Finnish leader holds his ground on NATO in talk with Putin

Finnish leader holds his ground on NATO in talk with Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to ratchet up the pressure on Finland over its plans to apply for NATO membership, but Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said Russia’s own actions were the reason Helsinki decided to change course.

In a weekend phone call initiated by Mr. Niinisto, Mr. Putin warned his Finnish counterpart that joining the Western military alliance would be a “mistake” that would have an unspecified “negative impact” on bilateral relations.

Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, has seen public opinion shift sharply toward NATO membership in the wake of Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Niinisto and top Finnish officials confirmed last week they were preparing to apply for NATO membership.

Sweden, which like Finland has for decades pursued a policy of military neutrality, is also expected to seek NATO membership in the coming days.

Mr. Niinisto’s office said he told Mr. Putin “how fundamentally the Russian demands in late 2021 aiming at preventing countries from joining NATO and Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 have altered the security environment of Finland,” the Finnish official statement on the call reported.

Mr. Putin launched the Ukraine invasion in February in part as a larger protest against NATO’s eastward expansion toward Russia’s borders in the post-Cold War era.

Russian officials said Mr. Putin and Mr. Niinisto had a “frank exchange of views” — diplomatic code for a blunt disagreement about the topics discussed.

The Finnish side said the two leaders laid out their differences candidly without tension. Mr. Niinisto also raised the issue of civilian casualties and human suffering sparked by the Russian military operation.

“In the future, Finland wants to manage correctly and professionally the practical issues that arise due to the neighborhood of the Russian Federation,” the Finnish statement said.