At the 2022 Madrid Summit, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) took a historic step by inviting Sweden and Finland as members of the alliance. So far, 28 of NATO’s 30 member states have completed their national ratification. Turkey and Hungary are on hold. The last reported that it will complete its ratification process by December. Ankara opposed the admission of Finland and Sweden and its timetable for approval remains a open question. Finland’s decision to join NATO might at first glance seem like a major change in Finland’s formal security and defense policy. As Finland becomes a full member of NATO, it will effectively integrate its defense into the northeast flank of the alliance and in particular strengthen NATO’s military and air force domain in the Baltic Sea and Arctic regions. In this sense, Finland abandons its previous position of military non-alignment. Yet the waters of Finland’s Western military integration since the end of the Cold War run deep.
In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland’s defense policy represented an anomaly in the general security climate. While most European countries have reduced their military personnel and defense spending, Helsinki never dropped the ball on territorial defense against a potential Russian threat. In the 1990s, for example, Finland made equipment purchases: 64 Hornets F18 from the United States as well as second-hand artillery, tanks and ammunition from Germany.
While Finland was dubbed “neutral” due to not joining NATO at the end of the Cold War, in reality that hasn’t been the case for decades. During the Cold War, Finland’s formal policy was certainly to seek neutrality, but it was for sovereignty purposes. After fighting two wars against the Soviet Union and losing, an enforced neutrality was seen as the best policy to keep Soviet influence at bay and avoid becoming a satellite of the Kremlin.
When Moscow’s grip on Finland loosened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland quickly sought to become a member of the European Union in 1995 and a NATO partner country in 1994. neutrality was officially abandoned in the very first defense policy white paper in 1995, where it was claimed that after the end of the division between East and West, the policy of neutrality was no longer viable.
During the first decade of the 2000s, Finland focused on additional supply of defense equipment from the West, integration with NATO standards and participation in the crisis management operations of the overseas, including Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan, KFOR in Kosovo and NATO training operation in Iraq. . The experience and lessons learned over the years have allowed Finland to deepen its ties with the alliance – making Finland perhaps more interoperable with NATO than most member states.
Yet it was the events of 2014 that pushed Finland to become not only militarily, but also politically, interoperable with NATO. After Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine and the deterioration of the security environment, Finland sought to develop a closer politico-military relationship with NATO and its individual member states through closer defense cooperation. thorough. The evolution included moving from crisis management operations to territorial defense exercises and high-level security policy dialogues. From 2014, Finland has signed bilateral MoUs with several partners, namely the United States, Sweden, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Finland has also signed a trilateral defense cooperation document with the United States and Sweden and has been granted Enhanced Opportunities Partnership (EOP) status in NATO.
In the national debate, the evolution of Finland’s security policy after 2014 was interpreted as a break with the past and Finland offered its final farewell to non-alignment. While Finland’s official policy was not to seek NATO membership, its defense white paper in 2021 highlighted how defense cooperation and joint exercises enhance national security. In other words, Finland sought to build defense ties that could materialize into joint efforts in times of crisis if deemed necessary. This was also clearly stated by the President of Finland, Mr Sauli Niinistö, in a speech in 2016:
Finland will develop its military readiness and interoperability not only to form a deterrent and a threshold for intruders, but also to be an attractive partner should the worst happen. This will also serve the development of Finland’s own defense.
In February 2022, as Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the conclusion in Helsinki was that the previous close defense cooperation was not enough as it did not provide an ironclad guarantee of security by the partners. The threat from Moscow grew overnight, and Finland’s deterrent tools had to be revamped. However, to claim that the decision to join NATO was purely based on national security findings by political leaders is only half the truth. In reality, three factors came into play.
First, the current Russian regime was seen more inclined to risky bets and willing to limit Finland’s sovereignty by demanding that NATO no longer expand. While the threat would not necessarily have been direct, and an all-out military confrontation with Russia was unlikely, a more realistic problem was the significant weakening of Finland’s geopolitical position. For example, it was possible to imagine a limited Russian military or hybrid threat scenario against Finland in order to draw Finland away from NATO and absorb Helsinki into Moscow’s orbit. In such a scenario where Finland would not be a member of NATO, Russia could have demanded Finland’s surrender, using the threat of nuclear or military options. Without Article Five of NATO, there would have been no guarantee of assistance, leaving Finland vulnerable.
Secondly, Finland’s candidacy for NATO was made possible by the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians. If Russia had succeeded in marching on Kyiv in a few days, Finland’s current position would have been very uncomfortable: a confident Vladimir Putin at the height of his power would have been a formidable threat to Finland. In other words, Ukraine opened Finland’s NATO window, and its resistance continued to keep it open.
Thirdly, without the radical change in public opinion, and with it the change in most parliamentary parties in favor of NATO membership, the room for maneuver for Finnish political leaders to take the decisive step towards membership would have been close. The radical change in favor of NATO membership among Finns of about 23-25% to 50% within weeks (now closer to 80%) was essential and encouraged policy makers to move forward.
Finland’s road to NATO membership was in this sense a perfect storm made possible by decades of preparation, deep NATO interoperability, a new assessment of security among the people and politicians and , ultimately, luck. While joining the alliance ends Finland’s long farewell to the last Cold War vestiges of its security policy, it is not the end of the story.
Thanks to NATO, Finland will enter a new era of formal alliance-based security and defense policy. This comes at a time when relations between Russia and the West are also entering an era of uncertainty and high risks. The position is unexpected for Finland, which since World War II has sought a predictable and stable relationship with its eastern neighbor – including frequent dialogue with the Kremlin. As President Niinistö said his speech in August 2022.
Under the current circumstances, not much remains of our previous relationship with Russia. Trust is gone, and there’s [sic] nothing in sight on which to base a new beginning. This is not the right time to build links. On the contrary: we must very carefully reconsider all addictions that could be used against us. Nothing should be left loose.
Finland will find itself in a world where Vladimir Putin is waging war in Europe, arming the Arctic and trying to put his boot in the trachea of the Baltic states by absorbing Belarus. These Russian measures are reshaping the foundations of European security – strengthening NATO’s deterrence and collective security for years to come.
The integration of Finland and Sweden into NATO will not only improve their security but also partially relieve the Russian challenge. With hundreds of kilometers of new coastline in the Baltic Sea, NATO will have a variety of options to support its easternmost members. Not to mention that Finland has always devoted 2% of its gross domestic product to defence. Similarly, in the High North, Sweden and Finland are two of the eight Arctic powers, seven of which will be members of NATO once enlargement is complete. This is crucial as the Arctic becomes an arena of intense competition, especially as melting ice reconfigures the region. The cold weather capabilities and expertise of both countries will figure prominently.
In the end, NATO has no reason to expect major conflicts following Finland’s membership because the strategic interests of the two coincide. However, the main lesson for Finland is to learn to talk about defense policy in a way that takes into account both its national interests and NATO’s interests more broadly. This is related to the way Finland communicates, for example deterrence, nuclear weapons, exercise activities and in general the objectives of the whole alliance. As a member state, Helsinki can no longer execute security and defense policy with Finland alone in the lead. She must learn to communicate in a way that emphasizes the unity of the alliance – and above all its strength and strength, if necessary.
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