Finland and NATO: When Push Came to Shove

Signed, sealed, waiting to be delivered: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg holds Finland's NATO application. Image: Reuters / Alamy

History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. In Finland’s case, its history has often been strongly linked to Russia's development and the potential threat it might pose. Finland has a long experience of balancing its security vis-à-vis Russia, and the decision to apply for NATO membership falls into this tradition. Putin’s war in Ukraine created the need to strengthen Finland’s geopolitical position, and Helsinki did not hesitate to seize the moment.

On 12 May, the president and prime minister of Finland formally announced what many had considered inevitable for some time: that Finland would apply for NATO membership without delay. After the statement, events unfolded rapidly, as the Finnish Parliament voted 188-8 in favour of NATO membership on 17 May, and the next day Finland and Sweden delivered their formal applications to Brussels.

At this point, and regardless of the hurdles Turkey might impose on NATO’s next enlargement process, it is very likely that Finland will become a member of NATO, together with Sweden. It is particularly noteworthy that in just a few months, Finland has gone through a thorough process both domestically and internationally to secure its path to NATO membership. Perhaps even more striking is the major shift in popular opinion from around 25–28% in favour of NATO membership to 76% since Russia’s attack in February.

For many, Finland’s decision has represented a sudden change of heart regarding military alignment. While NATO membership certainly did not seem likely in the early months of this year, Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine left Finland with no other option. Yet, applying for NATO membership was also something Finland was ready to do if push came to shove, and this was enabled by three factors.

Firstly, since 2004, Finland had formally practised a ‘NATO option policy’, meaning that Finland could seek to become a member of the Alliance if circumstances demanded it. As Finland enters what may be a rapid process to join NATO, none of this would be possible without decades of well-established compatibility with the Alliance through partnerships, defence material procurement and crisis-management operations participation. The decades-long policy of intentionally removing the technical obstacles to joining the Alliance laid the foundation for the so-called NATO option, which in turn provided the political backbone for applying for membership when the time came.

Ultimately, the redemption of Finland's NATO option was made possible by the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians

Secondly, Finland’s NATO ambitions have also been enabled by events beyond its own control and influence. Ultimately, the redemption of Finland's NATO option was made possible by the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians. If Russia had succeeded in marching into Kyiv in days, Finland's current position would have been very uncomfortable: a confident Vladimir Putin at the height of his power would have been a formidable threat to Finland.

In other words, Ukraine opened Finland's NATO window, and its resistance continues to keep it open. As Russia is stretched in Ukraine, its ability to prevent NATO’s enlargement is significantly limited at the moment. More importantly, the West’s initial hesitation towards enlargement faded as the war dragged on. Fear of escalation transformed into a willingness to inflict strategic losses on Russia, and the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO began to suit this goal. Fortunately, instead of becoming the main stage of the crisis, Finland’s NATO ambitions turned out to be a side-event of great power politics.

Thirdly, and importantly, there is the undisputed significance of Finnish popular opinion. Without the sharp change in public opinion, and with it the shift of most parliamentary parties in favour of NATO membership, the room for the Finnish political leadership to take the decisive step towards membership would have been narrow. The strong support from the people and Parliament also serves as a signal of democratic validity, something a NATO applicant must clearly indicate. This also meant that Parliament had an important role in the process, as it formed a legitimate alternative to a risky referendum process with the potential for foreign intervention.

For Finland, Russia’s attack broke the basic principles of the security and defence policy it had practised since 2014. Since the first attack by Russia against Ukraine in 2014, Finland had practised closer defence engagement with NATO, while at the same time seeking a dialogue between Russia and the West. In terms of the dynamics in Northern Europe, this had meant Finland remaining formally outside NATO, but linking its security with the Alliance in practice through defence exercises and intensified dialogue.

The result we are now seeing would not have been possible if Finland had not made up its mind to decisively approach NATO almost immediately after 24 February

This fragile status quo was shattered as Russia’s demands that NATO enlargement be halted and its unprovoked war changed the belief in Helsinki that it could continue as before. Efforts to seek dialogue with Russia are gone for now, and so is the trust that the Kremlin would respect Finland’s non-alignment in the future.

These concerns were addressed by Finland as early as January. In his widely shared New Year’s Speech, President Sauli Niinistö said Finland’s room for manoeuvre and freedom of choice included the possibility of military alignment with and application for NATO membership, should it so decide. In May, Niinistö revealed that his thinking on Russia and Finland’s potential membership had already changed in December due to Russia’s demands. This was echoed by Finland’s Ambassador to the US, the president’s former Foreign Policy Advisor Mikko Hautala, who has said that by the end of last year, it started to become evident that Russia’s invasion was unavoidable.

In his New Year’s Speech, the president highlighted how in a fast-paced world, it is ‘more valuable than ever to know when to hurry, and when to have patience’. As Russia’s attack loomed, Finland calculated its options in the background. When the invasion began in February, the political leadership, backed by popular opinion, swiftly decided to prepare for Finland’s NATO accession through a democratic and inclusive parliamentary process. In addition to giving room for the domestic process, Finland did not present a fait accompli to NATO by demanding an immediate rapid accession. Instead, the Finnish leadership resorted to strategic patience, which gave its partners time to digest the first shocks of the war.

Yet, the result we are now seeing would not have been possible if Finland had not made up its mind to decisively approach NATO and its individual member states almost immediately after 24 February. When push came to shove and Russia got distracted, Finland seized its moment and materialised its NATO option.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Henri Vanhanen

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