdogan’s office said late on Tuesday it had agreed to back their applications, saying Ankara had “got what it wanted”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the agreement between Finland, Sweden and Turkey, saying their membership would make the defence alliance “stronger and safer”.

Meanwhile, a senior US official said their membership would be a “powerful shot in the arm” for NATO unity.

NATO’s expansion came as Russian missiles continued to pound Ukrainian cities.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters arriving with President Joe Biden that Washington will announce “historic” new long-term military deployments in Europe.

The reinforcements will join NATO’s eastern flank, Russia’s nervous neighbours like the Baltic states, and reflect a long-term change “in the strategic reality” elsewhere in Europe.

Ahead of the summit, Stoltenberg said the allies would boost their high-readiness forces from 40,000 to 300,000.

New sanctions

Before travelling to Madrid, Biden and other leaders of the G7 powers — the world’s richest democracies — had held a summit in the German Alps.

Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz boasted afterwards that his country, a laggard in defence spending, would build “the largest conventional army within the NATO framework in Europe”.

Russia’s invasion, he said, had convinced Berlin “that we should spend more… an average of around 70 to 80 billion euros a year on defence over the next few years”.

NATO member Bulgaria announced it would expel 70 staff from Russia’s diplomatic mission accused of working against its interests.

At the G7 summit, the leaders agreed to impose new sanctions targeting Moscow’s defence industry, raising tariffs and banning gold imports from the country.

The US Treasury said the measures “strike at the heart of Russia’s ability to develop and deploy weapons and technology used for Vladimir Putin’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine,”

The new set of sanctions target Rostec, Russia’s largest defence conglomerate, as well as military units and officers implicated in human rights abuses in Ukraine, the Treasury said.

Putin’s Kremlin was not fazed by the sanctions, warning that Ukraine’s forces’ only option was to lay down their arms.

“The Ukrainian side can stop everything before the end of today,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“An order for the nationalist units to lay down their arms is necessary,” he said, adding Kyiv had to fulfil a list of Moscow’s demands.

‘Everything burned’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for the United Nations to visit the site of a missile strike on a shopping mall in the central city of Kremenchuk, as he addressed the UN Security Council on Tuesday.

“I suggest the United Nations send either a special representative, or the secretary-general of the United Nations, or a plenipotentiary commission to the site of this terrorist act… so the UN could independently find out information and see that this indeed was a Russian missile strike,” Zelensky said of the attack on Monday that killed at least 18 people.

“Everything burned, really everything, like a spark to a touchpaper. I heard people screaming. It was horror,” witness Polina Puchintseva told AFP.

All that was left of the mall was charred debris, chunks of blackened walls and lettering from a smashed store front.

Russia claims its missile salvo was aimed at an arms depot — but none of the civilians who talked to AFP knew of any weapons store in the neighbourhood.

And, outside Russia, the latest carnage sparked only Ukrainian fury and western solidarity.

“Indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime,” the G7 leaders said in a statement, condemning the “abominable attack”.

Zelensky declared on his social media channels: “Only total insane terrorists, who should have no place on Earth, can strike missiles at civilian objects.

“Russia must be recognised as a state sponsor of terrorism. The world can and therefore must stop Russian terror,” he added.

The G7 leaders did not go so far as to brand Putin a terrorist — but they vowed that Russia, already under tough sanctions, would face more economic pain.

“The G7 stands united in its support for Ukraine,” Scholz told reporters.

“We will continue to keep up and drive up the economic and political costs of this war for President Putin and his regime.”

Oil price cap?

The G7 had announced several new measures to put the squeeze on Putin, including a plan to work towards a price cap on Russian oil.

The group also agreed to impose an import ban on Russian gold. At the same time, the G7 powers heaped financial support on Ukraine, with aid now reaching $29.5 billion.

Meanwhile, with fierce artillery duels continuing in the eastern Donbas region, Ukrainian officials said the central city of Dnipro and several other sites had been hit by more Russian missiles.

Pro-Moscow forces detained Igor Kolykhayev, the elected mayor of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson.

Russian media said the “nationalist” was an opponent of Moscow’s supposed efforts to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, but Kolykhayev’s aides said he had been “kidnapped” by the city’s illegitimate occupiers.

The UN said 6.2 million people are now estimated to have been displaced within Ukraine, in addition to 5.26 million who have fled abroad.

“Ukraine now faces a brutality which we haven’t seen in Europe since the Second World War,” Stoltenberg said as leaders began to gather in Madrid.

 

AFP

US Says NATO Commitment To Lithuania ‘Ironclad’ After Russia Threat

US President Joe Biden speaks about supporting Ukrainians defending their country against Russia, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 28, 2022.  Jim WATSON / AFP

 

The United States said Tuesday it stood firmly behind Lithuania and NATO commitments to defend it after Russia warned its neighbor over restrictions on rail transit.

