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U.S. To Amp Up NATO Presence Against Russia


The Obama administration announced this week it will quadruple what it now spends on U.S. forces in Europe. The idea is to do more training and base more heavy weapons on NATO's eastern edge. It's a message to Russia and one that even non-NATO states like Finland welcome. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Moscow's intervention in Ukraine and other aggressive moves in the region are making Russia's neighbors nervous. Even Finland, which remained neutral in the Cold War because of its long border with Russia, is now more anxious.

TIMO SOINI: Russia is kind of testing on regular basis. Or we think that there are tests.

KELEMEN: This is Finland's foreign minister Timo Soini, a burly man and the founder of the right-wing Finns Party. He met with a few journalists in Washington over breakfast, describing how Russian planes have been testing Finnish air defenses and how Moscow is waging an information war in the region. He says all this is making some Finns think twice about their long-held views on neutrality. The government he represents is, in Soini's words, more open to NATO membership.

SOINI: This government said that we are going to produce a NATO review, and we are keeping all the doors open.

KELEMEN: The foreign minister wouldn't say how he personally feels about the possibility of having Finland join NATO, but he did say that he welcomes the U.S. decision to beef up NATO's presence on the alliance's eastern edge. Asked whether that could provoke Russia, Foreign Minister Soini got a bit philosophical, saying this is a topic he considers during his frequent trips to the Finnish sauna.

SOINI: It's very hard to know. I think it sometimes in the sauna in the evening that - what does Russia want? And I would be a Nobelist (laughter) if I would know the answer.

KELEMEN: He'd like to see a peace deal for Ukraine implemented but fears that's turning into a frozen conflict. And though he says the drop in oil prices could hurt Russia's economy, he doesn't see Moscow backing off from its more assertive foreign policy, including its intervention in Syria.

SOINI: They're the nation of chess players. They know what they are doing. And they are doing what they think is doable.

KELEMEN: The foreign minister says Finland has to be pragmatic when it comes to dealing with its giant nuclear-armed neighbor. He says his country is also now working more closely with Sweden to beef up defenses while that country, too, weighs the possibility of NATO membership. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.