Finland’s president and prime minister have said they are in favour of applying for Nato membership, paving the way for the alliance to expand amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The dramatic move by Finland was announced by president Sauli Niinisto and prime minister Sanna Marin in a joint statement on Thursday.
It means that Finland is virtually certain to seek Nato membership, though a few steps remain before the application process can begin.
Neighbouring Sweden is expected to decide on joining Nato in the coming days.
Finland shares an 830-mile land border with Russia.
The Kremlin has warned of “military and political repercussions” if Sweden and Finland decide to join Nato.
Should they apply, there will be an interim period lasting from when an application has been made until all 30 Nato members’ parliaments have ratified it.
“Now that the moment of decision-making is near, we state our equal views, also for information to the parliamentary groups and parties,” Mr Niinisto and Ms Marin said in a joint statement.
“Nato membership would strengthen Finland’s security.”
“As a member of Nato, Finland would strengthen the entire defence alliance,” they said.
“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.”
The statement came a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited both Finland and Sweden to sign a military co-operation agreement.
The UK pledged to come to the aid of Sweden and Finland if the two countries came under attack.
In 2017, Sweden and Finland joined the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force, which is designed to be more flexible and respond more quickly than the larger Nato alliance.
It uses Nato standards and doctrine, so it can operate in conjunction with Nato, the United Nations or other multinational coalitions.
Fully operational since 2018, the force has held a number of exercises both independently and in co-operation with Nato.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Finland and Sweden have been discussing whether to abandon their historic, decades-old neutrality and join Nato.
Should Finland become a Nato member it would mean the biggest change in the country’s defence and security policy since the Second World War.
During the Cold War, Finland stayed away from Nato to avoid provoking the Soviet Union, instead opting to remain a neutral buffer between the East and the West while maintaining good relations with Moscow and also with the US.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has said the military alliance would welcome Finland and Sweden, both of which have strong, modern militaries, with open arms and expects the accession process to be speedy and smooth.