“We stand by our NATO allies and we stand by Lithuania,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

“Specifically our commitment to NATO’s Article Five — the premise that an attack on one would constitute an attack on all — that commitment on the part of the United States is ironclad,” he said.

READ ALSO: Russia Warns Lithuania, Pushes Into Ukraine’s Donbas

Lithuania, a former Soviet republic both in NATO and the European Union, has been among the most outspoken nations in opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Lithuania said that it would restrict the rail transit of goods sanctioned by the EU into Kaliningrad, an isolated Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland.

Russia warned that it would “certainly respond” to the “hostile actions.”

Price said that the United States welcomed the “unprecedented economic measures” taken by Lithuania and other nations against Russia over its invasion.

Asked about Russia’s statements, Price said, “We aren’t going to speculate on Russian saber-rattling or Russian bluster and don’t even want to give it additional airtime.”

AFP

Zelensky Vows To Retake South, NATO Warns Of Long War

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a speech during a press conference with Denmark's and Spain's Prime Ministers in Kyiv on April 21, 2022. Genya SAVILOV / AFP
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a speech during a press conference with Denmark’s and Spain’s Prime Ministers in Kyiv on April 21, 2022. Genya SAVILOV / AFP

 

President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed Sunday that his forces “will not give away the south to anyone” after his first visit to the southern frontline, as NATO’s chief warned the war in Ukraine could last “for years”.

Making a rare trip outside Kyiv, where he is based for security reasons, Zelensky travelled to the hold-out Black Sea city of Mykolaiv and visited troops nearby and in the neighbouring Odessa region for the first time since the Russian invasion.

“We will not give away the south to anyone, we will return everything that’s ours and the sea will be Ukrainian and safe,” he said in a video posted on Telegram as he made his way back to Kyiv.

He said he talked with troops and police during his visit.

“Their mood is confident, and looking into their eyes it is obvious that they all do not doubt our victory,” he said.

While Zelensky remained defiant, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that “we must be prepared for this to last for years.”

Speaking to German daily newspaper Bild, Stoltenberg said “We must not weaken in our support of Ukraine, even if the costs are high — not only in terms of military support but also because of rising energy and food prices.”

Russian forces have directed their firepower at the east and south of Ukraine in recent weeks since failing in their bid to take the capital Kyiv after the lightning February 24 invasion.

“The losses are significant. Many houses were destroyed, civilian logistics were disrupted, there are many social issues,” Zelensky said.

“I have commissioned to make assistance to people who have lost loved ones more systemic. We will definitely restore everything that was destroyed. Russia does not have as many missiles as our people have the desire to live.”

Mykolaiv is a key target for Russia as it lies on the way to the strategic Black Sea port of Odessa.

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Zelensky surveyed the city’s badly damaged regional administration building and met officials in what appeared to be a basement where he handed out awards to soldiers, in a video released by his office.

Soldiers in Mykolaiv meanwhile were trying to keep their pre-war routines alive, with one saying he would not give up his vegan diet on the frontlines.

Oleksandr Zhuhan said he had received a package from a network of volunteers to keep up his plant-based diet.

“There was pate and vegan sausages, hummus, soya milk… and all this for free,” the 37-year-old drama teacher said happily.

– ‘Hero’ –

Back in Kyiv, with shockwaves from the war continuing to reverberate around the world, thousands gathered to pay tribute to one young man — Roman Ratushny, a leading figure in Ukraine’s pro-European Maidan movement, who was killed fighting Russians in the country’s east earlier this month aged just 24.

In front of the coffin draped in a yellow and blue Ukrainian flag at the foot of a monument that overlooks the sprawling Independence Square in the capital, people of all ages saluted his memory.

“I think it is important to be here because he is a hero of Ukraine and we must remember him,” Dmytro Ostrovsky, a 17-year-old high school student, told AFP.

The loss put a human face on the shared grief of Ukrainians, as the bloodshed continues.

The worst of the fighting continues to be in the eastern industrial Donbas region, with battles raging in villages outside the city of Severodonetsk, which Russia has been trying to seize for weeks.

“There’s an expression: prepare for the worst and the best will come by itself,” the governor of the eastern Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, told AFP in an interview from the Ukrainian-controlled city of Lysychansk across the river from Severodonetsk.

“Of course, we need to prepare.”

Wearing a flak jacket and carrying gun cartridges and a tourniquet, he said Russian forces “are just shelling our troop positions 24 hours a day.”

Earlier, Gaiday said on Telegram that there was “more destruction” at the besieged Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk, where hundreds of civilians are sheltering.

He also said Lysychansk was being “heavily shelled”.

There are signs of preparations for street fighting in the city: soldiers digging in, putting up barbed wire and police placing burnt-out vehicles sideways across roads to slow traffic, as residents were preparing to be evacuated.

