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Finland must apply for NATO membership “without delay”, Finnish leaders say

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© Reuters. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (not pictured) hold a news conference, after signing a declaration between the UK and Finland to deepen their defence and security co-operation, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a

By Anne Kauranen and Essi Lehto

HELSINKI (Reuters) -Finland must apply to join the NATO military alliance “without delay”, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Thursday, a major policy shift triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Finland, which shares a 1,300 km (810 mile) border and a difficult past with Russia, has gradually stepped up its cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a partner since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

But until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Nordic country had refrained from joining in order to maintain friendly relations with its eastern neighbour.

“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” Niinisto and Marin said in a joint statement.

“We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”

NATO allies expect Finland and Sweden to apply to join the alliance in the coming days and will grant membership quickly, five diplomats and officials told Reuters ahead of the Finnish announcement.

Baltic countries, which were once ruled from Moscow and are now members of NATO, welcomed Finland’s announcement.

“Finland decided to join the Alliance. NATO is about to get stronger. Baltics about to get safer,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said.

The view among Finns on NATO has changed rapidly since Russia initiated what it calls a “special operation” in Ukraine.

Finnish public support for joining NATO has risen to record numbers over recent months, with the latest poll by public broadcaster YLE showing 76% of Finns in favour and only 12% against, while support for membership used to linger at only around 25% for years prior to the war in Ukraine.

While military non-alignment has long satisfied many Finns as a way of staying out of conflicts, Russia’s invasion of sovereign Ukraine has led an increasing number of Finns to view friendly relations with Russia as an empty phrase.

Ukraine’s fate has been particularly disturbing for Finland to watch as it fought two wars with Russia between 1939 and 1944, repelling an attempted invasion but losing around 10% of its territory in the subsequent peace agreement.

Finland’s rapid shift towards NATO is likely to pull along neighbouring Sweden.

Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats are expected to decide on Sunday whether to overturn decades of opposition to NATO membership, a move that would almost certainly lead to Sweden also asking to join the 30-nation alliance.

Russia has repeatedly warned both countries against joining the alliance. As recently as March 12 its foreign ministry said “there will be serious military and political consequences” if they do.

The speed of the Finnish decision to apply has come as a surprise to many, with most political discussions taking place behind the scenes out of fear over Russia’s reaction.

In March, Finland’s government initiated a security policy review and delivered a report for parliament to discuss in April, while also holding discussions with all parliamentary groups to secure backing for the decision to join the treaty.

In parallel with the domestic process, Finland’s president and prime minister have toured NATO countries to win their support for Finland’s membership.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has previously said it would be possible to allow Finland and Sweden to join “quite quickly”.

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Analysis: Erdogan’s vow to expand Syria operations raises stakes in Turkey-NATO row

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A Turkish soldier waves a flag on Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria January 28 ,2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Daren Butler, Jonathan Spicer and Maya Gebeily

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan’s pledge to launch military operations soon to expand safe zones already set up across Turkey’s southern borders has raised the stakes in his row with NATO partners over Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.

Analysts said Erdogan’s surprise announcement on Monday reflected his belief that the West would not oppose such operations at a time when it needs Ankara’s support for the Nordic countries’ bid to join NATO.

Turkey accuses Sweden and Finland of harbouring people linked to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). All 30 NATO countries must agree the Nordic states’ application to join. The United States said on Tuesday it was confident that Sweden and Finland could overcome Turkey’s concerns.

Analysts said Erdogan’s announcement was also aimed at bolstering Turkish nationalist support for his two-decade rule as he gears up for difficult elections next year. Cross-border military operations have boosted his poll ratings in the past.

Turkey has conducted three incursions into northern Syria since 2016, seizing hundreds of kilometres of land and pushing some 30 km (20 miles) deep into the country, in operations targeting mainly the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

It has also stepped up military operations against PKK militants in northern Iraq in recent years.

Turkey views both groups as a single terrorist entity. Its NATO allies only view the PKK as a terrorist group, not the YPG.

Asli Aydintasbas, Istanbul-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Erdogan’s move was about testing Turkey’s NATO allies.

“President Erdogan’s style of meeting international challenges is upping the ante – and it almost always works in causing NATO allies to blink,” she said.

“It worked in the eastern Mediterranean and in Syria in the past – why not try again.”

Erdogan said operations to combat threats from across the border would start once Turkey’s armed forces and intelligence had completed their preparations, with decisions set to be made at a National Security Council meeting on Thursday.

KURDISH FACTOR

The YPG, or People’s Defence Units, are a key element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led coalition which the United States has largely relied on to fight Islamic State militants since 2014.

Commenting on Erdogan’s announcement, the SDF accused Turkey of attempting to “destabilise the region” by threatening military action in northern Syria.

The SDF also said it had shot down a Turkish drone on Sunday which it said Ankara has used for surveillance of SDF-held areas ahead of planned shelling.

“In case of any attack, of course we will resist and fight back. The international community now faces an important test: will it effectively rein in Turkey?” said Ciwan Mulla Ibrahim, spokesperson for the SDF-controlled autonomous administration in northeast Syria.

Syria’s foreign ministry in Damascus did not immediately respond to requests for comment. There was also no immediate comment from Washington.

