NATO has put on a show of strength in Europe in a message to Vladimir Putin as thousands of soldiers from 19 nations take part in war games across the continent.
The Swift Response 22 exercises in North Macedonia involve 4,500 troops from the US, Britain, France, Italy and other allied nations and are taking place against the backdrop of Russian aggression against perceived Western expansion.
There are similar military drills being held across five locations in Europe this month, to show Finland what they will soon be joining.
Swift Response involves parachute drops, helicopter-borne air assaults and sees French paratroopers and an Italian working to a British chain of command.
Exercise Hedgehog is also taking place on the Estonia-Latvia border this month featuring 18,000 NATO troops in the biggest military exercise in Estonia which takes place every four years.
Today, Finland announced it intends to start the formal application process to join the military pact, more than doubling NATO’s presence on Russia’s borders from 754 miles to 1,584 miles.
The decision is a spectacular backfire for Putin who invaded Ukraine in part through fears of Volodymyr Zelensky joining the US-led alliance.
Over the past 10 days, soldiers from Albania, France, Greece, Italy, North Macedonia, Montenegro, the UK and the US have taken part in the exercises in North Macedonia, which have included parachute jumps at several locations around the country.
North Macedonia formally joined NATO in March 2020. The small Balkan country of 1.8million people has an active military of about 8,000 personnel.
‘I think it’s a fantastic demonstration of what we can do as an alliance and our ability to project combat power if asked to do so and how quickly we can do it,’ Maj. Gen. Peter B. Andrysiak, U.S. Army Deputy Commanding General for Europe and Africa, told reporters after an hourlong display in North Macedonia.
The purpose of the exercises is to showcase the ability for large ground combat operations for member states and allies.
Earlier, Russian state TV accused the US of erecting a ‘new iron curtain’ in Europe in a furious response to Finland announcing its intention to join NATO.
This morning, president Sauli Niinisto and prime minister Sanna Marin said they want to join the security alliance ‘without delay’, with Sweden set to follow suit within days, drastically ramping up tensions between Russia and the West.
The Kremlin had previously threatened it would secure ‘the entire destruction’ of the country and ‘the most undesirable consequences’, and today said it would ‘be forced to take retaliatory steps’, both ‘military-technical and other’.
A Number 10 spokesman said the UK is ‘fully committed to NATO’s open door policy’ and said the only threatening behaviour in Europe has been Russia’s invasion.
When asked what he would say to Russia, Niinisto replied: ‘You caused this. Look in the mirror.’
After the announcement, Russian state TV’s Olga Skabeyeva said: ‘The main beneficiary here is America and Biden. And the main aim is a new iron curtain from the Barents to the Black Sea.’
The major policy shift which completely rewrites Europe’s post WWII alignment comes a day after Boris Johnson signed security pacts with Helsinki and Stockholm pledging Britain would come to their aid if they come under Russian attack.
In their statement today, Niinisto and Marin said: ‘Now that the moment of decision-making is near, we state our equal views, also for information to the parliamentary groups and parties.
‘NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defence alliance.
‘Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay.
‘We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.’
Finland, which shares an 830-mile border and a difficult past with Russia, has previously remained outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to maintain friendly relations with its eastern neighbour.
Earlier this morning, former prime minister Alexander Stubb said: ‘I have been waiting for this day for 30 years.
‘Announcement on Finnish NATO membership imminent.’
Sweden is expected to imminently follow Finland with an application to join the Western military pact.
The Nordic nations have been rattled by Moscow’s war against its pro-Western neighbour, which has bolstered domestic support for joining the alliance – and the security that membership would provide.
After today’s announcement, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the eventual membership process would be ‘smooth and swift’.
‘This is a sovereign decision by Finland, which NATO fully respects. Should Finland decide to apply, they would be warmly welcomed into NATO,’ Stoltenberg said.
Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen also said he will push for a quick admission process.
‘Denmark will of course warmly welcome Finland to NATO. (It) will strengthen NATO and our common security,’ Frederiksen said on Twitter. ‘Denmark will do everything for a quick admission process after the formal application.’
Meanwhile Volodymyr Zelensky ‘commended’ Finland’s readiness to apply to join the NATO alliance in a phone call with Niinisto.
‘We also discussed Ukraine’s European integration. And – defence interaction,’ he wrote on Twitter.
Any NATO expansion is bound to spark anger from Vladimir Putin, who has warned Sweden and Finland against joining.
The Russian tyrant has historically pushed back at any eastward expansion of the alliance and has strongly condemned any notions of Ukraine joining. He claimed Ukraine’s closeness with the West was one reason behind his invasion.
Moscow lawmaker Vladimir Dzhabarov recently warned Finland that a formal application would mean ‘the destruction of the country’, while another Kremlin spokesman Alexander Grushko threatening ‘the most undesirable consequences’.