“We’re abandoning everything and going. No one can survive such a strike,” said history teacher Alla Bor, waiting with her son-in-law Volodymyr and 14-year-old grandson.

Meanwhile, pro-Russian officials in the eastern, separatist-held city of Donetsk said five civilians were killed and 12 injured by Ukrainian bombardment.

In Lysychansk, the governor Gaiday said watching his home city, Severodonetsk, be shelled and people he knew dying was “painful.”

“I’m a human being but I bury this deep inside me,” he said, adding that his task is to “help people as much as possible”.

AFP

Ukraine Ex-President Says He Was Blocked From Leaving The Country

In this file photo, ex-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko delivers his speech from Parliament tribune during an emergency session in Kyiv on November 26, 2018, ahead of a parliamentary vote at the request of the Ukrainian President to impose martial law in the country. Genya SAVILOV / AFP

 

The former president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, said Saturday he was barred from leaving the country, accusing the government of breaking a so-called political ceasefire in place since Russia invaded. 

Poroshenko, in power from 2014 to 2019, has made frequent public appearances since the war started, appearing on international television to offer commentary.

His European Solidarity party is the second biggest party in Ukraine’s parliament after President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ruling party.

After Russia invaded, Ukraine’s parliament banned several pro-Russian parties and allowed others to still operate under a so-called political ceasefire — a tacit understanding that all parties would put aside domestic political disagreements to unite against the war.

READ ALSO: Court Imposes Travel Ban On Tunisian Party Leader

But on Saturday, Poroshenko’s office said he “was refused to cross the border of Ukraine,” accusing the government of violating the agreement.

“There is a risk that by this decision, the authorities have broken the ‘political ceasefire’ in place during the war… which one of the pillars of national unity in the face of to Russian aggression,” his office said.

Poroshenko was due to travel to a NATO parliamentary assembly meeting in Lithuania as part of the Ukrainian delegation and had received official permission to travel.

He was due to meet in Vilnius with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and a group of European parliamentarians.

He was then to travel to Rotterdam in the Netherlands for a summit bringing together European political parties.

AFP

Russia Stops Gas Supplies To Finland Amid NATO Membership Bid

A photo taken on May 12, 2022 shows pipes at the Gasum plant in Raikkola, Imatra, Finland. Inset, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photos: AFP

 

Russia on Saturday stopped providing natural gas to neighbouring Finland, which has angered Moscow by applying for NATO membership after the Nordic country refused to pay supplier Gazprom in rubles.

Following Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has asked clients from “unfriendly countries” — including EU member states — to pay for gas in rubles, a way to sidestep Western financial sanctions against its central bank.

Gazprom said in a statement Saturday that it had “completely stopped gas deliveries” as it had not received ruble payments from Finland’s state-owned energy company Gasum “by the end of the working day on May 20”.

Gazprom said it had supplied 1.49 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Finland in 2021, equal to about two-thirds of the country’s gas consumption.

However, natural gas accounts for around eight per cent of Finland’s energy.

Gasum said it would make up for the shortfall from other sources through the Balticconnector pipeline, which links Finland to Estonia, and assured that filling stations would run normally.

“Natural gas supplies to Finland under Gasum’s supply contract have been cut off,” the company said in a statement.

In April, Gazprom Export demanded that future payments in the supply contract be made in rubles instead of euros.

Gasum rejected the demand and announced on Tuesday it was taking the issue to arbitration.

Gazprom Export said it would defend its interests in court by any “means available”.

Gasum said it would be able to secure gas from other sources and that gas filling stations in the network area would continue “normal operation”.

Rift over NATO bid

In efforts to mitigate the risks of relying on Russian energy exports, the Finnish government on Friday also announced it had signed a 10-year lease agreement for an LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal ship with US-based Excelerate Energy.

On Sunday, Russia suspended electricity supplies to Finland overnight after its energy firm RAO Nordic claimed payment arrears, although the shortfall was quickly replaced.

Finland, along with neighbouring Sweden, this week broke its historical military non-alignment and applied for NATO membership, after public and political support for the western alliance soared following the invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow has warned Finland that any NATO membership application would be “a grave mistake with far-reaching consequences”.

Both Finland and Sweden are seemingly on the fast track to joining the military alliance, with US President Joe Biden offering “full, total, complete backing” to their bids.

But all 30 existing NATO members must agree on any new entrants, and Turkey has condemned the Nordic neighbours’ alleged toleration of Kurdish militants and has so far voiced opposition to letting them in.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has said the Kremlin would respond to any NATO expansion by creating more military bases in western Russia.

Saturday’s halt to gas shipments follows Moscow cutting off Poland and Bulgaria last month in a move the European Union described as “blackmail”.

