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NATO and Finland So close but not together

By Mikhail Zakharov, this article was originally published by the PICREADI Center for Support and Development of Public Initiatives.

The North Atlantic Alliance actively continues its enlargement policy: joining the Alliance brings promises of freedom and security for many states. But whereas these arguments hold for the Baltic states' position, their Northern partner Finland has shown much less interest in NATO membership. The country is still not an Alliance member and this fact puzzles outsiders – they believe, the shadow of its Eastern neighbor must have rushed Helsinki into NATO arms. Why does not Finland want to stake its stability on NATO?

Ghosts of the past

For the last twenty years NATO has grown by integrating former members of the Warsaw Pact. The Alliance's enlargement aroused Russian concerns as the military forces of the Alliance were moving closer to the Russian borders. This set of circumstances engendered a perception in today's Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that picture themselves at the center of Russia's geostrategic interests. The Baltic states consider Russia to be a menace to the status quo and believe that Moscow could decide to redraw the current map by force. They regard the region as an unstable and vulnerable territory due to Moscow's possible intervention and try to enhance their security by NATO presence. That provokes a question: why does not Finland, their close neighbor, tread in their steps?

While many countries stake their stability on the Alliance, Finland, a potentially valuable NATO partner and a state which can easily qualify as a NATO member, displays much less interest in the Alliance. There is a large number of reasons why this is so. Helsinki holds onto its neutrality due in no small way to the historical context. After World War I the Finnish strategic thinking used to rest upon the suggestion that it is better to defend the country alone: no one else would come to the rescue in case of conflict. This strategy of survival was advantageous to pass between Scylla and Charybdis at the time of a global Cold War standoff and is deeply rooted in the Finnish mindset to the present day.

Indeed, Finland was not totally abandoned by the Western partners during the events of World War II and the Cold War, but the historical experience had still sowed seeds of a national attitude towards the actors on the political stage. As of now, those seeds manifest themselves as a degree of doubt for NATO membership in Finnish society. Only about one-fifth of the Finnish population currently wants the country to join the Alliance; the majority of the citizens do not support this idea.[1] This sharply contrasts with the broad consensus and the ardent desire to become NATO members found in societies of the Baltic states in the 1990's – one could even speculate on the presence of the "tunnel vision thinking" among the political elites.[2] Despite the attempts of the Alliance to obtain greater popularity, the mental center of gravity in Finland does not shift. However, the heated debates do not end either and the situation in Crimea in 2014, as well as in Georgia earlier in 2008, only fueled the arguments.

Opinion gap

We cannot help stating that among the Finns there are splits over the question of becoming an ally. On the one hand, there is much public support for the idea that it is better to avoid poking the bear by joining NATO. Maintaining neutrality has been a winning formula during many years, and today too, most Finns prefer to keep distance from NATO.[3] "The Finns do not support it, and I am a Finn," said the Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in reference to the issue.[4] Besides, in society's opinion, the Finnish armed forces are to defend the sovereignty of their own country and not to participate in distant conflicts.[5] It sounds all the more reasonable in the light of the unpredictable behavior of the American President Donald Trump, who arouses discord between the allies. His reckless foreign policy might result in getting Finland involved into a conflict against its will – and that is clearly not to Finland's benefit.

On the other hand, there is another point of view according to which it would be much more convenient for Helsinki in times of both peace and war to be part of the Alliance. The supporters of this position base their arguments on the fact that Suomi already conducts joint exercises with the Alliance and it might well be reasonable to deepen this cooperation. The states already cooperate in peace-support operations and have developed practical cooperation in many other areas.[6] Joining NATO can enhance Finnish defensive capabilities and "many of the methods and forms of cooperation between Finland and NATO that will be carried out in any case – such as participation in NATO-run training and exercises – would be much simpler if Finland were a member of the Alliance".[7] Why not to follow through on this line?

