Biden and Niinisto forge deeper ties as Finland’s support for NATO grows

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WASHINGTON/HELSINKI — US President Joe Biden on Friday agreed to deepen security ties with his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto, but refrained from giving formal guarantees to the country which was nervously watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Both men also refrained from saying that Finland would seek to join NATO or become a major non-NATO ally of the United States, a designation granting enhanced security cooperation.

Still, during an hour-and-a-half meeting at the White House, Biden called Finland a “strong defense partner” contributing to a “united transatlantic response to hold Russia accountable.”

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Russia does not want Finland or Sweden to join NATO and just a week ago Moscow issued its final warning to them of “serious military-political consequences” if they did. Niinisto has argued that European Union member Finland has the right to apply for NATO membership, but has stifled talks about it amid a crisis.

The Ukrainian government had said it wanted to become a member of the US-led military alliance and Moscow wanted the West to guarantee that Kiev would never become a member.

“Finland has clearly moved towards closer cooperation with the United States,” Niinisto told reporters after thanking Biden for his “leadership” in “very difficult times.”

He said the United States and the Nordic countries would “launch a clear process to strengthen defense and security cooperation” after a meeting with Biden that included a call to Magdalena Andersson, the prime minister of the western neighbor of the country. Finland, Sweden. Andersson and Niinisto plan to meet in Finland on Saturday.

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The war in Ukraine has raised concerns among other European countries neighboring Russia. Finland shares an 833-mile (1,340 km) border with Russia and opinion polls show support for full NATO membership has increased since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to enter Ukraine on 24 February.

“This security cooperation process is about concrete security and defense factors, not so much memberships,” Niinisto said after meeting Biden. But he added that Finland meets the criteria to join NATO.

“The presidents are committed to initiating a process that would enhance U.S.-Finnish security cooperation, which would be conducted in close consultation with other Nordic countries,” the White House said in a statement alluding to the policy of NATO to welcome new members who meet its requirements. . “The Presidents also discussed the importance of NATO’s Open Door Policy.”

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Deeper security ties will be on display when Finnish Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen travels to the United States next week, where he will meet his American counterpart Lloyd Austin and visit Lockheed Martin facilities in Texas.

Last month, Finland struck a $9.4 billion deal to buy dozens of F-35 stealth fighter jets from the United States. Kaikkonen also plans to visit a US airbase in Florida to see the planes.

Finland, which was part of the Kingdom of Sweden until 1809 and then under Russian control until independence in 1917, has historically sought to preserve cordial relations with Moscow.

During a small portion of the Oval Office meeting open to reporters, Biden said his predecessor Barack Obama thought the world would be fine if he left things to the Nordic countries.

“Well, we don’t usually start wars,” Niinisto replied.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington and Anne Kauranen in Helsinki; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

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