AFP

Finland, Sweden Hand In Applications To Join NATO

Finnish Foreign Affairs Minister Pekka Haavisto (R) and Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen give a press conference to announce that Finland will apply for NATO membership at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland on May 15, 2022. (Photo by Alessandro RAMPAZZO / AFP)

 

Finland and Sweden on Wednesday handed in their bids to join NATO, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine up-ended decades of military non-alignment. 

The applications were warmly received by most allies. But Turkey raised objections, and ambassadors meeting in Brussels failed to reach consensus on starting formal membership negotiations.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had promised the process would be “swift and smooth”, but Turkey will have to be mollified before the ratification can take place.

“The applications you have made today are an historic step. Allies will now consider the next steps on your path to NATO,” Stoltenberg said, after receiving the bids from the Finnish and Swedish ambassadors.

READ ALSO: Belarus Introduces Death Penalty For ‘Attempted’ Terrorism

The membership push could represent the most significant expansion of NATO in decades. It would double the US-led organisation’s presence along Russia’s borders, and President Vladimir Putin has warned it may trigger a response from Moscow.

But resistance raised by NATO member Turkey threatens to block them, with Ankara accusing the Nordic countries of acting as safe havens for opposition Kurdish groups.

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “We asked them to extradite 30 terrorists but they refused to do so.

“You will not send back the terrorists to us, and then ask our support for your NATO membership?”

Officials in Brussels confirmed that a meeting on Wednesday of the North Atlantic Council — ambassadors from the NATO member states — broke up without an agreement to pass to the next stage of membership talks.

“Allies will now consider the next steps on their path to NATO,” a NATO official said.

Earlier, Stoltenberg had said: “The security interests of all allies have to be taken into account and we are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions.

“All allies agree on the importance of NATO enlargement. We all agree that we must stand together and we all agree that this is an historic moment which we must seize.”

Helsinki, Stockholm and the other allied Western capitals remain optimistic they can overcome Turkey’s objections.

Several NATO allies, most notably Britain, have offered security assurances to Finland and Sweden during the application period before they are covered by alliance’s mutual defence pact.

“Over the past few days we have seen numerous statements by allies committing to Finland and Sweden’s security,” Stoltenberg said.

“NATO is already vigilant in the Baltic Sea region and NATO and allies forces will continue to adapt as necessary.”

AFP

Sweden, Finland To Submit NATO Membership Bid Wednesday

Finland's President Sauli Niinisto (L) and Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson address a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, on May 17, 2022. Anders WIKLUND / TT News Agency / AFP
Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto (L) and Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson address a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, on May 17, 2022. Anders WIKLUND / TT News Agency / AFP

 

Finland and Sweden will submit their bids to join NATO together Wednesday, the two Nordic countries announced, despite Turkey’s threat to block the military alliance’s expansion.

“I’m happy we have taken the same path and we can do it together,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said Tuesday during a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia, and Sweden have been rattled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

READ ALSO: McDonald’s To Exit Russia, Sell Business In Country

Their applications will jettison decades of military non-alignment to join the alliance as a defence against feared aggression from Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Monday NATO’s expansion may trigger a response from Moscow.

But the main obstacle to their membership comes from within the alliance despite NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg repeatedly insisting the two countries would be welcomed “with open arms”.

Turkey has accused Sweden and Finland of acting as a hotbed for terrorist groups and its president insists Ankara will not approve expansion.

Any membership bid must be unanimously approved by NATO’s 30 members.

Niinisto said Tuesday he was “optimistic” Finland and Sweden would be able to secure Turkey’s support.

Andersson and Niinisto are to meet US President Joe Biden in Washington Thursday to discuss their historic bids.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the bloc offered the bids its “full support” after a meeting of EU defence ministers in Brussels.

“This will increase the number of member states that are also members of NATO. And this will strengthen and increase the cooperation and the security in Europe,” he said.

This was “an important geopolitical change”, he noted.

Rising public support

After a marathon debate lasting a day-and-a-half, 188 out of 200 Finnish lawmakers voted in favour of NATO membership, a dramatic reversal of Finland’s military non-alignment policy dating back more than 75 years.

“Our security environment has fundamentally changed,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told parliament Monday at the start of the debate.

“The only country that threatens European security, and is now openly waging a war of aggression, is Russia,” she said.

Finland spent more than a century as part of the Russian empire until it gained independence in 1917. It was then invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939.

Finns put up a fierce fight during the bloody Winter War, but were ultimately forced to cede a huge stretch of their eastern Karelia province in a peace treaty with Moscow.

According to public opinion polls, more than three-quarters of Finns want to join the alliance, almost three times as many as before the war in Ukraine began on February 24.

Swedish public support has also risen dramatically, albeit more modestly than in Finland, at around 50 percent.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde signed the application letter Tuesday.

The turnaround is also dramatic in Sweden, which remained neutral throughout World War II and has stayed out of military alliances for more than 200 years.

