Current Finnish politics and international relations will likely be studied for quite some time as recent months have been exceptional in terms of intensity and rapidity of action.
The Russian aggression against Ukraine led to a turn in Finnish public opinion, almost overnight. Those in favor of NATO membership went from around 25% – a figure that had been stable for several years – to approximately 75% – an overwhelming majority. Political parties, one after the other, explained that they will reformulate their foreign policy stands, including the Prime Minister’s Social Democrats. The one party that had been most clearly against NATO membership, the Left Alliance, decided to not make membership application the decisive question in its choice to remain part of the governing coalition (which comprises five parties).
Also exceptional was the amount of diplomacy, visits and other contacts preceding the actual membership application on 18 May. Contacts with Sweden were intense, as were visits to Washington and European capitals. The tours by the Prime Minister and other major politicians, including the President, led to many different signs of support from NATO countries, including a joint political declaration with the UK confirming that, “should either country suffer a disaster or an attack, the United Kingdom and Finland will, upon request from the affected country, assist each other in a variety of ways, which may include military means.”
Discussion about NATO is not new to Finland, as it has been a topic of interest for 30 years. However, talk was usually somehow cut short or postponed, and ended with the “option” of joining, only when the time is right. What has changed this?
Above all, the shift of public opinion is connected to how people identify with Ukraine and are able to imagine that something similar might happen in Finland. Politically, thus, there was a new need to react to Russia’s invasion, this time with something important. The Russian actions are such that even the response needs to be remarkable – such as, in this case, a NATO membership that would completely reverse what Russia was aiming for: an enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance toward its territory. The President of the Republic, Sauli Niinistö, addressed this in his New Year speech and the public was already looking for signs of a change as he stressed the rights of Finland and Sweden to choose their own security arrangements. This is an especially telling sign as it happened before the February 24th’s invasion.
An important background fact is that Finnish defense thinking has indeed evolved markedly in recent years. What was once defined as “credible national defense” in the sense of traditional neutral or non-aligned states, has become more clearly a defense relying on international cooperation. There is now a web of different bi-, tri- and multilateral agreements and arrangements on cooperation in security and defense with different countries. Typically non-binding, these arrangements cover issues such as exercises and training. With Sweden, defense cooperation has become particularly deep and is understood as having “no limits” as to what it can cover, and covers both peace and war times. In addition, Sweden and Finland will sign a memorandum of understanding on host nation support.
The decision to apply for NATO membership was presented as a very practical choice: Finland needed to strengthen its defense, and NATO was seen as the most convincing offer. Surprisingly, the decision was quite easy as there has practically been no dissent to the end of non-alignment.
In addition to seeing Russia differently and noting in practice how NATO partnership indeed is not membership, another reason that facilitated this shift needs to be highlighted. In the Finnish case, neutrality and non-alignment have been instrumental in character. They have not really been a policy goal or a question of identity.
One might even say “only” instrumental, but that might be too dismissive. Neutrality and non-alignment have been important, perhaps even vital, as they have come to be an important part of how the country sees itself in international relations, and how it is seen from the outside. This is why the pivot towards NATO is both a big and a small step.
NATO membership is big in the sense that it means a lasting policy change, a lasting change of alignments for Finland – and the end of an era. However, in practice, it is a small step, as Finland was already so close to NATO as an enhanced partner. Put very simply, one could say that Russian behavior has changed so profoundly that Finland needs to change the instruments of its security policy, and the new instrument is called NATO.
At the same time, continuity is often valued in foreign policy. This is now seen in how the arguments for NATO membership combine old and new elements.
Old elements came in in new forms. The freedom of movement, traditionally guaranteed by non-alignment, is still there, but seen in a new light: freedom would be guaranteed by the Alliance. If Finland was to remain outside NATO, Russia could limit it. The recent Finnish government report on changes in the security environment makes explicit this new assessment of the country’s interests, “a situation where Russia aims to build a sphere of influence through demands and military means, failing to react to the changes in the security environment could lead to changes in Finland’s international position and a narrowing of Finland’s room for manoeuver.”
Even the traditional positive image factor still counts. If it once was about Finland being a small Nordic country, non-aligned and yet a big player in peacekeeping, now the positive image stems from NATO. In fact, in a television interview on March 26, 2022, President Niinistö underlined not only the potential of NATO membership to deter Russia, but also its likely positive impact on international perceptions of Finland.
But what about the consequences of the decision?
A first set of consequences are the possible countermeasures by Russia. It would now seem that Russia will “wait-and-see” (which used to be a very Finnish policy line in its foreign policy before EU membership). What will be the larger picture of Finnish-Russian relations remains a question mark. One of the basic tenets of Finnish policy has been that there are different levels of relations with Russia, and that some levels, or some geographic areas, could and should remain exempt from possible political contestation and be functional in all circumstances. The possibility of continuing pragmatic, non-political cooperation is, however, now shadowed, for instance, by the stop in practice of the Arctic Council’s work, as well as that of the Council of the Baltic Sea States.
Consequences for NATO seem rather positive: it is seen to become stronger in the North, and stronger in the defense of the Baltic states. At the same time, there might also be a new subgroup in the formation, in the form of the five Nordic states that are all NATO members and already cooperating among themselves in security and defense.
Finally, there may be consequences for non-alignment and neutrality in Europe more in general. A discussion seems to be starting in Austria, Ireland and Switzerland on how to address these issues in the current context.
Finally, the most important Finnish security and defense cooperation in NATO will be with Sweden. Finland has also been essential in getting Sweden onboard – something that it actually managed to do even though the Swedish public and political parties were not necessarily ready for such a quick turn. It was important for Finland to be accompanied by Sweden, and it continues to be so. Having the two countries on the same side of the NATO border is essential for their cooperation. Moreover, it is important for the process: Finland is not the only target of potential countermeasures, and Sweden may add clarity in the negotiations, once started. The Swedish Social Democrats, indeed, stated that there will be no troops or nuclear weapons based in Sweden, something that the more cautious Finland decided not to tackle at this point, to avoid it influencing the process.
In the end, what was promised to be an exceptionally swift membership negotiation process has been postponed by Turkey’s opposition – an obstacle that the Alliance is currently working to overcome as quickly as possible, even though it appeared as a surprise to all the subjects involved. NATO accession may ultimately be less controversial in Finland and Sweden that in some existing members.