June 29, 2012 / 4:58 PM / 8 years ago

Finnish defense minister rejects Russia rhetoric

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland will not take orders from Russia on its defense strategy, the new defense minister said on Friday, rejecting comments from Moscow warning its small neighbor against joining or working too closely with NATO.

Carl Haglund, who was appointed on Friday and is due to begin his duties next week, said he did not welcome the remarks by Russian military chief General Nikolay Makarov.

Makarov said this month that increasingly close relations between Finland and NATO were disturbing Finnish-Russian ties.

Finland has a 1,340 kilometer (832 mile) border with Russia and the Kremlin has long regarded the expansion of NATO to its frontier as a threat.

When asked about Makarov’s comments, Haglund told Reuters in an interview: “I don’t like it at all.

“Yes, we will keep appropriate and good relations with Russia, but our decision-making is independent and is not based on what the Kremlin wants.”

Finland, a European Union member state, is involved in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and took part in the alliance’s Chicago summit earlier in May.

Haglund said he was neutral about possible NATO membership, a highly divisive topic in Finland.

Many Finns fear that joining NATO could provoke its powerful neighbor after decades of neutrality, and a survey this week showed more than 60 percent of Finns opposed joining.

“I’m not a passionate NATO supporter, but neither am I a passionate NATO opponent. I have a very pragmatic approach,” Haglund, formerly a member of the European Parliament, said.

Supporters of NATO membership say it would improve the efficiency and credibility of Finland’s defense force.

Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen and European minister Alexander Stubb have said joining NATO would strengthen Finland’s security, although neither are pushing the agenda.

Reporting by Eero Vassinen; Editing by Pravin Char

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