A Historic Change in Foreign Policy: Finland’s bid to join NATO
Finland has been characterized as a puzzling phenomenon: an independent, neutral state, a Western democracy, situated right next to Russia, while still able to maintain its freedom. (Törngren, 1961). However, despite the 1,340-kilometer-long border Finland shares with its gargantuan neighbor, as well as their turbulent history, the two countries have managed to maintain healthy relations.
Situated in the northern hemisphere, home to around 5.5 million people and approximately 188,000 lakes, Finland gained its independence in 1917 and is currently not a member of NATO as neither past governments nor the citizens favored accession. The lack of incentives and benefits that would be acquired by joining was far lesser than those of maintaining the hard-acquired status quo with Russia. Typically, NATO draws little attention to Finland’s foreign policy discussions. So why has the topic of Finland and NATO been such a great discussion these past few months?
The answer is simple: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 fundamentally altered Finland’s security environment, officially pushing a once unnecessary idea into reality and causing a substantial shift in Finnish public opinion on NATO. This article aims to explore the paradigm shift in the perception of Finland joining NATO after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Finland’s Policy of Non-alignment
Since its independence in 1917, Finland has traditionally walked a careful line of neutrality to avoid any political decision which could upset its powerful neighbor, adopting the policy of non-alignment. As such, it has since maintained its non-alignment position with Russia, while still participating in NATO activities such as military exercises, supporting NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, and sharing intelligence (Kirby, 2022). This enables Finland to rely on trade with both the US and Russia, providing maneuverability for dialogue with both powers. However, the Nordic nation has slowly been waning off of the strict non-alignment policy. With new trends in foreign policy, Finland has de-institutionalized non-alignment systematically, strongly orienting itself towards participation in international crisis missions under EU and NATO command (Etzold & Opitz, 2015).
“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defence alliance. Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay. We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.” – Sauli Niinistö & Sanna Marin (Niinistö & Marin, Joint statement by the President of the Republic and Prime Minister of Finland on Finland’s NATO membership, 2022)
Interestingly enough, Finland is the ideal candidate for NATO membership. Already fulfilling the 2% expenditure-towards-the-military clause, it maintains well-trained and highly-capable armed forces (Kirby, 2022). The Finish arsenal includes a powerful airforce and naval fleet, advanced artillery and missiles, and state-of-the-art cyber capabilities. As such, Finland joining NATO would enhance the Alliance’s eastern flank which has been under Putin’s radar for decades (Ispahani, 2022). Therefore, while NATO has always kept its door open for Finland, the latter had never needed to pursue this option. Until Russia invaded Ukraine.
Ukraine Changing Everything
All the policies of non-alignment and neutrality were abandoned when Putin decided to invade Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022, considerably changing the paradigm of Finnish-NATO cooperation. With the security landscape of Northern Europe shifting, Finland has fully sought the protection of NATO, despite the harsh threats and criticism from the Kremlin. However, it is not only the decision of Finland’s leaders to join NATO but of its citizens, too. After decades of rejecting even the idea, public opinion has flipped in support of NATO accession. For example, Finns had long opposed NATO membership due to the unnecessary provocation it would cause to Moscow. As such, while public support for NATO usually hovered around the 20% range, it jumped to a record 76% in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine (Kirby, 2022; Yle, 2022). Putin’s invasion of Ukraine reminded Finns not only of their own fight to protect their homeland against the Soviet Union during the Winter War of 1939 but also served as a realization of Russia’s expansionist tendencies. With the memories of the Winter War echoing in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, bringing in fears of Finland being targeted by the Kremlin, Finns feel that joining NATO will keep them safe from a belligerent and unpredictable Russia (Henley 2022).
An Unsurprising Objection: Erdogan
As Finland is one of the ideal candidates for NATO membership, the country’s leadership anticipated a swift and smooth entry into the alliance, with little to no objection from the current members. However, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened to block the process, using his country’s veto right. But why would Turkey block the accession process? Erdoğan sought to have 33 suspected “terrorists” extradited from Finland and Sweden, with 12 of those being in Finland. These 33 individuals were identified by Ankara as being members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency in Turkey for four decades (Jones, 2022). Moreover, Erdoğan aimed to achieve concessions, such as the US allowing Turkey back into the F-35 program and getting Sweden and Finland to lift their arms blockades (Kirby, 2022).
