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Finland and Nato: What’s at Stake?

Finland and Nato: What’s at Stake?
 Juha Jokela
Director of the European Union research programme at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Following the June 28-30 2022 NATO summit in Madrid, and Turkey finally lifting its veto, the Atlantic Alliance will officially expand with the arrival of Finland and Sweden. Welcoming two traditionally non-aligned countries holds geopolitical significance and represents a setback for Moscow, even if it has chosen not to object publicly. Juha Jokela, Program Director at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs, breaks down the evolution of Finland's position on NATO membership and the consequences of expansion towards the Baltic. This follows a first analysis on Sweden’s accession to NATO available here.

What was Finland’s historic stance towards NATO membership? How did it evolve in the last months, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine?

The end of the Second World War placed Finland on the losing side, forcing it to accommodate Soviet demands. The Armistice in the Continuation War was signed in 1944 and gave the Soviet Union implementation oversight. It served as a prelude to a formal peace agreement — the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 — which confirmed the setup of a Soviet military base on the peninsula of Porkkala, near Helsinki. A year later Finland signed the Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with Russia, which included a mutual defense provision and prohibited Finland from joining any organization hostile to the USSR. The fear of Finland allying with a revitalized West was a key factor motivating Soviet reservations about Finland's participation in Western European economic cooperation. In this challenging context, Finland strived for neutrality, which had first and foremost an instrumental value. Overtime, it increasingly shaped Finnish national identity.

Finland strived for neutrality, which had first and foremost an instrumental value. Overtime, it increasingly shaped Finnish national identity.

Finland left neutrality behind at the end of the Cold War. In 1995 it aligned economically and politically with the European Union. And even if the country stayed militarily non-aligned, it was not reluctant to the recently established EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), which could lead to a common defense.

Regarding NATO, Finland took part in its Partnership for Peace (PfP) Programme as early as 1994, and participated in several NATO crisis management missions. In 1996 it contributed a battalion to the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia, and  since 1999, around 7,300 Finns have served in NATO's KFOR operation in Kosovo. From 2002-2021, Finnish soldiers worked alongside Allied forces in Afghanistan, first in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations and then in the Resolute Support Mission. Finally, Finland participated in NATO’s advisory and capacity building mission in Iraq.

Despite these developments, full NATO membership was not promoted by Finland’s foreign policy leadership until May 2022. A strong consensus among the main political parties was lacking. It was unsure if the membership would increase Finland’s security, or rather work against it, due to worsening relations with Russia and potentially heightened military tensions in the region.

Since the mid-1990s however, Finland has suggested it retains the possibility of joining NATO should its security policy environment change (domestically known as the “NATO option”). To increase credibility here, Finland intensified its NATO collaboration and geared its defense forces toward full interoperability. After the 2014 crisis following Russia's annexation of Crimea, and the military de-stabilization of Eastern Ukraine, cooperation deepened between NATO, Finland and Sweden. To this effect, Finland joined NATO’s Enhanced Opportunities Partners programme (EOP) in 2015.

The option to join NATO has also been a clear signal to Moscow: negative developments in Finland’s security policy environment could lead to Finland’s NATO membership. President Sauli Niinistö confirmed this in 2018, suggesting that membership is a card to be held rather than played, and “a security weapon in itself”.  

Finns themselves were satisfied with the NATO option policy until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. From 2014 to 2021, membership support in national polls varied from 19 to 30 percent. After Russia’s invasion, Finns reasoned that it was time to use the NATO option. Following the attack, for the first time in history, support for membership rose above 50 percent. Recent poll numbers indicate 79 percent of Finns support the membership, while only 11 percent are against it (June 2022).

Finns themselves were satisfied with the NATO option policy until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

While public opinion has been a key driver of the turn in Finnish security and defense policy, foreign policy leadership and political parties came to the same conclusion in a matter of weeks. The President and the Prime Minister however withheld their stances on NATO membership until mid-May, claiming it was important to give Parliament and political parties time to form opinions. This extra time allowed Finland to assess NATO’s readiness for enlargement, and more importantly, to explore the possibility to move on jointly with Sweden. Given these two countries' geostrategic location, both have been highlighting close collaboration and consultation should NATO membership materialize.

Domestically, it was clear from the outset that discussions were pushing towards this direction. Russia’s military build-up around Ukraine, Moscow’s demands regarding European security and NATO’s open-door policy, coupled with the full-scale invasion of a neighbouring country severely damaged the key pillars of Finland’s security policy. First, it effectively dismantled previously established good relations with Moscow. On the following day of Russia’s invasion, president Niinistö stated that “the mask has now come off and only the cold face of war is visible”. Second, the major war waged by Russia also damaged the second pillar of Finland’s security, namely the functioning rules-based international system. Russia’s illegal invasion also severely damaged the European security order, which has brought stability and security for Finland as a relatively small European state.