Nevertheless, the Finnish government seeks to dodge the topic for as long as it can afford to – and it has some important reasons. It would be incorrect to argue that Finland is not adapted to the changing security environment. In case of conflict Helsinki will not be defenseless.[8] Possibly, the accession itself will be even more beneficial for the Alliance – especially since some experts point to the fact that NATO faces a number of complex challenges.[9] The admittance of a new member state into NATO can show the adversaries that the Western world order is politically winning – that will not solve all the problems, but at least is able to deliver a bombshell. However, that decision can upset the balance of power in the region and cancel out any gains Suomi could have counted on getting from its membership in the Alliance.

Perhaps, in the future...

The country which has a 1,340-kilometer long border with Russia has to pay attention to Moscow's possible reaction: joining NATO can be perceived by the Kremlin as part of an influence game to deter Russia. What cannot also be neglected by the Finnish government in its calculations is that, as pointed out by Vladimir Putin during his state visit to Finland in 2016, "NATO would gladly fight Russia to the last Finnish soldier".[10] This image is bringing back the deep-seated Finnish memories of standing alone against the USSR in 1939-40 despite France's vague allusions of assistance. The Finns do not want to become too reliant on the Alliance to deter external military aggression because of this unpleasant experience, and especially when such a reliance is likely to lead to aggression.

Besides, Finland's alignment with NATO can lead not only to an escalation of political tension and public discontent, but also to a growth of military expenditures that Finland is not interested in. The Finns would then have to remember about committing at least 2% of their GDP to defense spending by 2024, while in 2019 it was only about 1.29% of GDP.[11,12] Not all the taxpayers will agree with that this is necessary, in particular considering the effects of the Coronavirus epidemic that is making shrink many of the world's economies and possibly also defense budgets.[13]

It is apparent today that the formal membership of Finland is achievable in theory but is not politically feasible in the near future. "Finnish government and politicians will take into account the public opinion. Yes, there are some supporters for NATO membership in Finland, so some politicians do express this opinion. Nevertheless, for as long as there is no substantial part of Finnish society that supports NATO membership, the Finnish government will avoid making this move. Moreover, the current level of cooperation between Finland and NATO means membership de facto but without any obligations in the face of partners". (By Pavel Luzin, PhD in political science.)

That being said, Helsinki does not cease to contribute to the other defense capabilities, like supporting the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy.[14] Finland is engaged in the OSCE, the Nordic Council and other organizations – they can also provide the assistance if needed. These contribute to the stability and security in Europe and the membership therein does not provoke any tensions between Helsinki and Moscow. As for NATO, it seems that the process of convergence and cohesion will continue, but there is no evidence that Finland will ultimately become a formal member. After all, it might actually be a reasonable idea to maintain the status quo, steering a middle course.

[1] https://www.hs.fi/politiikka/art-2000006343787.html
[2] https://www.nato.int/acad/fellow/01-03/vaidotas.pdf
[3] https://us.boell.org/en/2018/07/12/finlands-reluctance-join-nato
[4] https://www.ft.com/content/0754c814-657d-11e8-a39d-4df188287fff
[5] http://aei.pitt.edu/94234/1/with_russia_right_across_the_border_net.pdf
[6] https://www.nato.int/cps/fr/natohq/topics_49594.htm?selectedLocale=en
[7] https://icds.ee/finland-and-nato-so-close-yet-so-far/
[8] https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/64509
[9] https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/nato-seventy-alliance-crisis
[10] https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/putin_nato_would_gladly_fight_russia_to_the_last_finnish_soldier/8999170
[11] https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/int/nato-spending.htm
[12] https://www.statista.com/statistics/530097/defence-budget-relative-to-gdp-finland/
[13] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-nato-spending/economic-shock-of-coronavirus-casts-pall-on-nato-spending-goals-idUSKBN21K1W8
[14] https://puolustusvoimat.fi/en/international-activities/the-eus-common-security-and-defence-policy

Tuesday, 5 May, 2020 - 14:30