Finland is closer than ever to joining NATO
In 2007, a Finnish conservative politician summed up the country’s three main security considerations as “Russia, Russia and Russia”. Many Finns have brought up these words again in recent months. In countries further west, news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and related atrocities led to a response of, “Oh my God, those poor people!” For the Finns, the reaction was closer to “Jesus, that could be us!” »
Memories of the Winter War of 1939-1940 – a key part of Finland’s national myth – are still raw in the minds of many committed pacifists. The current discussion has come back to basics: how can Finland avoid becoming the next Ukraine?
There is no doubt that the invasion of Ukraine simultaneously represents a terrible breach in European security and another escalation in the long trend of Russian imperialism both near its borders and beyond. Nothing that could be said, for example, about the events in Donbass or the role of the extreme right in Ukrainian politics can justify this terrible war.
The bellicose rhetoric in the Russian media about expanding its so-called “denazification” and “special operations” was aimed more at the Baltic states, as well as Poland and Moldova, than at Finland. And its situation is not quite like Ukraine or Georgia, with their violent conflicts and regionalized minorities that Moscow could exploit for its own power politics. Precisely because so few people could have foreseen a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, even after all the threatening rhetoric, these events turned discussions in Finland upside down. If this could not have been foreseen, what else can we be sure of?
This uncertainty has led to a new emerging consensus on issues such as defense spending and the importance of Finnish agriculture and self-sufficiency. Helsinki joined other European capitals in supplying arms to Ukraine; like many other countries, it has expelled Russian diplomats and is exploring ways to quickly end dependence on Russian gas and oil. Yet the main topic of interest is an older pillar of Finnish security policy debates, now posed with a whole new urgency: the question of whether to join NATO.
The previous position of the centre-left government, which was shared by all its parties, was that it should not. In January, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin – a left-wing social democrat – gave an interview confirming that Finland’s short-term NATO membership is unlikely, although it is still held up as a potential future option. Many NATO supporters interpreted this as proof of irresponsibility, even though it is the same line that Finland has taken since the organization was founded.
Marin’s recent statements indicate that line has changed. The same goes for the previously reluctant Finnish president, whose word is perhaps even more influential on foreign policy. Now, the decision date could come sooner than almost anyone would have expected just a few months ago.
Finland has long been neutral – but it still has a history of looking east. Even before this war, the pro-NATO “Atlanticist” faction saw Finland under constant threat of Russian attack, which could materialize at any time. This group believes that the only thing that will truly defend against this eventuality is NATO. Likewise, the anti-NATO faction has argued that joining NATO is precisely what would put Finland under threat of becoming an arena for conflict.
There are also deeper cultural attitudes at play. Driving pro-NATO discourses is the belief that Finland is not western enough, or that it is still “Finnishized” – a term used during the Cold War to refer to Finland’s policy of neutrality favorable to the Soviets, but inside Finland as an attack on politicians seen as too deferential to Moscow. Despite widespread campaigning for NATO among much of Finland’s foreign and security policy elites, echoed by many Finnish media outlets, Finland has so far remained outside the alliance, despite extensive cooperation .
The war against Ukraine completely upset this status quo. While NATO membership was a distant prospect before the invasion, Finland’s application for membership is now widely considered almost certain. This sea change has already begun during the months when Russia was gathering its troops near Ukraine and issuing its ultimatums. The formal decision to apply for membership could come before Easter.
However, it is not enough to send an application. It must also be approved. Atlanticists know that the balance of opinion in Finland has swung in their favour. A poll started on February 23, the day before the invasion, found support for NATO membership at just over 53%, and the numbers have only risen since then. Yet they fear the crisis will mean the door is closed in their face. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, said Finland would receive security guarantees during the process, which would be accelerated. Still, questions remain about the possibility of countries like Hungary blocking membership – or demanding a quid pro quo deal over the EU sanction for breaches of judicial independence by Viktor Orbán’s government.
