The transatlantic security community is abuzz that Finland may soon join NATO. The money in the bet is that Finland, and possibly also Sweden, will apply for NATO membership before the June NATO summit in Madrid barring any major political or military surprises.
Broad, if not universal, support exists within the Finnish membership alliance. Unfortunately for Finland, and perhaps for the alliance, there will likely be a significant delay between Finland’s application and full NATO membership. After all, joining NATO requires changing NATO’s founding document, the Washington Treaty. It takes time – certainly weeks, possibly a year or more – because the amended treaty must be ratified by all 30 members of the alliance.
Here’s how the ratification debate is likely to play out:
Finland’s supporters in NATO will say that from a military security point of view, Finland represents an added value to the alliance. Finland has a large, well-trained and capable land force and an increasingly capable air force that are already interoperable with NATO. Finland can defend itself unilaterally for days or even weeks, which few members of the alliance can claim. Finland has decades of experience monitoring Russian activities along their shared 833-mile border, expertise that could improve the alliance’s situational awareness. Indeed, Finland’s addition to NATO could make it easier to defend the Baltic states, as Finland gives NATO another reinforcement route beyond the narrow Suwalki Passage linking Lithuania. and Poland or passing in front of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
From a US perspective, Finland could help ensure the security of Northern Europe and allow the US to focus more on China and Indo-Pacific security issues. Supporters will also note the obvious political and cultural affinities between Finland and NATO members, as well as Finland’s status as an institutionalized democracy that protects civil liberties and upholds the rule of law.
Skeptics may say that Finland’s membership is not without risk. Adding Finland might upset Russia, as Finland’s NATO membership would double the overall border between NATO and Russia. In the event of a conflict involving Finland, Russian supply lines would be considerably shorter than those of NATO. Reinforcing Finland could be difficult in the extreme. All Finnish territory, all sea approaches across the Baltic Sea and significant parts of land approaches from Norway to northern Finland or across Sweden are well within range of Russian military systems stationed near the Finnish-Russian border , in Kaliningrad, in the Kola Peninsula and the Barents Sea. These systems include surface-to-air, anti-ship and ground-attack missiles, some of which are nuclear-capable.
This is not to say that strengthening Finland is an impossible task, but skeptics will point out the risks of escalation in attempting to do so.
These are predictable debates, as is their outcome. Russia is the real wild card here.
Russia will do everything in its power to amplify the arguments of the skeptics in the preparation of Finland’s request and during the debates on the ratification of the treaty in each NATO country. Finland and NATO members could be subject to Russian disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks and other so-called active measures, military harassment or even outright military attacks. In a blatant scare tactic, Russian officials have already warned that they would deploy nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad if Finland joined NATO.
Officials in Brussels and NATO capitals can expect more provocative actions aimed at dividing the alliance over membership. Finland is preparing for this eventuality. As a recent Finnish government report noted: “It is likely that the candidate country and the NATO member countries would already be subject to outside influence and pressure during the accession talks and the transition phase. .
Now is the time for NATO to prepare for these scenarios as well, before Finland decides whether or not to apply for membership. Questions to consider include how alliance members can speed up their treaty ratification process to give Russia less time to mess up. Can the precursors on the ratification front provide Finland with bilateral security guarantees before Finland becomes a full member of NATO? More generally, who would be willing to help Finland in a military conflict once it applied but before it became a full member of NATO? And finally, are NATO members prepared to counter Russian disinformation through the sharing (and eventual public release) of intelligence to better inform Western audiences of Russian actions?
The betting money in Western defense circles is that Finland will soon apply to join NATO. With proper preparation, done now, the alliance could add a capable new member while minimizing regional instability and possible conflict.
David Auerswald is Professor of Security Studies at the US National War College. He previously served as a congressional staffer three times. He has also written books and articles on NATO and European security. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not necessarily of the National War College or any other US government entity.