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Why Finland’s top diplomat is proud of EU's response to Russia

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto sits for an interview with GZERO World

Finnish leaders know how to have a good time, which is probably why Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto recently sat down with GZERO’s Ian Bremmer to discuss Finland’s NATO accession, the Ukrainian bid to join, and the consideration of future membership bids.

This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

Ian Bremmer: I want to start with the issue of the year, unfortunately, which is of course Russia. They invaded on the 24th of February. Less than three months later, your country was formally invited and requested to join NATO. Surely no one thought that was imaginable before the invasion. I wonder if you can just take me through the national mentality over those three months —what happened in your country?

Pekka Haavisto: First, it’s good to mention that in our white papers since 1995, there has been mention of the NATO option – saying that in the case of security situation changes in our region, we are ready to consider NATO membership. But everybody was maybe thinking that it's almost like a dead letter in these white papers, and then suddenly in February we analyzed the situation of the Russian attack against Ukraine – very security oriented. We started to think that if this is a successful military campaign against Ukraine, what else Russia can do in its vicinity and how much does it want to control the neighboring countries? And then we came to the conclusion that now is the time to apply for NATO membership.

Then, step by step, we came to the same page with Sweden on this issue. [Domestically], almost all parties started to support NATO membership, I would say overnight. There was, of course, a lot of debate, lots of discussion, and suddenly we got started to get this rate of 80% in favor of NATO membership. When the Finnish Parliament finally voted, it was a huge landslide support for NATO membership.

IB: The Russian government, including President Putin, directly warned your country and warned the Swedes not to join and that there would be consequences, both diplomatic and military consequences, if you were to proceed. Now that was months ago, have there been any consequences?

PH: Well, almost nothing I would say. Of course, verbally, yes, the warnings are there and so forth, but I think Russia has been very busy with the war against Ukraine. And we can see actually on our border, which is 1,300-kilometer common border with Russia, that Russia is moving military troops away from that area towards Ukraine in these circumstances.

I B: And of course the reason that you decided that you wanted to join NATO is because you were concerned about your country's security all by itself. Does that make you think, in retrospect, that maybe membership should have been extended to Ukraine or no?

Pekka Haavisto: That's an interesting question. I think one of the frustrations for Ukrainians had been that NATO was not moving on this issue. NATO has not been developing maybe Ukraine's defense capacity as it should have been developed and so forth. But in retrospect, you think everybody says that "Why didn't we react in 2014 when Crimea was occupied?" And I remember very well the discussions in European Union, also our national discussions – the occupation of Crimea didn't trigger that kind of solidarity wave that the attack against the capital Kyiv triggered. Ukraine has changed and of course in Crimea, I think it was a little bit unclear how the troops maybe changed their positions or even changed their side during the 2014 occupation. And I think we have much stronger national identity of Ukraine at the moment. This is good and it's easier now to support Ukraine [and many are doing so, including, for example] the European Union's capabilities to support Ukraine. I have been positively surprised.

They invited them to join and are actually sending together military material and so forth. The European Union's on the front line now in this conflict in many, many ways, and I think I'm very proud of that European Union.

IB: So as a future NATO member, in all likelihood, do you believe that NATO membership should be on the table in the future for the Ukrainian government?

PH: Well, I think NATO enlargement should of course be there always with similar conditions for countries that fulfill the NATO criteria and so forth, and nobody would be excluded from that. Then of course, it's up to the current NATO members to decide how the enlargement process goes. We have been of course lucky that with both Sweden and Finland that all of the NATO member states are supporting our membership. Of course, some have some conditions like Turkey, so we are still dealing with those conditions.

Should Ukraine Get A NATO Invite? | GZERO

IB: Your president said that when he met with President Erdoğan of Turkey, that there was no problem that was brought up about your country and Sweden acceding to NATO membership and then suddenly there was. Now we know that Erdoğan, from a personal disposition perspective, occasionally speaks, let's say, off script, but how has it been negotiating between your and his government over the past months? How confident are you that the hiccups have been smoothed?

PH: Also in the early contacts from my side with my colleague, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, who in the spring was always very easygoing and said: "Definitely no problem Finland joining," and so forth. And that was the early message from Turkey. Then in Madrid Summit, of course, we noticed that Turkey has a lot of issues, particularly on security, terrorism and so forth, accusing Sweden, Finland supporting terrorist groups and so forth. We then established this three-part arc mechanism and this three-part arc mechanism has now had its first meeting at the end of August in Helsinki. And I understand that everybody was quite happy about that meeting – it was not on the political level, but on the staff level from our ministries. The next meeting is planned for October, so we are working on those issues raised by Turkey. We are giving answers to the questions and so forth. We have more intensified exchange of information on certain risks and so forth. So I think that, at the technical level, that's working. Now it's up then to the political.

Ian Bremmer: I want to end a hopeful note. NATO today is stronger and more unified than it's been in a long time, so to the European Union, what does that mean for you as you think about the future of Finland, as you think about the future of the global order?

Pekka Haavisto: We have always said that European Union is our main organization on trade economy, but also security. Now we are adding to that our NATO membership, and we have seen very close cooperation between Washington and Brussels now on trans-Atlantic security issues and actually that gives us a lot of hope that we have a wider perspective on economy, on security and so forth when we have this good transatlantic cooperation.

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