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Finland moves closer to seeking NATO membership as the war in Ukraine unites Europe

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues to transform the political landscape of Europe. It has largely unified the European Union. And in Finland, public support for joining NATO has skyrocketed, which means the country is now considering a bid to join the military alliance for protection from Russia. Today, the country's prime minister, Sanna Marin, said the government will make a decision soon.

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PRIME MINISTER SANNA MARIN: I won't give any kind of timetable when we will make our decisions, but I think it will happen quite fast within weeks, not within months.

CHANG: Russia's foreign ministry warned of, quote, "military and political consequences" if Finland joins NATO. NPR's Frank Langfitt is following the story from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The Finnish government released a report today on the war's impact on the country's security. The report took no position on joining NATO, but officials said the invasion has increased threats to Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia. Antti Kaikkonen, Finland's minister of defense, spoke at a news conference.

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ANTTI KAIKKONEN: The security situation in Europe and in Finland is more serious and more difficult to predict than it has been for decades. Finland is not facing an immediate military threat, but we must look to the future as well. Finland must be prepared for the use or the threat of use of military force against it.

LANGFITT: Pekka Haavisto, Finland's minister of foreign affairs, said Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shown Moscow's alarming willingness to take big risks.

PEKKA HAAVISTO: Russia is capable of concentrating more than 100,000 soldiers in one spot against one country, even without the mobilization of the reserves and so forth. This is a scary scenario, of course.

LANGFITT: For Kaikkonen, the defense minister, the lessons for Finland are clear.

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KAIKKONEN: It is important to be ready and able to repel large-scale offensive operations on several simultaneous fronts.

LANGFITT: The quickest way to ensure that is to join NATO. The military alliance is led by the U.S. and provides mutual protection for all 30 allies against attack. During the Cold War, Finland remained neutral to avoid Russia's wrath, and public support for joining NATO has always been low until now. Henri Vanhanen is a foreign policy adviser for Finland's National Coalition Party, which supports joining NATO.

HENRI VANHANEN: We have seen spikes go up to about 20% in favor of NATO. After the attack, I think already the first poll on NATO came out, and already by then, we saw a jump up to 50% in favor.

LANGFITT: Have you ever seen any change in public opinion on a foreign policy issue in Finland like this before?

VANHANEN: No, absolutely not. This is very exceptional.

LANGFITT: Two days ago, a poll showed support at a staggering 68%.

What is your sense of the likelihood that Finland will apply to join NATO?

VANHANEN: Very likely. I would say, at this point, 100% likely.

LANGFITT: There's very strong support in NATO for Finnish membership, but any bid could take months or even a year as all 30 allies must approve it. Finland worries that in the interim, Russia will try to punish it with cyberattacks or a troop buildup on its border. Foreign Minister Haavisto says that's when Finland will need help.

HAAVISTO: There comes this kind of period where it's very important that the NATO countries also understand the risks of that period and do what they can.

LANGFITT: Haavisto says that could include NATO countries showing support by doing joint military exercises with Finland. Neighbor Sweden is also considering joining NATO, although it's not as far along in the process. When Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine, he said it was in part to prevent the country from joining NATO. It now seems increasingly likely that his actions will lead to the alliance's expansion. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.