Turkish objections

Ankara has thrown a spanner in the works with its last-minute objections.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Helsinki and Stockholm of harbouring militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Sweden has also suspended any arms sales to Turkey since 2019 over Ankara’s military operation in neighbouring Syria.

“We will not say ‘yes’ to those (countries) who apply sanctions to Turkey to join NATO,” Erdogan said Monday, adding: “Neither of the countries has a clear stance against terror organisations.”

Diplomatic sources told AFP that Turkey blocked a NATO declaration Monday in favour of Sweden and Finland’s membership.

Sweden and Finland have sent delegations to Turkey to meet with Turkish officials.

“Sweden is delighted to work with Turkey in NATO and this cooperation can be part of our bilateral relations,” Sweden’s Andersson said, emphasising that Stockholm “is committed to fighting against all types of terrorism”.

AFP

Swedish, Finnish MPs Debate NATO Membership

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (3rd L) speaks during a plenary session at the Finnish parliament in Helsinki, Finland, on May 16, 2022, as legislators debate Finland’s Nato membership. 
Emmi Korhonen / Lehtikuva / AFP

 

The parliaments in Finland and Sweden on Monday began debating their respective NATO bids, as the two neighbours prepare to submit applications this week as a deterrent against Russian aggression.

Finland officially announced its intention to join NATO on Sunday as Sweden’s ruling party said it backed membership, paving the way for a joint application.

The move is a dramatic turnaround from the two countries’ military non-alignment policies, dating back more than 75 years for Finland and two centuries for Sweden.

In Helsinki, parliament began a marathon session that could last several days, following a membership proposal presented on Sunday by President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

“Our security environment has fundamentally changed,” Marin told parliament.

“The only country that threatens European security, and is now openly waging a war of aggression, is Russia”, she said.

Russia has repeatedly warned Finland and Sweden of consequences if they apply to join NATO.

“This is another grave mistake with far-reaching consequences,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Monday.

An overwhelming majority of Finland’s 200 MPs — at least 85 percent — back the decision to join NATO after Marin’s Social Democratic Party on Saturday said it was in favour of joining.

Speaker of parliament Matti Vanhanen said “over 150 requests to speak were made” and the vote was not expected to take place on Monday.

Public opinion is also strongly in favour of membership.

According to recent polls, the number of Finns who want to join the alliance has risen to more than three-quarters, almost triple the level seen before the war in Ukraine began on February 24.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia, was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939.

Finns put up a fierce fight during the bloody Winter War, but were ultimately forced to cede a huge stretch of their eastern Karelia province in a peace treaty with Moscow.

Meanwhile in Sweden, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said at the weekend she would consult parliament on Monday before announcing her government’s official intention to apply.

That announcement was expected later Monday, according to media reports.

Her Social Democratic Party came out in favour of joining the alliance on Sunday, securing a firm majority in parliament for membership.

The turnaround by her party is dramatic, having opposed NATO membership since the birth of the alliance, with Andersson herself expressing opposition as recently as March.

Swedish public support for NATO membership has also risen dramatically, to around 50 per cent — with about 20 per cent against.

Finland Announces ‘Historic’ NATO Bid, As Sweden Holds Key Meeting

Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö gives a press conference to announce that Finland will apply for NATO membership at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland on May 15, 2022. (Photo by Alessandro RAMPAZZO / AFP)

 

The Finnish government officially announced its intention to join NATO on Sunday, as Sweden’s ruling party was to hold a decisive meeting that could pave the way for a joint application.

Less than three months after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the move is a stunning reversal of Finland’s policy on military non-alignment dating back more than 75 years.

Sweden, which has been militarily non-aligned for more than two centuries, is expected to follow suit with a similar announcement, possibly on Monday.

“Today, the President of the Republic and the Government’s Foreign Policy Committee have jointly agreed that Finland will apply for NATO membership, after consulting parliament,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told reporters at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Sanna Marin on Sunday.

“This is a historic day. A new era is opening”, Niinisto said.

Despite last-minute objections by Turkey, NATO members are on “good track” in their discussions on welcoming Sweden and Finland into the Western military alliance, Croatia’s foreign minister, Gordan Grlic Radman, said as he arrived for talks with NATO counterparts in Berlin.

Finland’s parliament will convene to debate the membership proposal on Monday.

“We hope the parliament will confirm the decision to apply for NATO membership during the coming days. It will be based on a strong mandate”, premier Marin said.

An overwhelming majority of Finnish MPs back the decision after Marin’s Social Democratic Party on Saturday said it was in favour of joining.

“Hopefully, we can send our applications next week together with Sweden,” Marin had said on Saturday.

The two Nordic countries broke their strict neutralities after the end of the Cold War by joining the EU and becoming partners to NATO in the 1990s, solidifying their affiliation with the West.

