Finland's dilemma as it seeks NATO membership

Finland's dilemma as it seeks NATO membership


05 | 04 | 2022


The invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the risk of not being a member of the Alliance, but also of trying to join it.

In the picture

Finnish Army soldier on manoeuvres (Finnish Defence Forces)

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has strengthened NATO's sense of purpose. In the face of Vladimir Putin's attempt to rebuild Russia's sphere of influence, countries that once belonged to the USSR or the Warsaw Pact now feel more secure under the umbrella of the Atlantic Alliance. In view of what has happened in Ukraine, which has not had a clause 5 to protect it, support for a possible entrancein NATO has grown in Sweden and Finland. Of the two countries, Finland is the one that, because of its long border with Russia, is most exposed to the Russian threat should NATO membership be finalised. There are a number of reasons why Finns should not take such a high risk, but few things are set in stone in the changing era we find ourselves in.

Vladimir Putin has already indicated that he can live with the Baltic states' NATO membership, presumably because it is difficult to push for a major military incursion on Russian soil from there. In any case, Estonia and Latvia, which share a border with Russia, feel safer with the presence of allied troops and the principle of collective defence established by article5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which stipulates that an attack on one member will be interpreted as an attack on all Alliance members. The same applies to Lithuania and Poland, which border the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

Belarus and Ukraine have more extensive borders with Russia, countries that are also located on the great European plain and whose territories have historically been the gateway to entranceof all the invasions that the Russian people have suffered from Western Europe. This explains the Kremlin's interest in maintaining its influence over Belarus, which it has controlled since the fall of the USSR, and its nervousness about Ukraine's rapprochement with the European Union and NATO.

The perhaps more academic question of whether Ukraine's early NATO membership, when the door was opened to it in 2008, would have prevented the current invasion has led other traditionally neutral neighbouring countries, such as Sweden and Finland, to consider joining the Alliance's defence pact. Finland was already hit by Russia in 1939 in the Winter War when it lost part of Karelia and was forced into a neutrality that soon gave rise to the term "Finlandisation". Norway has been a NATO member since NATO's inception, but its border with Russia is minimal and too far north for Moscow to be concerned. While a Sweden in NATO might threaten Russian transit through the Baltic, the greater Russian unease would come from a non-neutral Finnish attitude, as Finland and Estonia form the maritime corridor to St. Petersburg.

Relations with NATO and Russia

Finland's extensive cooperation with the Atlantic Alliance dates back to 1994, when Finland joined associationfor Peace, a programme aimed at bilateral cooperation between NATO and several European states.

From then on, relations have been strengthened and now extend to a number of areas. On the one hand, efforts are aimed at ensuring interoperability between NATO and Finnish forces in order to have mutual capabilities and resources and to make progress in skilloperating together in case of need. Here it is worth noting the 2017 agreementto deepen cooperation on subjectcyber defence, which is essential in a hybrid warfare scenario.

Another important areais Finland's participation in NATO missions and operations, which began in 1996 with the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and continues today in various missions.

The third pillar of the relationship involves, in general terms, increased cooperation at all levels, including among other areas the contribution of civilian resources, various counter-terrorism activities, environmental security and the role of technology as a weapon.

On the other hand, Finland also has extensive relations with its Russian neighbour, due to a geographical proximity that makes mutual cooperation desirable. Within the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs there is a specific unit dedicated to relations between the two countries. These relations are summarised in the Helsinki government's reporton Foreign and Security Policy 2020. It addresses Russian-Finnish cooperation on bilateral and international issues, both on security matters and on the global challenges of climate change or developmentin the Arctic region, as well as on Economicsand trade.

Finland is therefore not only closely linked to NATO, with which it shares values, but is also obliged to cooperate with Russia and maintain a cordial relationship with that neighbouring country, as Russia does with Finland.

discussionon income

The discussionabout Finland's possible NATO membership has been fuelled by Russia's aggressive foreign policy, especially since the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow justifies as a pre-emptive action against a new attempt at NATO expansion, this time including territory that is vital for the security of Russia's borders. Faced with an international system that it sees as not serving its own interests, Russia is trying to force a change to its advantage, openly resorting to war.

This is of direct concern to Finland as a country that shares a 1,340-kilometre border with Russia. Moscow has warned that a NATO membership entranceof Finland and Sweden would have numerous consequences, including military ones. This threat has led a significant part of the Finnish population to see NATO membership as a guarantee of protection against a Russian attack. In early March, 53 per cent of Finns supported membership; two weeks later it was up to 62 per cent and that support may rise further. Only 16 per cent rejected Alliance membership.

NATO upholds its open-door policy, enshrined in article10 of its founding document, allowing entranceto European countries that identify with its principles and wish to contribute to EU security.

Both President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin have invoked Finland's freedom to apply for entrance in NATO if Finns deem it necessary. A citizens' initiative to collect signatures has made it possible to submit the issue to discussionin the national parliament. The issue should be decided by a two-thirds majority and a decision may be possible next month.

Arguments either way

There are, however, reasons against taking a path that could complicate Finland's status.

First, both Finland and Sweden have reminded the EU of the existence of the mutual defence clause in case of military attack, included in article42 of the Lisbon Treaty. Although this guarantee is not as categorical and unequivocal in the resourceto force to deal with an aggression suffered by a country partneras NATO's article5, EU membership provides Finland with a high Degreelevel of support and enhances its capacity to respond, as an attack on Finland's interests or integrity is also an attack on the European Union.

Moreover, NATO's relationship with Finland has been well established for decades. Although non-membership is outside the protection of article5 of the Alliance Treaty, existing cooperation enhances Finland's security Degreeas well as its defence and coordination capabilities with other countries. Finland's strong bilateral relations with several NATO members, including the United States, also contribute to its strength in defence subject.

Finland, like Ukraine, is outside NATO protection, but at least the Finns have the diplomatic and institutional support front of the other EU partners, of which Ukraine is not a member.

Putin's attitude towards Ukraine has highlighted the risk of non-membership but also the risk of seeking Alliance membership. Russia's statements about possible responses to Sweden and Finland's entrancemembership, including military, create uncertainty, especially given that Russia has made good on this threat in the Ukrainian case. It is not clear that the same would happen to Finland, as its territory is not as strategic for Russia as that of Ukraine. Moreover, several nuclear powers are more assertively on its side. The United States has already declared its intention not to intervene militarily in defence of Kiev, even in the event of war, but may not act in the same way if Russia were to attack Finland or Sweden. But if there is one thing that characterises the era that is opening up, it is precisely the unpredictability of the power game.