Why Finland joined NATO after being neutral for so long

Joining NATO assures Finland's security, but increases threat perceptions from Russia

Belgium NATO Foreign Ministers Talking point: Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (left) with Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom during a meet of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 5 | AP

Most adult Finns know the number 1,340. That in kilometres is the length of Finland’s border with Russia. Geography invariably produces some horrible histories. Finland is no exception, having lived through Russian war, invasion and bombing in the 20th century. Nevertheless, post-Cold War, Finland and Sweden preferred military non-alignment to joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the western military alliance―until Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Says Finnish diplomat Teemu Tanner, “The invasion changed opinion remarkably quickly. There was almost a national consensus to join NATO.” On April 4, Finland joined NATO, becoming its 31st member.

NATO is experiencing a renaissance. The war in Ukraine has drawn Washington’s attention back to Europe in ways not seen since the 1990s. ―Max Bergmann, former US state department official

The Ukraine invasion was Putin’s plan to stop an expanding NATO in its tracks. It was counterproductive. The invasion further expanded, strengthened and unified NATO in ways not seen for a quarter of a century. Both Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO, making the world’s most powerful military alliance even more powerful. Says former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, “Their inclusion will transform European security. It will deter Russian aggression.”

Finland knows what that looks like. It spent a century inside the Russian empire before gaining independence in 1917. During World War II, Joseph Stalin grabbed Finland’s territory, including its second biggest city Vyborg. Finland lost its foreign policy autonomy under the Cold War, was forced into a Friendship and Cooperation Treaty with the Soviet Union, endured restrictions on its armed forces and lived with a Soviet military base near its capital, Helsinki. The Soviet Union’s collapse enabled Finland to pursue a fully independent foreign policy and together with Sweden join the European Union in 1995.

Before the Ukraine invasion, only 30 per cent of Finns supported NATO membership. The majority saw a smarter role for Finland as the economic and diplomatic bridge between Russia and the west. Finland’s head of state, President Sauli Niinistö, knows Putin well (even played hockey with him) and was seen as a political interpreter in relations between Europe and Russia. Despite old trauma, Finland pragmatically did business with Russia, which became one of Finland’s top five trade partners. But that is history now. First the pandemic and then the EU sanctions destroyed bilateral business. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also destroyed the 30-year post-Cold War order in Europe,” says security expert Kimberly Marten.

Pole position: Finnish military personnel instal the Finnish national flag at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on April 4, after Finland joined NATO | Getty Images Pole position: Finnish military personnel instal the Finnish national flag at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on April 4, after Finland joined NATO | Getty Images

While Finland’s accession to NATO was ratified by its 30 member states, Sweden’s path was blocked by Turkey for providing “sanctuary to its Kurdish rebels”. But working with NATO, the two Nordic countries have already provided substantial weapons to Ukraine. As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said, the Ukraine invasion was a “Zeitenwende” (turning point) in Europe. American presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump had been urging European member states to increase defence spending to two per cent of GDP. The Europeans who were dragging their feet fell into lockstep when the invasion happened, and increased their defence budget.

Being under the NATO security umbrella reassures, but proximity to Russia increases Finnish threat perceptions. Finland’s NATO aspirations propelled Moscow into moving additional heavy weapons systems and missiles toward the Finnish border. Experts believe this is sabre-rattling. With Russia bogged down in Ukraine, it is unlikely that Moscow will open a new warfront.

Besides, since Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, Finland’s 2.80 lakh-member defence forces have been rejigged to respond to Russian-style hybrid warfare. Finland had served earlier on NATO-led missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, and substantially hiked its defence budget. It also nurtures close defence ties with both the UK and the US. Last year, Finland ordered 64 American F-35 fighter jets, its largest military procurement ever, and one of the largest in Europe. Says Marten, “The inclusion of Finland and Sweden will alter the balance of power in the region.”

But Finland and Sweden are unlikely to needle Russia. Geographically, they live like conjoined twins. Russia has major nuclear capabilities in the Kola Peninsula, which is close to both Finland and NATO Norway. It also hosts Russia’s Northern Fleet with its nuclear submarines. Finland shares land and sea borders with Russia in the Gulf of Finland, close to Russia’s massively fortified Kaliningrad area. This is where Russian missiles, the Baltic Sea fleet and military barracks are located.

For Putin, NATO membership for Finland and Sweden is bad news. In the event of a war with the west, the corridor that links Kaliningrad to the rest of Russia would now be surrounded by NATO countries. Says Max Bergmann, former US state department official, “NATO is experiencing a renaissance. The war in Ukraine has drawn Washington’s attention back to Europe in ways not seen since the 1990s, when the United States orchestrated NATO’s eastward expansion and fought two wars in the Balkans.”

NATO’s northern expansion tightens the choke on Russia. Putin announced he was moving nuclear weapons to southern Belarus that borders Ukraine. NATO’s northern grip intends to keep Russia at bay also in the Arctic. The ice-melt caused by climate change opens up sea routes and competition for vast, lucrative marine resources.

But the focus on the northern flank leaves Europe’s soft underbelly―the Mediterranean―dangerously exposed. It, too, is an area where western interests will be contested in the months and years to come. Europe cannot ignore the messier challenges in the Mediterranean, warns Thibault Muzergues, author of War in Europe? From Impossible War to Improbable Peace. Europe desperately needs oil from north Africa following its ban on Russian oil imports and it needs to keep out the desperate migrants, fleeing war and famine, and crossing the Mediterranean in leaky dinghies into Europe. Russia has been increasing its foothold in the region, in Syria, Libya, the Sahel and oil and natural gas-rich Algeria.

A bigger problem, however, is what former NATO secretary general Lord George Robertson, called “American schizophrenia”―America’s strong but contradictory impulses to invade and exit. Others call it America’s geopolitical attention deficit disorder. Its short attention span: invade, make a mess, abandon. Even as the war with Russia rages, American confrontation with China intensifies. Says Bergmann, “There is no way Washington will be able to maintain the current level of diplomatic engagement. The risk of conflict in Asia, where China may attack Taiwan, could abruptly reshuffle the US’s priorities. China’s continued rise will pull the US’s attention back to the Pacific.”

When that happens, military experts say, Europe will lose out on US attention and resources. Besides, politics is unpredictable. The next US president could be an anti-Atlanticist like Donald Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Republican Senator Josh Hawley even voted against Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership. When it comes to choosing to fight the Russian Bear or the Chinese Dragon, the American Bald-Eagle would dismiss Putin as a paper tiger. That would leave the Europeans without a paddle.

For now, Finland and Sweden are mindful of the present―the gift of security and support that NATO membership brings. History produces strange geographies. Helsinki is closer to Putin’s hometown St Petersburg than it is to Sweden’s Stockholm. Of all European countries, Finland has the longest border with Russia. A NATO that includes Finland overnight doubles the alliance’s land borders with Russia. Now for Putin, too, 1,340 is a troubling statistic.