However, during the NATO summit in Madrid on the 28th of June 2022, a trilateral memorandum was signed between the Presidents of Finland and Turkey, and the Prime Minister of Sweden, resulting in Ankara lifting its veto (Niinistö, Statement by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö on 28 June, 2022). Little by little, NATO allies have taken steps towards welcoming Finland and Sweden into the alliance. On July 5th, 2022, the delegations gathered at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels and signed the accession protocols, which in turn have to be ratified by all 30 member states meaning that both Finland and Sweden are on track to join NATO (Suliman, Tsui, & Dixon, 2022). Still, the process could be yet again blocked, as Turkey is insistent that it will reinstate its veto should Finland fail to keep up with its promises and the security demands.
Finland’s decision to apply for NATO membership demonstrates the unintended consequences of Putin’s war against Ukraine. While one of his objectives was to show Russia’s strength and ultimately push back on NATO’s border, he achieved quite the opposite, adding another 1,340 kilometers of NATO territory to his frontier. For decades, Finland has always been a partner of NATO but saw no real merit in joining the alliance. The invasion of Ukraine further reveals the tremendous, multifaceted change in the European security environment: the political leadership fast-tracked the ratification of Finland’s motion to join NATO and public opinion experienced a seismic shift in favor of the Alliance.
Putin’s threats proved redundant and counterproductive as Finland has not faltered in their decision to join NATO. There are also continued assurances from individual NATO countries that they will come to the aid of Finland if necessary “so we’re feeling safe, [...] Even at this moment, there is no imminent risk to our security”, as stated by Pekka Haavisto, Minister of Foreign Affairs (Earlanger, 2022).
With Finland and Sweden set to join NATO, bringing the total number of countries from 30 to 32, NATO will gain two new democratic countries to their alliance, bolstering their Eastern flank along with its collective defences in the Baltic Sea area and Arctic circle. Ultimately, the accession of Finland into NATO, as Jens Stoltenberg stated, is: “…is truly a historic moment for Finland, for Sweden, for NATO — and for our shared security”.
Earlanger, S. (2022, June 22). Analysis: What Turkey Wants to Let Finland and Sweden Into NATO. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/22/world/europe/finland-sweden-turkey-nato.html
Etzold, T., & Opitz, C. (2015, April). Between military non-alignment and integration: Finland and Sweden in search of a new security strategy. Retrieved from SSOAR: https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-431317
Henley, J. (2022, May 12). Why are Sweden and Finland not yet in Nato and does the alliance want them? Retrieved from The Guardian : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/12/why-are-sweden-and-finland-not-yet-in-nato-and-does-the-alliance-want-them
Ispahani, L. (2022, May 12). An Offer NATO Cannot (and Should Not) Refuse: Finland’s Membership. Retrieved from Just Security: https://www.justsecurity.org/81481/an-offer-nato-cannot-and-should-not-refuse-finlands-membership/
Jones, D. (2022, June 27). Turkey Maintains Threat to Veto Sweden, Finland from Joining NATO. Retrieved from Voanews: https://www.voanews.com/a/turkey-maintains-threat-to-veto-sweden-finland-from-joining-nato-/6635455.html
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Niinistö, S. (2022, June 28). Statement by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö on 28 June 2022. Madrid, Spain . Retrieved from https://www.presidentti.fi/en/press-release/statement-by-president-the-republic-of-finland-sauli-niinisto-on-28-june-2022/
Niinistö, S., & Marin, S. (2022, May 12). Joint statement by the President of the Republic and Prime Minister of Finland on Finland’s NATO membership. Retrieved from https://www.presidentti.fi/en/press-release/joint-statement-by-the-president-of-the-republic-and-prime-minister-of-finland-on-finlands-nato-membership/
Suliman, A., Tsui, K., & Dixon, R. (2022, July 5). NATO takes major step toward welcoming Sweden, Finland to alliance. Retrieved from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/07/05/sweden-finland-nato-accession-protocols/
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Yle. (2022, May 9). Yle poll: Support for Nato membership soars to 76%. Retrieved from Yle News: https://yle.fi/news/3-12437506