Putin’s attempted conquest of Ukraine has changed the political landscape of Europe. The fragile balance between the continent’s eastern and western powers has been toppled in a month’s worth of fighting. A resurgence in European regional security and arguably a rearrangement in global security has been the concern of the majority of the world since the invasion began. With these shifts comes previously neutral countries changing their stances — Sweden and Finland.
Finland, which has been practicing non-alignment since the Second World War, has experienced a drastic shift in its foreign policy since the start of the invasion of Ukraine. For decades, it has had a steady minority of 30% in favor of joining NATO, but recent events have caused the figure to double to 60%.
The Finnish Parliament currently stands with 98 of its members in favor of joining NATO, while 14 are currently against it. More importantly, all political parties within Finland recognize that the regional security climate has permanently changed.
A report by The Times stated that Finland’s application to NATO is expected in June, and Sweden is close to following.
“Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said. “We need to be ready, of course, to face consequences.”
Sweden had also experienced a very dramatic change in public opinion about joining NATO, with a majority of their citizens wanting to join due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A poll done by Kantor-Sifo in March showed that 59% of respondents would support joining NATO if Finland were also to join. On the other hand, only 17% were against joining, and 24% were undecided.
“I do not exclude NATO membership in any way,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said.
Currently, Finland has shown strong indications of joining the alliance. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that both Finland and Sweden could easily join NATO if they decided to apply. Furthermore, an unnamed Finnish official already said that their country was already “a member without being a member.”
Together with German Federal President #Steinmeier, we listened to the powerful speech President @ZelenskyyUa gave to the Finnish Parliament today. We were both deeply touched by his resolve and strength. pic.twitter.com/QcbrCfAQhB
— Sauli Niinistö (@niinisto) April 8, 2022
Such changes point toward Finland’s likely move to join NATO in the coming months. However, the country must consider possible retaliation from Russia.
“Of course, Russia will react, but we don’t know how. And we need to be prepared”, the Permanent Secretary at Finland’s Ministry of Defense, Esa Pulkkinen, said. “We need to be ready, of course, to face consequences.”
Pulkkinen, a retired lieutenant general, said that Russia’s reaction remains one of many considerations in the NATO discussion. He said that although a full invasion of Finland is unlikely, the possibility cannot be ruled out completely.
“You cannot rule out anything. I mean, that’s something that you need to do, assess the risks. You should not exclude anything. But that risk assessment, I think, is taking place in Finland now,” he said.
In the early weeks of the war in Ukraine, Moscow’s Director of the Second European Department from the Russian Foreign Ministry, Sergei Belyaev, had previously warned Finland and Sweden that joining the alliance “would have serious military and political consequences.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov echoed Belyaev’s sentiments, saying that they will have to “make our Western flank more sophisticated in terms of ensuring our security” in the event Finland and Sweden join NATO.
Finland shares the longest land border with the Russian Federation. This makes keeping Helsinki, at least neutral, a crucial part of Moscow’s security agenda. Furthermore, Stockholm is another neighbor just across the Gulf of Bothnia that could also present a security threat for Russia.
Experts believe that Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 were moves to block those countries from joining NATO. Given this premise, if Finland announced that it would join NATO, it could push Putin to pull the trigger on another war — that’s if they still have the men and munitions to keep a war going.
Finland is a strong candidate for NATO membership. It fully meets membership criteria and boasts strong merits. The country has proven to be a stable democracy and has already been in cooperation with NATO as a partner since 1994. More importantly, Finland can hold its own defensively with 280,000 active military personnel and around 900,000 reservists. Sweden, with its total defense military philosophy, also isn’t a country Russia should rule out as it’s still known to have one of the strongest Air Forces in the world. Both countries are also key locations for NATO as it would enable them to place air defense systems close to Northern Russia and launch missions from these territories if necessary.
However, even with a good resume, a NATO membership does not come instantly. The alliance’s Article 5, which provides collective defense, does not cover aspirant members. This leaves a vulnerable gap wherein Russia can make a move on Finland (and Sweden) while it is not yet a ratified member of NATO.
NATO, Sweden, and Finland are aware of the existence of this gap, but it is Finland that has been most vocal about the issue. Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said several leaders from member countries have discussed “what kind of security assistance [Finland will] need during that period” in the recent NATO foreign ministers meeting.
“This question is being asked very actively, that is, offering such help or support if there is a need for it,” Haavisto said.
Moscow’s response is not limited to military action. It could come in the form of cyberattacks and even economic or political action. In those events, Pulkkinen said that it would need the “support of our friend” but acknowledged that Finland must be ready to stand alone until it becomes a full-fledged NATO member.
Pulkkinen added that he does not expect nations to pledge to protect Finland during the gap. “I think it’s unrealistic to think about,” he said. “We need to mitigate the risks by ourselves.”
Defending against a Russian invasion is something that Finland is well prepared for. One could say that the country’s foreign and military policy has been designed for decades to face such a threat.
“Russia knows, and we know, that we are able to defend ourselves. We’ve been preparing ourselves for four decades.” Pulkkinen said.
Questions also arose on whether Russia still has enough left in the tank to invade Finland after its abysmal performance in Ukraine. According to Western estimates, 80% of its active military personnel were tied up in the ongoing invasion. Furthermore, with them deploying experimental tanks and hypersonic missiles, it was hypothesized by military analysts that they might be running out of munitions to sustain the war.
“I find it hard to imagine, given the extent the Russian military has struggled in Ukraine, that they would have the bandwidth to put any kind of pressure on Finland if they announced they were seeking to join NATO tomorrow,” Jason Moyer from the Wilson Center said.
And this may be prompting the move by these two countries to join NATO, Russia being unable to pose a credible military threat against Sweden and Finland to intimidate them into passivity.
“Russia will likely make the usual fuss of expelling Finnish diplomats. The economic fallout will be dramatic given their proximity and trade relationship… and there might even be an air incursion or cyberattack. But this is a small price for the long-term security NATO provides,” he predicted.