But Moscow’s mounting warnings and threatening rhetoric appear only to have strengthened Finland’s and Sweden’s resolve to join.
It comes after Britain pledged yesterday to come to Sweden and Finland’s aid should either of the countries come under Russian attack.
Boris Johnson signed security pacts with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts during visits to the countries on Wednesday.
The pacts could see British troops sent to the two nations in the event of a Russian invasion from ’21st century tyrant’ Putin – who has threatened ‘military and political consequences’ should either country join the NATO alliance.
Johnson said the countries must be free to decide whether to join NATO without ‘fear of retaliation’ in a stark message to Putin.
The PM said the ‘mutual security assurances’ would see the countries involved come to each other’s aid in the event of an attack.
Asked whether British troops could be sent to Finland in the event of a Russian invasion, the PM said: ‘Yes, we will come to each other’s assistance including with military assistance.’
He said the UK would be prepared to offer Sweden ‘whatever Sweden requested’, if Moscow followed through with threats of a military offensive.
Speaking at a press conference in Helsinki alongside Niinisto, Johnson said the two countries would ‘always come to one another’s aid’.
‘The security declaration, the solemn declaration we have signed today, ensures that our two nations can intensify our partnership and take it to unparalleled heights, both latitudinal and metaphorical,’ he said.
From the high north, to the Baltics and beyond, our armed forces will train, operate and exercise together, marrying our defence and security capabilities and formalising a pledge that we will always come to one another’s aid.
‘Because this is not a short-term stop gap, Sauli.
‘This is not a short-term stop gap as you consider Nato membership, but an enduring assurance between two nations, an assurance that brings us ever closer as we face the challenges of today, the threats of tomorrow, side by side.’
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.
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 per cent 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.
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.
Swedish prime minister Magdalena Andersson said her country would be safer as a result of the mutual assistance agreement with the UK. ‘Are we safer with this declaration? Yes we are. Of course this means something.’
Finnish president Sauli Niinisto echoed the feeling later, saying the deal with the UK ‘increases enormously Finnish security’.
He added he did not view joining the military alliance as a ‘zero sum game’. ‘Joining Nato would not be against anybody,’ the Finnish president said.
Describing the declaration as a ‘pivotal moment in our shared history’, Mr Johnson added: ‘It’s pivotal because… the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the equation of European security and it has rewritten our reality and reshaped our future.
‘We’ve seen the end of the post-Cold War period and the invasion of Ukraine sadly has opened a new chapter’.
Finland shares a lengthy land border with Russia and is only about 250 miles from St Petersburg.
Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine has led to a swift turnaround in Finnish and Swedish public opinion in favour of NATO membership, which until recently had little backing.
A poll published Monday by Finnish public broadcaster Yle showed that a record 76 percent of Finns now support joining the alliance, up from the steady 20 to 30 percent registered in recent years.
Public opinion has also surged in Sweden, albeit to lower levels, with around half of Swedes now in favour.
Sweden’s ruling Social Democratic Party said Monday it would announce its position on the NATO issue on May 15. A favourable stance would provide a clear parliamentary majority for an application.
Elisabeth Braw, an expert on Nordic countries’ defence at the American Enterprise Institute, told AFP that even though Stockholm appears more hesitant than Helsinki, she believes the two countries ‘will do the application at the same time’.
Traditionally accustomed to lengthy consensus-building debates on major issues, Sweden has been caught off-guard by Finland’s swift turnaround.
‘The Social Democrats in Sweden have always said: ‘We’ll think about this when Finland joins’… because they thought Finland would never join’, Braw said.
A policy reversal for the party, which ruled for an uninterrupted 40 years between the 1930s and 1970s, would be historic.
Sweden is officially non-aligned militarily, although it is a NATO partner and abandoned its position of strict neutrality after the end of the Cold War.
Finland has a long history with Russia. In 1917 it declared independence after 150 years of Russian rule.
During World War II, its vastly outnumbered army fought off a Soviet invasion, before a peace deal saw it cede several border areas to the Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, Finland remained neutral in exchange for guarantees from Moscow that it would not invade.
So the turnaround in sentiment on NATO would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.
As recently as January, Marin said membership was ‘very unlikely’ during her term.
But after two decades of public support for membership remaining steady at 20-30 per cent, the war caused a huge surge.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov euphemistically warned the move would ‘not improve’ the security situation in Europe.
‘We have repeatedly said that the alliance remains a tool geared towards confrontation and its further expansion will not bring stability to the European continent,’ Peskov said.
Any membership bid must be accepted by all 30 NATO states, a process that could take months although members have indicated they want to fast-track the bid.