One thing that might raise questions among NATO members is how Moscow would react immediately to the possibility of Finland joining NATO. There have already been a few slashes – an airspace violation here, a belligerent speech by a Russian politician there – but nothing particularly unusual for the Finns. Russian politicians issuing threats aimed at random neighboring countries have been the normal situation for decades.
On the whole, the Russian reaction has been rather subdued, perhaps reflecting the fact that a large part of its northwestern army, usually stationed in the border regions of Finland, is today fighting in Ukraine and suffering heavy losses. Still, anything can happen, which is why Finnish politicians have focused on security guarantees before actual membership.
Another problem is presented by Finland’s other big neighbour: Sweden. Sweden and Finland joined the European Union at the same time in 1995, with the process in Finland initiated by Sweden’s surprise application. There is extensive defense cooperation between the two, and for many years Finnish Atlanticists predicted a similar surprise announcement that Sweden would seek to join NATO, encouraging Finland to do the same. This time, the roles are different; it is the Finnish government that is pushing for early NATO membership and the Swedish government that is taking a slower approach.
The current public debate is mainly about whether Finland should join NATO as soon as possible or wait a bit and then join. Voices critical of NATO are often shouted and condemned as Putin sympathizers.
The left is divided. Even within the Left Alliance, the largest party on the left of the Social Democrats, the change of opinion has led the leader of the party to announce that NATO membership will no longer be a determining issue for the government involvement. It has already upended party thinking on what was once a defining position. Some members pushed for an even bigger change.
There are also opponents of NATO membership on the other side of the spectrum, both among right-wing populists and more traditional conservatives, who prefer to retain Finland’s traditional neutrality. For example, former Foreign Minister Paavo Väyrynen, of the Center Party (the second strongest force in the current government), is a long-time opponent of NATO, and he did not hesitate at this point to view – although he is currently a powerless minority among his party. Perhaps the only MP to take a clearly pro-Russian view, Ano Turtiainen belongs to a faction of conspiracy theorists in the right-wing nationalist Finnish Party. But even this party backed the government line and recently endorsed NATO membership.
Questions such as Finland’s role in NATO – the defense of the Baltic states or something more – remain under consideration. For the Finns, NATO is either an organization intended to defend Finland of Russia or an organization which intends to make Finland its First line for a conflict with Russia.
This myopic approach, typical of many countries’ primary concern for their own affairs, prevents a comprehensive focus on NATO’s future development. In particular, there has been a general trend of US presidents shifting their focus from Europe to the Pacific. Many in the United States who see Europe as a declining and secondary continent will view the potential future conflict with China as the most decisive, and a cold war with China has now been pushed through several presidencies. If there is, for example, a serious conflict in the Baltic and a serious conflict in the Pacific at the same time, how many resources would the United States each focus on?
In opposition to the flippant rhetoric about the united “West” many cite the fact that Turkey, known for its oppression of Kurds and wider authoritarianism, is itself a member of NATO. But there are more obviously “Western” countries in the alliance that engage in post-colonial wars of the kind Finns are generally unwilling to join. Despite all Western opposition to Russian autocracy, many Western politicians, in keeping with a long-standing and cynical tradition, have sought deals with Russia over the heads of its border countries. For many Western Europeans, Eastern Europe in general remains terra incognita, full of nations that are only noticed in matters that directly affect the West. These are also issues that Finland needs to consider.
Now, however, anything happening in countries as far away as Turkey seems distant to most Finns. Even many reluctant and new NATO supporters take it for granted that membership would be at most a marriage of convenience, not an endorsement of the idea that NATO stands for democracy, freedom and light. But no matter how the final process unfolds – and in all likelihood Finland will be a NATO member by the end of the year – there is one force that should be blamed for the change.
Preventing NATO expansion might have been one of the stated goals of Russia’s rapacious invasion. But the sheer unpredictability of the massive invasion is one of the tipping points that made Finland’s NATO membership all but inevitable. Even a more limited foray into Georgia style could have made the outcome more uncertain. Many people have made the same observation: despite all the ink poured by the Atlanticists in Finland for thirty years, no politician has been a more effective salesman for NATO than Vladimir Putin.