Finnish security policy traditions and the question of NATO membership

Written by me

For a long time, Finland has adhered to a territorial defence strategy as its primary security policy. For just as long, it has regarded Russia as its main security threat. Today, when Russia is waging an unprovoked criminal war against Ukraine – in close geographical proximity to Finland – this fact of life remains entirely unchanged. But another question has acquired a new urgency: wouldn’t it be in Finland’s security interests to submit a NATO membership application?

Finland’s awareness of the possible Russian threat to the Finnish territory has informed its security policy as long as the Finnish state has existed. In fact, it is a key factor that explains why Finland maintained its traditional defence posture following the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Sweden, Norway, and Denmark shifted their focus from territorial defence to crisis management and expeditionary operations – what has sometimes been called ‘troubleshoot security’ – Finland did participate and even took initiative, but it also preserved substantive conventional capabilities.

The post-Cold War relationship with NATO that Finland has developed also reflects these pragmatic territorial considerations. Although otherwise an active and committed EU member, Finland has not been pushing for improved CSDP or some other form of European ‘strategic autonomy’. Instead, it has preferred to work closely with NATO in defence matters. Already in 1994, Finland, alongside with Sweden, joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme (PfP). Finland also contributed to the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996 and participated in the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo in 1999. Since 2014, Sweden and Finland belong to NATOs five ‘Enhanced Opportunities Partners’ alongside with Australia, Georgia, and Jordan: an insider group of countries that stand very close to NATO membership in practical terms.

But if Finland is keen to work with NATO, why hasn’t it before sought full NATO membership? To many observers and international partners, the Finnish ambivalence has been a source of perplexity and frustration.

The matter, of course, has been considered before. Finnish political attitudes over the issue of NATO membership have changed repeatedly in recent decades; usually in line with the general standing of the alliance, and the position of the United States in it. In the 1990s, when NATO had turned from a partisan Western alliance into a broad forum on security issues, the possibility of Finnish NATO membership was discussed fairly openly. However, the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing US call to invoke Article 5 caused Finland to turn much more cautious. Since then, the various attempts that have been made to rekindle the NATO-debate have received mixed reactions. The voters have grown increasingly concerned that a decision to seek accession would provoke some type of a Russian counter-reaction. The opinions of political elites have been mixed, with e.g., the Conservative Party largely in favour of the idea, and the Social Democrats and the Centre Party against.

The Russian threat to the region acquired a new degree of seriousness in 2014 with Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea and invasion of the rest of Ukraine. Defence of national autonomy and territorial integrity became even more central to Finnish security policy. Over the following years, Finland significantly strengthened its defence capabilities and passed new laws allowing for more flexible use of its human and material resources. In 2014, together with Sweden, it signed a Host Nation agreement, granting NATO a discretionary permission to make use of Finnish territorial resources as needed. Interoperability of the Finnish defence forces with NATO had already been ensured through its participation in PfP.

Nevertheless, even while recognising the need to improve the credibility of territorial defence, both Finland and Sweden still retained their commitment to nonalignment, i.e., non-membership in NATO.

The problem was not that NATO would not have been welcoming. In fact, Finnish and Swedish membership has long been recognised as extremely helpful for NATO’s defence of the Baltic states, given the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy that Russia would likely employ in order to prevent reinforcements from reaching the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Defensive operations involving Finnish and Swedish military forces, territory, and territorial waters would enable NATO to defend the Baltic states therefore much more effectively. Finnish membership in NATO would also facilitate improved intelligence gathering given Finland’s extremely long land border with Russia.

In Finland, the main debate has been over timing. Political forces have been split between those wanting to apply for membership immediately (the Conservatives) and those who want to keep this option open for the future (most of the others). In late 2016, 64% of Finns agreed that there should be a referendum on NATO membership, 59% viewed cooperation with NATO as positive; but only 25% were in favour of seeking immediate membership. The previous coalition of centre, liberal and right-wing populist parties therefore kept the option of accession open but did not move further. Until February 2022, the same policy essentially continued under the current government.

Behind this Finnish ambivalence have stood two basic beliefs. The first is that Finland’s relationship with Russia it is somehow better managed in a less securitised environment, i.e., outside of NATO. This is a legacy of decades of Finlandisation, which meant near-constant Soviet interference in Finnish foreign policy. Even though Finland gave up its neutral status after the fall of the Soviet Union, its Cold War-era experience left Finland with a type of post-Soviet identity that can be usefully compared to that of the Baltic states. During the Cold War, Finnish foreign and defence policy elites had come to believe that they know Russia well and are to some extent able to contain it; a belief that continued even after 1991. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania similarly believe they know Russia, but their containment strategy has been radically different: informed not by Cold War neutrality, but by the realities of the Soviet occupation. For them, NATO membership was the only possible way forward.

The second characteristic Finnish belief is that Finland would be able to join NATO very quickly in case this proved to be absolutely necessary. Some commentators have been doubtful, but NATO’s responses to the recent feelers that Finland has put out do indicate that this view is most likely correct.

In this connection, it is worth briefly pointing out that in Sweden, there is a rather different dynamic at play. Swedish parties are split on the issue of NATO membership as such – not whether it is currently expedient to seek it – with the right-wing parties traditionally in favour of the idea and left-wing parties firmly against joining NATO on ideological grounds. This reflects historical differences in Swedish and Finnish foreign policy development: whereas Finns tend to think more geostrategically, Swedes are still predominantly ‘value’-based non-aligners. Out of the two Nordic neutrals, Finland is therefore likely to be the prime mover, because it has a more transactional view of membership.

By now, Finland’s NATO membership application before the summer seems almost a done deal. The Finnish public opinion has responded to the further escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine with a marked pro-NATO shift According to the latest polls, 62% of Finns are now in favour of joining the alliance and only 20% are against. At the time of writing, the Finnish government is preparing a white paper on security, which will be submitted for parliamentary debate later this month.

Some debate is still certainly needed on the question of what Finland would gain, and what it would risk. The prospect that it may need to defend the Baltic states against a possible Russian invasion remains a controversial one for many Finnish voters. At the same time, it is doubtful that the Nordic neutrals would be able to remain outside of a military conflict in the Baltic Sea region, NATO members or not. If Russia launched a large-scale operation in the Baltic theatre, it would probably attempt to take control of the Swedish island of Gotland, and possibly also the Finnish Åland Islands. Furthermore, Russia is perfectly aware of how closely aligned with NATO Finland and Sweden already are. Their non-membership would not necessarily entail any significant benefits in terms of being able to stay aloof from the war. And even if such an option was available, it would come with significant moral and security costs.

In the event of a broader war in the region, Finnish and Swedish non-membership in NATO would more likely than not to turn out to be a liability, because it has left these two states without explicit security guarantees. The increasingly loud Russian threats that the two Nordics would face ‘consequences’ if they decided to seek accession only prove that Russia sees the status quo as being in its security interests. But these Russian threats are not necessarily credible: its army is currently bogged down in Ukraine, and it has few other instruments that would enable it to force the hand of sovereign states seeking to defend their legitimate security interests. And many Finns are now saying to themselves: if we were going to join when it is absolutely necessary, then the time of absolute necessity has now arrived.