But the concept of full NATO membership was a non-starter in the countries until the war in Ukraine saw public and political support for joining the alliance soar.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia, has been leading the charge, while Sweden appears anxious at being the only non-NATO country around the Baltic Sea.

Finland is also Sweden’s closest defence cooperation partner.

Many Swedish politicians have said their support is conditional on Finland joining.

On Saturday, the Finnish head of state phoned his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin to inform him of his country’s desire to join NATO, in a conversation described as “direct and straightforward”.

“Avoiding tensions was considered important,” Niinisto said in a statement after the call.

But Putin responded by warning that joining NATO “would be a mistake since there is no threat to Finland’s security”, according to a Kremlin statement.

Moscow has repeatedly warned both countries of consequences if they join NATO.

Niinisto said Sunday that while Helsinki expects Russia to respond to its decision, “little by little, I’m beginning to think that we’re not going to face actual military operations.”

“After the phone call with Putin, I think so even more.”

– No other choice –

According to recent polls, the number of Finns who want to join the alliance has risen to over three-quarters, almost triple the level seen before the war in Ukraine.

In Sweden, support has also risen dramatically, to around 50 percent — with about 20 percent against.

Sweden’s Social Democrats, led by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, were meeting Sunday to decide whether the party should abandon its historic stance against joining, last reaffirmed at the party’s annual congress in November.

A green light from the party would secure a firm parliamentary majority in favour of joining.

While the party’s leading politicians have seemed ready to reverse the decision, critical voices within have denounced the change in policy as rushed.

But analysts say it is unlikely that the party will oppose the move.

NATO membership needs to be approved and ratified by all 30 members of the alliance.

While Finland and Sweden claim to have received favourable signals from Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday expressed hostility to the idea.

Turkey’s objections, directed in particular at Stockholm, focus on what it considers to be the countries’ leniency towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on the EU’s list of terrorist organisations.

Niinisto said Sunday he was “prepared to have a new discussion with President Erdogan about the problems he has raised”.

At NATO’s meeting in Berlin, Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok said he was “absolutely certain that we will find a solution”, while Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said “the signs don’t look bad” for Sweden and Finland.

AFP

Finland Seeks To Reassure Russia About NATO Bid

 This file photo taken on July 27, 2017 shows Finland's President Sauli Niinisto (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands after a press conference in Punkaharju hotel in Savonlinna, Finland. Alexander NEMENOV / AFP
This file photo taken on July 27, 2017 shows Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands after a press conference in Punkaharju hotel in Savonlinna, Finland. Alexander NEMENOV / AFP

 

Finland on Saturday sought to allay Moscow’s fears about its bid to join NATO, as fierce fighting raged in Ukraine’s east, slowing a Russian advance.

Wives and parents of Ukrainian fighters trapped in the bowels of a besieged steel plant in the country’s south meanwhile made a desperate appeal to China to help secure their release.

And the wealthy countries of the G7 vowed to further turn the screw on the Kremlin with fresh sanctions, pledging never to recognise the borders it is attempting to redraw through destructive force.

One of Europe’s fiercest conflicts since World War II has seen more than six million people flee for their lives, and according to Kyiv has caused an estimated $90 billion in damage to civilian infrastructure.

READ ALSO: Russia Suspends Electricity To Finland

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin urged his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu to move immediately to implement a ceasefire, in their first talks since before the conflict began on February 24.

But one senior Ukrainian general predicted a turning point in the months ahead, and said the fighting could be over by the end of the year.

In Turin, Italy, a world away from the fighting, a wave of popular support has made Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra the bookmakers’ favourite to triumph at the world’s biggest live music event — the Eurovision Song Contest.

But even there the war has cast a shadow.

“We have one band member who joined the territorial defence of Kyiv on the third day of the war,” said lead singer Oleh Psiuk.

“We are very worried about him, and we hope to see him safe once we are back.”

Phone call

Finland and Sweden are poised to jettison decades of military non-alignment to join NATO as a defence against feared further aggression from Russia.

Moscow has warned Finland, with whom it shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border, that it would take “reciprocal steps”.

Finland’s grid operator said Russia halted electricity supplies overnight, though Finnish officials said power supplied by Sweden had made up for the losses.

Ahead of talks with NATO members in Berlin, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said he was “confident that in the end we will find a solution and Finland (and) Sweden will become members of NATO”.

Earlier, in a phone call initiated by Helsinki, President Sauli Niinisto had a “direct and straightforward” conversation with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

“Avoiding tensions was considered important,” Niinisto’s office said.

Putin, however, told him that Finland joining NATO would be a “mistake”, insisting that Russia posed “no threat to Finland’s security”, the Kremlin said.

Finland’s bid to join NATO is expected to be announced this weekend.

Turkey unhappy

Finland and Sweden will first have to win over NATO member Turkey on the sidelines of the informal gathering of the alliance’s foreign ministers in Berlin.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said he opposed their membership bids and accused both countries of harbouring “terrorist organisations”.

