In 2007, a Finnish conservative politician summarized the country’s three main security considerations as “Russia, Russia and Russia.” Many Finns have again brought up these words in recent months. In countries further West, news about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and related atrocities led to a response along the lines of, “Oh my, those poor people!” For Finns, the reaction has been closer to “Jesus — that could be us!”
Memories of the Winter War of 1939–40 — a key part of the Finnish national mythos — are raw in the minds of even many committed pacifists. The current discussion has gone back to basics: How can Finland avoid becoming the next Ukraine?
There is no question that the invasion of Ukraine represents simultaneously a horrifying breach in European security and another escalation in the long trend of Russian imperialism both near to its borders and further afield. Nothing that could be said, for instance, about events in the Donbas or the far right’s role in Ukraine’s politics provide any justification for this appalling war.
Belligerent rhetoric in Russian media about expanding its so-called “denazification” and “special operations” has been aimed more at the Baltic states, as well as Poland and Moldova, than at Finland. And its situation doesn’t quite resemble Ukraine or Georgia, with their fraught conflicts and regionalized minorities that Moscow might exploit for its own power politics. Precisely because so few people could have foreseen a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, even after all the threatening rhetoric, these events have thrown discussions in Finland for a loop. If this couldn’t have been predicted, what else can we be sure about?
This uncertainty has led to a new emerging consensus about matters like defense spending and the importance of Finnish agriculture and self-sufficiency. Helsinki has joined other European capitals in providing weapons to Ukraine; like many other countries, it has expelled Russian diplomats and is exploring ways to speedily end reliance on Russian gas and oil. Still, the main topic of interest is an older mainstay of Finnish security policy debates, now posed with a completely new urgency: the question of whether to join NATO.
The center-left government’s previous stance, which was shared by its main parties, was that it shouldn’t. In January, Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin — a left-wing social democrat — gave an interview confirming that short-term Finnish membership of NATO is unlikely, though still retained as a potential future option. Many NATO supporters interpreted this as evidence of irresponsibility, though it is the same line Finland has taken since the organization’s creation.
Marin’s recent statements indicate this line has changed. The same goes for the previously reluctant president of Finland, whose word is perhaps even more influential on foreign policy. Now the decision date may arrive sooner than almost anyone would have foreseen just a few months ago.
A New Status Quo
Finland has a history of gazing eastward. Even before this war, the pro-NATO, “Atlanticist” faction saw Finland under constant threat of Russian attack, which could materialize at any moment. This group believes that the only thing that will really defend against this eventuality is NATO. Likewise, the anti-NATO faction has argued that joining NATO is precisely what would put Finland under threat of becoming an arena of conflict.
There are also deeper cultural attitudes at play. Spurring pro-NATO discourses is a belief that Finland is not sufficiently Western, or that it is still “Finlandized” — a term used during the Cold War to refer to Finland’s policy of Soviet-friendly nonalignment, but inside Finland as an attack on politicians seen as too deferential toward Moscow. Despite widespread campaigning for NATO among much of Finland’s foreign policy and security elites, echoed by much Finnish media, Finland has remained out of the alliance so far, despite extensive cooperation.
The war on Ukraine has upended this status quo completely. Whereas NATO membership was a remote prospect before the invasion, Finnish application for membership is now widely considered all but certain. This sea change started already during the months in which Russia assembled its troops near Ukraine and made its ultimatums. The formal decision to apply for membership might happen before Easter.
There’s more than just sending in an application, though. It also has to be approved. Atlanticists know that the balance of opinion in Finland has swung in their favor. One poll begun on February 23, the day before the invasion, found support for NATO membership at just over 53 percent, and the numbers have only grown since then. Still, they worry the crisis might mean that the door will be shut in their faces. NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s former prime minister, has indicated that Finland would receive security guarantees during the process, which would be expedited. Still, questions remain about the possibility of countries like Hungary blocking the accession — or demanding a quid pro quo deal regarding EU punishment for infractions of judicial independence by Viktor Orbán’s government.
