Finland’s president has warned that applying for Nato membership would carry a “major risk” of escalation in Europe as the Nordic country explores ways to improve its security set-up after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Sauli Niinisto said that joining Nato was one of the two main alternatives to Finland’s current position inside the EU but outside a military alliance. The other option is a deepening of its defence co-operation with the US and neighbouring Sweden.

“The starting point is that we are looking at something else than continuing just like this,” Niinisto told the Financial Times. “All these alternatives have an advantage that our security will improve. Or we make sure that our stability remains and that we can make sure we live in [a] secure environment . . . Our main headline is: Finnish security.”

For the first time a majority of Finns want to join Nato; a poll by state broadcaster Yle last week found that 62 per cent were in favour and only 16 per cent against. For decades, support ran at about 20 per cent. If Finland’s political leadership backed Nato membership, 74 per cent of Finns said they would be in favour of joining.

Niinisto, who as president exercises considerable influence over Finland’s foreign policy, said: “I understand very well that, for example, [joining] Nato might seem like our worries are over. But all the different alternatives include risks we have to recognise . . . At the moment the major risk is escalation of the situation in Europe.”

Finland’s Defence Minister Jussi Niinisto inspects Finnish troops during a joint operation of Finnish and Swedish troops on the Swedish island of Gotland © Anders Wiklund/AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is upending decades of thinking about security in Finland and Sweden as people in the two Nordic nations see what is happening to a fellow non-Nato European country.

Finland’s government is preparing a white paper on security options including potential Nato membership. Parliament is set to make a decision on whether to apply for it in the coming months.

Finland is the EU country with the longest border with Russia, at 1,340km, and was invaded by the Soviet Union during the second world war. It is one of the few European nations not to have ended conscription or cut defence spending sharply after the Cold War.

Finland has long wanted to act in concert with Sweden but there are signs that the Nato debate has progressed further in Helsinki. Sweden’s Social Democrat prime minister Magdalena Andersson recently ruled out a Swedish application to Nato, saying it would “further destabilise” the region.

Asked if he endorsed her comments, Niinisto replied: “We have no escalation in this region. That is the starting point. I would only say that we have to study very closely all the elements that we have to take account of.”

The Finnish president said he saw the “escalation risk in Europe” as different to its debate on security solutions. “If there is an escalation it would have a huge impact [on] everybody. That is why I underline the risk of escalation, not linking that to Finnish behaviour or our decision-making.”

Niinisto underscored that deepening defence co-operation with Sweden and the US was a real possibility, alongside Finland’s status as an enhanced partner of Nato. “It is a large network of different co-operation that we have created. One alternative is to create it more and more,” he said.

He added that in his recent meeting with US president Joe Biden “Swedish-Finnish-American co-operation was discussed, and we got a lot of understanding from Washington”.

The Finnish president also stressed that the “tradition has been to keep our own defence forces as strong as possible”. Finland, a country of 5.5mn people, can call on up to 280,000 troops. “We will strengthen them further,” Niinisto added.

Finland has long tried to imbue the EU’s mutual defence clause — article 42.7 — with more power and make it akin to Nato’s article 5, which promises that an attack on one member state is an attack on all. But few other EU members have been willing to put much stock in it.

Niinisto called article 42.7 “stronger than article 5 in expression, but behind that we don’t find much”. But he added that Germany’s recent decision to almost double its defence spending had “turned a page in European security and defence discussions”.

He added: “We see a stronger Europe . . . participating in transatlantic co-operation, and thus we see also a stronger Nato in Europe. That is one element we need to take account of. It’s not an immediate solution, it takes time.”

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