HELSINKI Finland should seriously consider joining NATO because of Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine and could hold a referendum on the issue some time after its 2015 election, its defense minister told Reuters.
Opinion polls show only one fifth of Finns favor joining the Atlantic alliance but Carl Haglund said he expected that to change if Finland, which shares a 1,300 kilometer border with Russia, had an honest and open debate about NATO membership.
"I think the grounds for NATO membership are stronger than ever," Haglund said in an interview scheduled for publication on Wednesday.
"It shouldn't come as a surprise to Russia that this kind of debate is going on in their neighborhood. They have caused it themselves," he said, citing Moscow's brief 2008 war against Georgia as well as its actions in Ukraine.
Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in March and the West has also accused it of actively backing pro-Russian separatists who have declared 'people's republics' in eastern Ukraine where they are battling Ukrainian forces.
Moscow denies training and arming the separatists but says Kiev must halt its military operations.
"Although Russia is not a threat to Finland now, it is unpredictable," said Haglund, 35, head of the liberal Swedish People's Party in the country's five-party ruling coalition.
Finland's next prime minister, Alexander Stubb, who takes the helm next week, has said he would like to see the Nordic country apply to join NATO during the next parliamentary term, which runs from 2015 to 2019.
"LOOK IN THE MIRROR"
Russia has no reason to fear Finland in NATO, Haglund said.
"Finland's membership would not be a threat against anybody. If you look at the community where Finland would naturally belong, it is NATO," said Haglund.
Finland, a member of the European Union, has a difficult shared history with its giant neighbor. It won independence from the Russian tsarist empire after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution but nearly lost it again fighting the Soviet Union in World War Two.
During the Cold War, it kept close to the West economically but avoided political confrontation with Moscow.
Were Finland, a country of 5.5 million, to join NATO, its trade with Russia might suffer temporarily but Russia should respect its decisions, Haglund said.
"Russia has painted a dismal picture about what will happen if Finland joined NATO. They should take a deep look in the mirror," he said.
"They haven't respected the agreements they have made, which is why trust in them has suffered among their neighbors."
Former communist nations now in NATO, especially Poland and the Baltic republics of Estonia - which has close linguistic and cultural ties with Finland - Latvia and Lithuania have led Western calls for a more robust policy towards Russia.
Haglund criticized those Finnish politicians who preferred to "hide behind the back of public opinion" instead of establishing a clear position on NATO membership.
Whether in NATO or not, Finland should boost its defense spending by some 200 million euros annually to ensure credible defenses, Haglund said, adding he was confident the next parliament would increase funding.
Its defense budget stood at 3.1 billion euros in 2012.
Asked about U.S. and EU asset freezes and visa bans imposed against Russian officials, Haglund said it would have made more sense to apply a ban on arms sales. "There's more logic in that than in freezing some businessmen's assets," he said.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)