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Finland monitors Russia's movements as it waits for acceptance into NATO

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Sweden and Finland will officially seek NATO membership. This move, which was brought on by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, reverses a decades-old policy of neutrality by the two Nordic countries. It has also raised questions about whether expanded NATO membership will help contain Russia or provoke it even further. Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke with Finnish ambassador to the U.S. Mikko Hautala last night.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ambassador, we had an analyst on the program last week who said the most vulnerable time for Finland is, essentially, now, between when you asked for NATO membership and when you get it and are protected by NATO. How dangerous is this moment?

MIKKO HAUTALA: Well, I think it's something that we have to be mindful of. Currently, the situation is really calm. We don't see any military threats directed against us. Our president had a phone call with President Putin. And it seems to be the case that Russia understands the way things are, how things are moving. That doesn't mean that we could sort of take it easy. We have been planning for this, preparing for this. But for the moment, it looks like things are going to be OK.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, I'm interested that your president spoke with President Putin over the weekend. I know they've had a very long-standing relationship. They've known each other a long time.

HAUTALA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Can you characterize how that call went?

HAUTALA: The call was long. It was substantial. It was done in a constructive mode. They've known each other for, now, 10 years, so they know how the other side thinks. But we informed Russia how we are going to move. And of course, now it's up to Russians to decide how they will define their policies.

INSKEEP: If people don't know, I'd like them to know that you have been Finland's ambassador to Moscow in the past, which means you've had your own opportunity to study Vladimir Putin. Do you feel you understand how he's going to respond?

HAUTALA: My own conclusion also is that Russia, first of all, they do realize that Finland has been integrating with NATO for almost 30 years. We have had really good bilateral cooperation also with the U.S. So for the Russians, this is not such a radical move. It's a rather small step at the end of the long road. I don't believe that they have too much interest there to somehow bring this story to their own audience because I think, rather, they have an interest there to keep the tone relatively low.

INSKEEP: Wait. When you say bring this story to their own audience, you're saying that they would rather not make a large controversy that would be noticed by the Russian people?

HAUTALA: Yeah. I don't think they have an interest to do that for a simple reason that this is not something that they had in mind or had hoped for.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about a complexity that may happen after you submit your formal application to NATO.

HAUTALA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: All existing members of NATO have to ratify membership. Turkey's president and foreign minister have raised concerns in recent days. The foreign minister claims that Finland, quote, must stop supporting terror groups, which is how Turkey refers to the Kurdistan Workers' Party - or PKK. They've made some other demands as well. Do you accept that you're doing anything wrong that must be corrected?

HAUTALA: Well, PKK is considered a terrorist group by the EU and by Finland. So obviously, we do not have any sort of relationship to those kind of claims. Also, in the past, sometimes it happens that some member states raise some unrelated issues as a part of the discussion process. And of course, we will continue our negotiations and discussions with the Turks. We have also heard from the Turkish president a very positive message towards our membership. So I really can't say that we have any specific demands or arguments from them.

INSKEEP: Do you see any risk that you formally ask for NATO membership, thus displeasing Russia, and then don't get NATO membership, any risk of that at all?

HAUTALA: We have done a lot of pre-screening of the of the process. And so far, our assessment, on the basis of the contacts that we've had with the member states, is positive. But obviously, we haven't done the whole thing until everybody has agreed. So it's an open issue still.

INSKEEP: Do you see a possibility that Finland's border with Russia becomes a kind of cold war border, as it somewhat was during the actual Cold War?

HAUTALA: Well, I think it now depends, of course - obviously, we have an interest in maintaining a functioning border in which there is no much tension. But NATO already has five member states with direct border with Russia. All of them have border cooperation. So I don't think our case would be any different from these other five member states which have border with the Russians.

INSKEEP: Mikko Hautala is Finland's ambassador to the United States. Ambassador, thank you so much.

HAUTALA: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.