One thing that might cause questions among NATO members is how Moscow would immediately react to the possibility of Finnish NATO accession. There has already been a bit of saber-rattling — an airspace violation here, a belligerent address by a Russian politician there — but these are nothing particularly unusual for Finns. Russian politicians making threats aimed at random neighboring countries has been the normal state of affairs for decades.
Overall, the Russian reaction has been, if anything, subdued — perhaps reflecting the fact that much of its northwestern army usually stationed in regions bordering Finland is today fighting in Ukraine, and suffering heavy losses. Still, anything can happen, which is why Finnish politicians have been focused on security guarantees before the actual accession to membership.
Another problem is presented by Finland’s other major neighbor: Sweden. Sweden and Finland joined the European Union at the same time in 1995, with the process in Finland initiated by Sweden’s surprise application. There is extensive defense cooperation between the two, and for many years, Finnish Atlanticists predicted a similar surprise announcement that Sweden would seek to join NATO, encouraging Finland to do the same. This time, the roles are different; it’s the Finnish government gunning for fast NATO membership and the Swedish government taking a slower approach.
The current public debate mostly concerns whether Finland should join NATO as soon as possible or wait for a bit and then join. NATO-critical voices are often shouted down and condemned as Putin sympathizers.
The Left is divided. Even in the Left Alliance, the biggest party to the left of the Social Democrats, the shift in opinion has led to the party leader announcing that NATO membership will no longer be a make-or-break issue for government participation. This has already been an upheaval in party thought on what was once a defining stance. Some members have pushed for an even further shift.
There are also some opponents of NATO membership on the other side of the spectrum, both among right-wing populists and more mainstream conservatives, who prefer to conserve Finland’s traditional neutrality. For instance, former foreign minister Paavo Väyrynen, from the Center Party (the second-biggest force in the current government), is a long-standing opponent of NATO, and he has not been shy about this view — although he’s currently a powerless minority among his party. Perhaps the only MP to take a clearly pro-Russian standpoint, Ano Turtiainen belongs to a conspiracy-theorist splinter of the right-wing-nationalist Finns Party. But even the Finns Party has stood by the government’s line and recently endorsed NATO membership.
Questions like what Finland’s role in NATO would be — defending the Baltic states or something more — remain less considered. As far as Finns are concerned, NATO is either an organization meant to defend Finland from Russia or an organization that intends to make Finland its front line for a conflict with Russia.
This myopic approach, typical of many countries’ primary concern for their own affairs, prevents a global focus on the future development of NATO. In particular, there has been a general trend of American presidents turning their focus from Europe to the Pacific. Many in the United States who see Europe as a declining and secondary continent will take potential future conflict with China as most decisive, and a cold war with China has now been pushed during several presidencies. If there is, for instance, a serious Baltic conflict and a serious Pacific conflict going on at the same time, how many resources would the United States focus on each?
In opposition to glib rhetoric about “the West” standing together, many cite the fact that Turkey, known for its oppression of Kurds and its wider authoritarianism, is itself a NATO member. But there are more obviously “Western” countries in the alliance who engage in postcolonial wars of the sort that Finns generally have little desire to join. For all the counterposing of the West against Russian autocracy, plenty of Western politicians, in line with a long-standing and cynical tradition, have sought deals with Russia over the heads of its border countries. To many Western Europeans, Eastern Europe in general remains a terra incognita, full of nations that are only noticed in affairs that affect the West directly. These, too, are questions for Finland to consider.
Now, though, whatever happens in countries as far away as Turkey seems remote to most Finns. Even many reluctant and newfound NATO supporters consider it obvious that membership would be at most a marriage of convenience, not an endorsement of the idea that NATO represents democracy, freedom, and light. But no matter how the eventual process goes — and, in all probability, Finland will be a NATO member by the end of the year — there is one force that ought to be blamed for the shift.
Preventing the expansion of NATO might have been one of the stated goals of Russia’s rapacious invasion. But the sheer unpredictability of the wholesale invasion is one of the tipping points that has made Finland’s NATO application all but inevitable. Even a more limited incursion in the style of Georgia might have left the outcome more uncertain. Not a few people have made the same observation: for all the ink spilled by Atlanticists in Finland for thirty years, no politician has been more efficient a salesperson for NATO than Vladimir Putin has been.