Erdogan said the planned military operation would reveal which countries respected Turkey’s security concerns and which did not – an issue that cuts to the heart of the current NATO row.

Dareen Khalifa, analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group, said a Turkish military move against the YPG was always possible despite the relative calm along Turkey’s border with YPG-held areas in northern Syria since 2019.

While mediators including the United States have managed to calm tensions in recent years, “the crux of the issue – Turkish-PKK relations – hasn’t been addressed”, she said.

ELECTIONS LOOM

Erdogan hopes to leverage the issue of Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO into an opportunity to achieve his long-held goal of creating a buffer zone free of Kurdish fighters along Turkey’s entire border with Syria, analysts said.

His move comes as opinion polls show support for Erdogan and his ruling AK Party sagging amid deepening economic woes. Turkey holds presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023.

Aydintasbas said Turkey had previously staged cross-border operations ahead of elections. But mounting a large-scale military incursion brings risks too.

As well as the YPG presence, Russia has forces deployed in the area to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. troops, Turkey-backed insurgents, Iran-backed fighters, jihadists and Syrian government forces also operate across the patchwork of territories in northern Syria.

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Russian and Chinese jets conduct patrol in East Asia, capping Biden trip

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Flags of China and Russia are displayed in this illustration picture taken March 24, 2022. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration

By Nobuhiro Kubo, Michael Martina and Hyonhee Shin

(Reuters) -Russian and Chinese military planes conducted joint exercises to patrol the Asia-Pacific region, Russia’s defense ministry said on Tuesday, in a pointed farewell to U.S. President Joe Biden as he concluded an Asia trip that rankled Beijing.

The joint patrol lasted 13 hours over the Japanese and East China seas and involved Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers and Chinese Xian H-6 jets, the defense ministry said in a statement.

Japan’s defense minister called the exercise a provocation, while a U.S. official said it revealed the depth of the two countries’ cooperation.

Planes from the Japanese and South Korean air force shadowed the Russian and Chinese jets for part of the exercise, the Russian ministry said.

Japan scrambled jets after Russian and Chinese warplanes neared its airspace while Tokyo was hosting the leaders of the Quad grouping of countries that includes the United States, Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said.

Tokyo conveyed “grave concerns” to both Russia and China through diplomatic channels, Kishi said at a news conference.

He characterised the incident as a likely provocation by both Beijing and Moscow on a day when Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia’s newly elected leader, Anthony Albanese, were meeting in Tokyo.

“We believe the fact that this action was taken during the Quad summit makes it more provocative than in the past,” he said, adding it was the fourth such incident since November.

China’s defense ministry confirmed the joint aerial patrol over the Sea of Japan, East China Sea and the Western Pacific and called it part of an annual military exercise.

The move marks the first joint military exercise by China and Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to a U.S. official, and it came at the tail end of Biden’s trip.

A joint strategic bomber exercise shows the depth of the two countries’ alignment, a senior U.S. administration official said.

“We think it shows that China continues to be willing to closely align themselves with Russia, including through military cooperation,” the official said, adding that such actions must be planned well in advance.

“China is not walking away from Russia. Instead, the exercise shows that China is ready to help Russia defend its east while Russia fights in its west,” the official said.

On Monday, Biden angered China by saying he would be willing to use force to defend Taiwan, but he said later U.S. policy toward the self-ruled democratic island had not changed. China considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory that should be reunited with the mainland.

Tuesday’s incursion was the first reported since new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol took office on May 10. On Sunday, Yoon wrapped up his summit with Biden, where the two leaders pledged support for measures seen as countering China’s influence in the region, and criticized Russia’s war in Ukraine.

South Korea’s military said it scrambled fighter jets after at least four Chinese and four Russian warplanes entered its air defense zone.

The Russian and Chinese aircraft entered and left the Korea Air Defence Identification Zone (Korea ADIZ) in the Sea of Japan, known in Korea as the East Sea, several times through the day, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The aircraft, which included fighter jets and bombers from each side, did not violate South Korea’s airspace, it said.

South Korea had no warning of the apparent drills, a military source in Seoul said. When Seoul saw that the aircraft appeared to be headed toward the defense zone, it used hotlines to warn Chinese and Russian counterparts, the source said.

China responded that it was a regular exercise, the source added, while there was no response from Russia.

Unlike airspace, an air defense identification zone is usually an area where countries may unilaterally demand that foreign aircraft take special steps to identify themselves, with no international laws governing ADIZs.

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China and Russia hold first military exercise since Ukraine invasion

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Flags of China and Russia are displayed in this illustration picture taken March 24, 2022. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration

(Reuters) – China and Russia’s air forces conducted a joint aerial patrol on Tuesday over the Sea of Japan, East China Sea and the Western Pacific, China’s defence ministry said.

The patrol, the first since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was part of an annual military exercise, the ministry said on its official website.

The two countries had previously held such patrols in 2019, 2020 and 2021 but in the latter half of the year.

Russia has faced a barrage of sanctions from Western countries over its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which it calls a “special military operation”. Beijing has not condemned Russia’s attack and does not call it an invasion, but has urged a negotiated solution.

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