Both Nordic countries have sizable Kurdish populations. Ankara has regularly accused Stockholm in particular of harbouring members of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organisation in the UK, European Union and the United States.

It has also been angered by Sweden’s assertion that the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917 constituted genocide.

But Turkey on Saturday expressed readiness at least to discuss Finnish and Swedish membership.

“A big majority of the Turkish people are against the membership of those countries who are supporting PKK terrorist organisation,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said upon arrival for the Berlin talks.

He added, however, that “these are the issues that we need to talk, of course, with our NATO allies as well as these countries.”

Kharkiv withdrawal

In Ukraine, the government and military said Ukrainian forces were holding back a Russian assault in the strategic eastern Donbas region, stifling Moscow’s attempt to annex the south and east.

Since late March, Russia has increasingly turned its attention to eastern Ukraine after failing to take the capital Kyiv.

The governor of the eastern Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, said Ukrainian forces had prevented Russian attempts to cross a river and encircle the city of Severodonetsk.

Defence and military intelligence officials in London and Washington both said Russian forces had sustained heavy losses as they attempted the river crossing and had failed to make significant progress.

The Ukrainian general staff said troops had managed to push Russian forces out of Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv in the northeast — a priority target for Moscow.

“The enemy’s main efforts are focused on ensuring the withdrawal of its units from the city of Kharkiv,” a spokesman said.

Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov meanwhile said in a video on Telegram that Ukrainian forces were counterattacking in the direction of the northeastern city of Izyum.

Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, said the months ahead could prove decisive.

“The breaking point will be in the second part of August,” he told Britain’s Sky News television.

“Most of the active combat actions will have finished by the end of this year.”

Appeal to China

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday met Mitch McConnell, leader of the Republican minority in the US Senate, and a delegation of US senators in Kyiv.

A Democratic contingent led by House speaker Nancy Pelosi had visited Kyiv earlier.

On Friday, Zelensky said his troops would fight to recapture all occupied territory, and those under siege, including in the devastated southern port city of Mariupol.

There, the last defenders of the city are holed up in a warren of underground tunnels and bunkers at the vast Azovstal steelworks under heavy bombardment.

The United Nations and Red Cross helped to evacuate women, children and the elderly from the plant whey there were sheltering earlier this month.

But local officials said around 600 fighters from Ukraine’s Azov regiment were wounded and needed to be brought out for medical treatment.

In Kyiv, five wives and a father of fighters trapped at the plant appealed directly to China’s President Xi Jinping to step in.

“China has a big influence on Russia and on Putin personally. We ask for him to intervene,” said one man, Stavr Vychniak.

Turkey Opposes NATO Membership For Finland, Sweden

A handout photograph taken and released on October 25, 2021 by the Turkish Presidential Press Service shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan giving a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara. Murat KULA / TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP
FILE: A handout photograph taken and released on October 25, 2021 by the Turkish Presidential Press Service shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan giving a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara. Murat KULA / TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP

 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said Turkey did not have a “positive opinion” on Finland and Sweden joining NATO, throwing up a potential obstacle for the nations’ membership bid. 

The leader of NATO-member Turkey spoke ahead of expected confirmations from the Nordic nations on Sunday that they will apply to join the Western military alliance.

Erdogan accused both countries of harbouring “terrorist organisations” in his unfavourable assessment of the membership bids.

READ ALSO: Finland Will Join NATO ‘Without Delay’ – President, PM

“We do not have a positive opinion,” Erdogan told journalists after Friday prayers in Istanbul.

“Scandinavian countries are like a guesthouse for terror organisations,” he said.

Turkey has long accused Nordic countries, especially Sweden which has a strong Turkish immigrant community, of harbouring extremist Kurdish groups as well as supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based preacher wanted over a failed 2016 coup.

Erdogan cited a “mistake” made by Turkey’s former rulers who okayed Greece’s NATO membership in 1952.

“We, as Turkey, do not want to make a second mistake on this issue,” he said.

Unanimous approval needed

Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine has swung political and public opinion in Finland and Sweden in favour of membership as a deterrent against Russian aggression.

Both countries have long cooperated with NATO and are expected to be able to join the alliance quickly.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly said they would be welcomed “with open arms”.

Turkey’s response is the first dissenting voice against the two Nordic countries’ NATO prospects.

Sweden’s and Finland’s foreign ministers responded on Friday by saying they were hoping to meet their Turkish counterpart in Berlin at an informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers on Saturday.

“We will then have the opportunity to discuss a potential Swedish NATO application,” Sweden’s foreign minister Ann Linde said in a statement to AFP, also noting the “Turkish government had not delivered this type of message directly to us”.

Speaking at a Helsinki press conference, Finland’s Pekka Haavisto also said he hoped to meet Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during the weekend to “continue our discussion.”

