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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Finland and NATO - Explained

Article by: Helen Kurvits

Finland and its (Very) Big Neighbour

In May 2022, Finland’s parliament voted in favour of joining NATO. Finland has traditionally been careful to align itself with major world powers. The country only joined the European Union in 1995 after the collapse of its eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union. However, it did not initially become part of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), the security organisation of which most other EU members are part of. But why?

An Arm’s Length Relationship

‘So close, yet so far’ would be an accurate description of Finland’s relations to date with NATO. The country has developed very close ties with the alliance and regularly participates in its exercises and crisis management operations. It also supported NATO in the Balkans and Afghanistan. And, besides having close ties with other European countries, Finland has also carefully formed strong military links with the USA, which includes the purchase and transfer of sophisticated military hardware. But so far the country has not become a full-fledged member of the alliance. Why has Finland previously resisted joining NATO despite these close relationships and what will the path into NATO look like from here on?

Unpredictable Neighbour

The principal reason why Finland has not become a full member of the alliance before is related to its history and relations with its Eastern neighbour, Russia, with whom a gigantic 1,340 km long border is shared. Many Russians see NATO as an adversary and regard its enlargement as a threat. In a study published by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was stated that “there is no solution to the specific strategic dilemma posed by its unpredictable neighbour, which requires continuous management”. In this regard, Russia has made its unpredictability a strategic virtue and, quite possibly, Finland would face strong opposition from Russia if it was to join NATO. As it currently stands, despite not being completely neutral, Finland can view itself as militarily non-aligned.

Rocky Relationships

Finland has had a ‘rocky’ past when it comes to its relations with Russia because of the brutal war they waged in 1939, called the Winter War. Bringing the war to an end and retaining its independence and freedom came with a price: Finland ceded about 10% of its territory to the Soviet Union, including its fourth-largest city, Viipuri. After the war, Finland remained neutral as the country was exceptionally close to the influence of the Soviet Union, even though it was the only country on the Soviet Pre-World War II border that managed to remain democratic and retain its market economy

Keeping it Friendly

In 1948, Finland signed the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union. Under the agreement, Finland was obliged to resist the attacks of ‘Germany or its allies’ against Finland, or against the Soviet Union through the Finnish territory. However, it recognised the country’s desire to remain neutral and not to be involved in great power conflicts. The treaty was far from ideal but helped to preserve the country’s independence. Even during the Cold War, Finland managed to adapt its policies to suit the Soviet Union, whilst remaining officially neutral and upholding good ties with the West. The country treads carefully to avoid jeopardising the balanced relationships it strived for.

Does Public Opinion Matter?

Despite the close relationship that Finland already enjoys has with NATO, the public desire to join the alliance has remained relatively low up until 2022. Over the past 5 years, merely a fairly consistent one-fifth of the Finnish population expressed a desire for the country to become a NATO member. The large majority were satisfied with the status quo whereby the country has close ties with the alliance but also has the ability to remain independent and defend itself. However, public opinion towards joining NATO has recently shifted rapidly.

Finland’s Western Neighbour

More than half of the Finnish population have expressed being in favour of joining NATO if Sweden were to do so. Finland and Sweden have close ties as and share the same core values on many foreign policy issues. However, Sweden has not joined NATO either although the current discussion of joining the military alliance in Sweden hints that the country may take this step together with Finland. It is likely that the two countries will join simultaneously even though Finland has recently shown more initiative on this matter.

Political Views

The topic of joining NATO has regularly been debated in Finnish politics and society already prior to 2022. In fact, it was one of the most important issues during the presidential elections all the way back in 2006. Sauli Niinistö, the current president, expressed a willingness to consider Finland’s membership in NATO, which was rejected by other candidates and the elections resulted in a win for her opponent Tarja Halonen. However, there have been other advocates for the membership alongside Niinistö. Perhaps displaying some foresight, the former Minister of Defence called it wise to join “before the storm arrives”, otherwise the door “may close with a slam”.

The Process and Changes

According to the Finnish constitution, the President leads the foreign policy together with the government. In practice the government is mostly responsible for relations with EU member states and the President with countries from outside the EU, even though the two enjoy close cooperation. As Finland has now declared its intentions to accede to the Washington Treaty, the process will be continued by negotiations with current NATO members, which are widely believed to be brief as most members have already declared they would welcome Finland. The formal decision to accept Finland into NATO needs to be unanimous on the part of NATO members. On the part of Finland, the final decision will require the approval of the Finnish Parliament and the President. On 12th May 2022 both have officially announced the intention to join NATO. A referendum in Finland on this matter is not required by law and recent polls have shown support of about 68% for a NATO membership of the country. That is, by the way, more than double than before the war in Ukraine. 

Russia’s Response

Finland’s Eastern neighbour has already reacted by describing the prospective NATO membership as a “threat” and announced to take measured in return. One such measure Russia has previously floated is to strengthen its own Western frontiers and station nuclear warheads in the Baltic Sea region. Even such announcements are unlikely to turn back the clock on Finland’s decision.

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