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Finnish government leaders say their country must join NATO without delay

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, the president and prime minister of Finland released a statement. It says their country must apply for NATO membership without delay. That makes it all but certain that Finland will join the world's largest military alliance. And nearby Sweden is expected to follow. Those nations have been oriented toward NATO for generations, but did not want to formally join until Russia invaded Ukraine. History is a factor here, as we learn from NPR's Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The year was 1939.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: War has gripped Europe, a war of oppression. Tiny Finland is the latest victim of this unprovoked and ruthless aggression.

LANGFITT: The aggressor - the Soviet Union. The Soviets wanted Finland to trade some of its territory to provide a defensive buffer for Leningrad, now called Saint Petersburg.

Markku Kangaspuro is a historian at the University of Helsinki. He says the Finns didn't like that idea.

MARKKU KANGASPURO: They thought that it's impossible to make that kind of compromises. So after that, very simple, the Soviet Union decided to solve this problem. They decided to solve it in war.

LANGFITT: The Soviets invaded at the end of November in what became known as the Winter War.

Joonas Kontta's great-grandfather, Stefan, owned land in the territory that Russia wanted.

JOONAS KONTTA: He was injured with a grenade, and he was also captured once. But he break through from the captivity.

LANGFITT: But in the end, the Soviets forced Finland to cede territory, including Stefan's 200 acres of forest. Joonas Kontta's 32 and a lawmaker in the Finnish Parliament. He says the Winter War had always seemed a bit remote.

KONTTA: We always honor the veterans and the people who sacrificed so much for our independence. But now, when Russia attacked Ukraine, we have these memories opened once more. And we don't want to be alone ever again.

LANGFITT: When you look at the images from Ukraine, do you relate to them in any way, given the history of this country?

KONTTA: I do relate to them. There are a lot of civilians, cities, towns, villages that are being demolished by Russia. It's just cruelty after cruelty.

LANGFITT: Like the vast majority of Finns, Kontta didn't think Finland needed NATO's protection.

KONTTA: I believe that we can keep up the European security structure as it was formulated after and during the Cold War and after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990s. Obviously, I was mistaken.

LANGFITT: Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia. Many Finns say they now see their giant neighbor as unpredictable. Finnish support for joining NATO has jumped to a record 76%, according to the latest poll.

Markku Kangaspuro, the Russian and Soviet history professor, sees some similarities between the Winter War and the one now raging in Ukraine. He points out that, like the Ukrainians, the Finns gave the Soviets a beating early on.

KANGASPURO: Because we managed to fight and to defend our area. It was not parade march to Helsinki. It took time and it took resources from Soviet Union.

LANGFITT: But in the end, the Soviet forces proved too big and well-armed for the Finns.

KANGASPURO: Our leadership, military leadership - they understood to make peace enough early, before Russia destroyed our army and before Russia occupied our country.

LANGFITT: The war ended, like most, in a negotiated settlement. Negotiations between Russia and Ukraine have broken down, and there's no sign they'll begin again anytime soon. Of course, there are big differences between these two wars. The Finns fought the Soviets largely on their own. America and its NATO allies are arming Ukraine. Now Finland is poised to join the world's biggest military alliance to make sure it never has to face Russian troops alone again.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Helsinki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.