Stockholm and Helsinki have cranked up their international contacts to seek support for their potential bids.

Once a country has decided to apply for NATO membership, the alliance’s 30 members must agree unanimously to extend a formal invitation, which is followed by membership negotiations.

The final approval could then take place at a NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June. The 30 member states would then have to ratify the decision.

Turkey, which enjoys good relations with Kyiv and Moscow, has been keen to play a mediating role to end the conflict and has offered to host a leaders’ summit.

Ankara has supplied Ukraine with combat drones but has shied away from slapping sanctions on Russia alongside Western allies.

‘Hungary of the EU’

Erdogan’s comments may also raise tensions with France, whose President Emmanuel Macron has said NATO was undergoing “brain death” partly due to Turkey’s behaviour.

Macron has made clear he supports Finland’s bid as does the United States.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday Washington was “working to clarify Turkey’s position”, adding there was “broad support” for the two countries’ joining the alliance.

The Finnish president spoke with Erdogan in April as part of consultations for its NATO bid.

“I thanked President Erdogan for his efforts for peace in Ukraine. Turkey supports Finland’s objectives,” he tweeted at the time.

Turkey’s position on Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership risks making it look like the “Hungary of the EU”, said Washington Institute fellow Soner Cagaptay.

Pro-Russia Hungary often breaks from its EU colleagues on a broad range of issues, including rule of law and human rights.

Cagaptay said Ankara should have negotiated its terror-related concerns behind closed doors with the two countries.

“The fact that this is done publicly is going to hurt Ankara’s image significantly,” he said.

But Erdogan is “a clever tactician”, said Elisabeth Braw, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“He knows that this is an opportunity for Turkey to get something from NATO member states… F-35s, for example,” she said, referring to US defence giant Lockheed Martin’s jets.

AFP

Finland Will Join NATO ‘Without Delay’ – President, PM

In this file photo, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin arrives at the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, on March 11, 2022, for the EU leaders’ summit to discuss the fallout of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

 

Finland’s president and the prime minister said on Thursday they were in favour of joining NATO and a formal decision would be taken this weekend, after Russia’s war in Ukraine sparked a swift u-turn in opinion.

“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement.

Niinisto has often served as a mediator between Russia and the West.

“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defence alliance,” the statement said.

A special committee will announce Finland’s formal decision on a membership bid on Sunday, the statement added.

READ ALSOUN To Hold Another Meeting On Ukraine

The two leaders had been widely expected to come out in favour of joining the Western military alliance.

“Joining NATO would not be against anyone,” Niinisto told reporters on Wednesday, amid Russian warnings of consequences if Helsinki were to seek membership.

His response to Russia would be: “You caused this. Look in the mirror,” he said.

As recently as January, amid tensions between the West and Russia, Marin said a bid would be “very unlikely” during her current mandate, which ends in April 2023.

But after its powerful eastern neighbour invaded Ukraine on February 24, Finland’s political and public opinion swung dramatically in favour of membership as a deterrent against Russian aggression.

A poll published on Monday by public broadcaster Yle showed that a record 76 percent of Finns now support joining the alliance, up from the steady 20-30 percent registered in recent years.

Finland shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia and has been militarily non-aligned for decades.

In 1939, it was invaded by the Soviet Union.

Finns put up a fierce fight during the Winter War but were ultimately forced to cede a huge stretch of its eastern Karelia province in a peace treaty with Moscow.

Iro Sarkka, a NATO expert from the University of Helsinki, told AFP before the announcement that Niinisto, who had refrained from revealing his stance on membership, had nonetheless dropped hints that he was leaning toward supporting a bid.

“The president no longer talks about the EU defence option or the role of Finland as the mediator between the East and the West,” she said.

Next Steps 

On Wednesday, the Finnish parliament’s defence committee also concluded that membership of NATO would be the “best option” for Finland’s security, as the Russian invasion had eroded the security situation in Europe.

A large majority in Finland’s parliament backs membership.

“It is 100-percent certain that Finland will apply and quite likely that it will be a member by the end of the year,” researcher Charly Salonius-Pasternak of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs told AFP before Thursday’s announcement.

Neighbouring Sweden is also contemplating joining the military alliance and the two countries are widely expected to present a joint bid.

For Finland, the next step is for the President and Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy — a body made up of the president, prime minister and up to six other cabinet ministers — to meet on Sunday.

The committee will make the formal decision for Finland to submit an application, with the proposal then presented to parliament.

After an official bid is submitted to the alliance, lawmakers in all 30 NATO member states would need to ratify its application, a process that can take months.

Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said on Tuesday he believed Finland could be a full NATO member “at the earliest” on October 1.

“The NATO secretary general has said that this process will take between four and 12 months. My own impression is that it might be closer to four months than 12 months,” Haavisto said.

AFP