Nato membership must remain an option for Ukraine, says Finland

Ukraine must be allowed to retain the option of Nato membership, Finland’s foreign minister has said, warning that Moscow’s open aggression seemed to be based on a “concept of the past and rebuilding the Soviet Union”.

Pekka Haavisto said Vladimir Putin’s move on Monday to recognise the two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine followed a worrying pattern that began with the 2008 annexation of parts of Georgia, then Crimea in 2014 “and now this one step further”.

While he said a full-blown Russian invasion of Kyiv looked “unlikely [as] it would be very challenging”, he added that there was a real chance of “open war” between Ukraine and Russia.

“There were clues in Putin’s speech and in recent propaganda [about] Ukraine developing nuclear weapons and with the mentions of Odesa,” he told the Financial Times. “So you can start to see a locations on a map that give a hint of what may be [the Kremlin’s] next steps.”

Finland, which is a member of the EU but not of Nato, always maintained a careful neutrality with the Soviet Union during the cold war, which gives it a valuable perspective on the Ukraine crisis and the challenges of being one of Russia’s neighbours.

Putin has demanded that Nato withdraw from eastern Europe and the Baltics and bar Ukraine from joining the military alliance. Haavisto said this seemed to have grown out of Putin’s apparent “frustration with the past 30 years, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s self image” and that the Russian president’s actions were “based on some sort of concept of the past and rebuilding the Soviet Union”.

Although Nato has firmly rebuffed Putin’s demands, some have suggested a compromise whereby Ukraine effectively remains outside of the alliance while retaining the theoretical possibility of joining. Haavisto rejected that idea.

“It is very important that Nato keeps its open door policy, that Finland keeps the right to apply . . . and that is our position for Ukraine and Georgia as well. Every country should have that right,” he said.

Russia, which has massed up to 190,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders, sent its troops on a “peacekeeping” mission in the Moscow-backed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics late on Monday, after months of uncertainty over its intentions.

In a rambling hour-long speech in which he recognised the breakaway republics, Putin also referenced the 2014 protests in the Ukrainian city of Odesa that left 42 pro-Russians dead, calling it a “terrible tragedy . . . where participants in a peaceful protest were brutally murdered . . . by criminals”.

The Russian president added ominously: “We know them by name and will do everything to punish them, find them and bring them to justice.” US officials have warned that Russia had a “hit list” of targets for assassination or arrest once it had troops in Ukraine.

Russia’s move to a war footing after a sustained military build-up on the Ukraine border has forestalled attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. It has also pushed the US and western allies to introduce limited sanctions and vow to respond with further curbs should Russia extend its incursion into areas held by Ukrainian forces.

Haavisto said “you have to be a believer in diplomacy” and that the so-called Minsk process may have been one way of bringing peace to eastern Ukraine. “But that was then,” he added, given that Putin’s decision to send troops in to the separatist areas had buried the Minsk agreements, which aimed to end the conflict that has left over 14,000 dead since 2014.

Haavisto also squashed the idea of using Finland’s cold war relationship with the Soviet Union as a model for Ukraine’s present day relationship with Russia — the so-called Finlandisation of Ukraine.

“The term comes from history and the days of the cold war,” Haavisto said. “We don’t recommend that path to anyone.”

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