Finnish leaders know how to have a good time, which is probably why Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto recently sat down with GZERO’s Ian Bremmer to discuss Finland’s NATO membership, Ukraine’s bid to membership and consideration of future applications for membership.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Ian Bremmer: I want to start with the problem of the year, unfortunately, which of course is Russia. They invaded on February 24. Less than three months later, your country was formally invited and requested to join NATO. Nobody thought it was imaginable before the invasion. I wonder if you can just describe to me the national mentality in those three months – what happened in your country?
Pekka Haavisto: First of all, it is worth mentioning that in our white papers since 1995 there is mention of the NATO option – saying that in the event of a change in the security situation in our region, we are ready to consider the membership in NATO. But maybe everyone thought that was almost a dead letter in these white papers, and then suddenly, in February, we analyzed the situation of the Russian attack on Ukraine – very safe. We started to think that if this is a successful military campaign against Ukraine, what else can Russia do in its neighborhood and how much does it want to control neighboring countries? And then we came to the conclusion that the time had come to apply for NATO membership.
Then, little by little, we got on the same wavelength with Sweden on this issue. [Domestically], almost all parties started supporting NATO membership, I would say overnight. There was, of course, a lot of debate, a lot of discussion, and all of a sudden we started getting this 80% in favor of NATO membership. When the Finnish Parliament finally voted, it was huge, overwhelming support for NATO membership.
IB: The Russian government, including President Putin, directly warned your country and warned the Swedes not to join and that there would be consequences, both diplomatic and military, if you were to continue. It was months ago, were there any consequences?
PH: Well, almost nothing I would say. Of course, verbally, yes, the warnings are there and so on, but I think Russia has been very busy with the war against Ukraine. And we can actually see on our border, which is a 1,300 kilometer common border with Russia, that Russia is moving military troops from that area to Ukraine under those circumstances.
B: And of course the reason you decided to join NATO is that you were concerned about the security of your country per se. Does that make you think, in retrospect, maybe membership should have been extended to Ukraine or not?
Pekka Haavisto: That’s an interesting question. I think one of the frustrations of the Ukrainians was that NATO was not moving on this issue. NATO may not have developed Ukraine’s defense capability as it should have, and so on. But in retrospect, you think everyone is saying, “Why didn’t we react in 2014 when Crimea was occupied?” And I remember very well the discussions within the European Union, as well as our national discussions – the occupation of Crimea did not trigger the kind of wave of solidarity that the attack on the capital Kyiv did . Ukraine has changed and of course in Crimea I think it was a bit unclear how the troops may have changed positions or even changed sides during the 2014 occupation. And I think we have a much stronger Ukrainian national identity right now. It’s good and it’s easier now to support Ukraine [and many are doing so, including, for example] capabilities of the European Union to support Ukraine. I was positively surprised.
They invited them to join and they actually send military equipment and so on. The European Union is now on the front line in this conflict in many ways, and I think I am very proud of this European Union.
IB: So as a future NATO member, in all likelihood do you think NATO membership should be on the table in the future for the Ukrainian government?
PH: Well, I think NATO enlargement should of course still be there with similar conditions for countries that meet the NATO criteria and so on, and no one would be left out. Then, of course, it is up to the current members of NATO to decide how the enlargement process unfolds. We were of course lucky that together with Sweden and Finland, all NATO member states support our membership. Of course, some have conditions like Turkey, so we still face those conditions.
Should Ukraine receive an invitation from NATO? | GZERO WorldYoutube
IB: Your president said that when he met with President Erdoğan of Turkey, no issues were raised about your country and Sweden joining NATO, then suddenly there were. . Now, we know that Erdoğan, from a personal point of view, sometimes speaks, let’s say, off-script, but how has it been between you and his government over the past few months? How sure are you that the hiccups have been smoothed out?
PH: Also in the first contacts on my side with my colleague, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, who in the spring was always very easy-going and said: “Certainly no problem for Finland’s accession”, etc. And that was Turkey’s first message. Then, at the Madrid summit, of course, we noticed that Turkey had a lot of problems, especially in terms of security, terrorism, etc., accusing Sweden, Finland of supporting terrorist groups, etc. We then established this three-part arc mechanism and this three-part arc mechanism now had its first meeting at the end of August in Helsinki. And I understand that everyone was quite happy with this meeting – it was not at the political level, but at the level of the personnel of our ministries. The next meeting is scheduled for October, so we are working on the issues raised by Turkey. We give answers to questions and so on. We have intensified the exchange of information on certain risks, etc. So I think technically it works. Now it’s the turn of politics.
Ian Bremmer: I want to end on a note of hope. NATO is stronger and more unified today than it has been for a long time, so for the European Union, what does this mean for you as you think about the future of Finland, as you think about the future of the world order?
Pekka Haavisto: We have always said that the European Union is our main organization in terms of trade economy, but also security. Now we add to that our NATO membership, and we’ve seen very close cooperation between Washington and Brussels now on transatlantic security issues and actually that gives us a lot of hope that we have a broader perspective on economy, safety, etc. when we have this good transatlantic cooperation.
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