As a result, Finland’s security depended on the solid foundations of the two remaining pillars: (i) strong national defense; and (ii) Western integration, including the EU membership, NATO cooperation, and close defense cooperation with Sweden, Norway, and the US, as well as European partners, for instance under the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) and French-led European Intervention Initiative (EI2). To bolster these remaining two pillars, NATO membership quickly emerged as the preferred option. Other potential options, including deeper defense cooperation and potentially even mutual defense arrangement with Sweden (backed-up by EU’s mutual assistance commitment (TEU 42:7) and deeper cooperation with the US) was perceived as more complex and uncertain.   

What would a Finnish membership bring to the Alliance?

First, Finland increases NATO’s external border with Russia by more than 1,300 kilometres — it would create by far the longest land border between both parties. Second, the country would bring sizable and highly capable defense forces: Finland is one of the few European countries which has not downsized its forces in the post Cold War era. Even if it has been actively participating in NATO, EU and UN operations, territorial defense has remained Finnish defense forces’ number one priority. Active participation in overseas operations has been framed as supporting Finland’s own defense via experiences related to joint operations and interoperability.

In light of Russia’s invasion, the government announced an extra €2 billion funding in military spending

Finland’s defense budget was around 2 percent of the GDP (€5.1 billion) in 2022. In light of Russia’s invasion, the government announced an extra €2 billion funding in military spending. Annual defense budgets have varied between 1.1 percent to 1.9 percent during the past three decades, but even during times of economic slowdown, Finland bought new military systems and managed to update equipment.

In 1992 in the aftermath of one of the deepest economic recessions of the country, Finland bought 64 F-18 Hornets from the US. Last year, it decided to fully replace its aging fleet  by 2030 with 64 F-35 Lightning II fighter jets from Lockheed Martin. Other recent major procurement projects include joint air-to-surface missiles, multiple launch rocket systems, modern tanks, armored howitzers, and modernization and replacement projects of navy vessels.

The key asset of Finland’s defense forces is conscription and reserve based field army. While the number of active military personnel is around 19,000, some 22,000 new reservists are trained annually, and the fully mobilized field army is sized at 280,000 (with several hundred thousand more reservists available to fill losses). Finns are also militarily prepared to defend their country; in a recent poll of May 2022, 76 percent of men and 36 percent of women declared themselves ready to take up arms, while 85 percent said they were ready to assist to the best of their ability.

Another key feature of Finnish security culture is a strong emphasis on comprehensive security, including societal resilience based on high education and awareness of hostile influencing, as well as world class security of supply arrangements managed jointly with the private sector. Moreover, as a Nordic EU member, Finland's commitment to NATO’s democratic principles is undisputed. The country would provide additional innovative and competitive advantages, making it an asset to the alliance.

Finally, geostrategically speaking, Finland’s (and Sweden’s) NATO membership would strengthen NATO’s defense in North-Eastearn Europe. Active participation in NATO exercises over the past years speaks to their advanced capabilities. Baltic States have welcomed Finnish and Swedish aspirations on the basis of bringing stability to the Baltic Sea region, and on that of enabling more comprehensive joint defense planning for North-Eastearn Europe in NATO. For the Alliance, Sweden and Finland are strategically important should a military conflict take place in the Baltic Sea Region. 

In geostrategic terms, Finland's (and Sweden's) NATO membership would strengthen NATO's defense in North-Eastearn Europe. 

How does Finland intend to link its own strategic objectives with those set out in the Strategic Concept adopted at the end of June at the NATO Summit? What consequences a NATO membership could have on Finland's defense doctrine and strategy?

The consensus on granting Finland and Sweden NATO membership (thus giving them observer status at all allied meetings) has now been reached. This means that discussion in Finland regarding NATO’s strategic objectives set out in the Strategic Concept of the NATO Summit will increase during accession negotiations. Russian aggression in Ukraine poses a real threat not only to Finland’s closest neighbors, but also to countries in Europe. Acknowledging the direct security threat posed by Russia to both its neighbors and to Europe is key, along with bolstering the defense of NATO’s Eastern flank. So far, Finns have been briefed that Finland’s main tasks in NATO are two fold: to defend its own territory given the country’s geostrategic location, and to support the defense of the allied land in its own neighborhood and beyond.

Finland’s foreign policy leadership  however has reminded people that the essence of NATO and its deterrence is collective defense commitment, and that Finland has to be ready to take responsibility to enhance the security of the whole Alliance. The details of Finland’s input will become clearer when the country enters NATO’s joint defense planning. The main argument from a Finnish defense strategy standpoint is that NATO membership will deter armed attacks against Finland.

Finally, as Finland has been actively promoting EU defense cooperation, and strongly supporting a more efficient EU Common Security and Defense Policy, it will likely highlight the importance of deeper EU-NATO cooperation. The EU’s role as the key security community for Finland is not withering away. The domestic discussion on the recent EU Strategic Compass suggests that the Union’s toolbox to address security threats emerging from increasing strategic global and regional competition, and from cyber, space and hybrid domains, are highly significant for Finland and the EU. Moreover, the EU needs to be better equipped to carry out international operations in its neighborhood, and potentially also in Africa, as NATO is currently focused largely on its own territory.

Copyright: Markku Ulander / Lehtikuva / AFP

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