Could Putin's Russia push neutral Finland into NATO's arms?

Finland has avoided conflict with its giant neighbor for decades by keeping NATO at arm's length. But Russia's recent actions – including its intervention in Ukraine and a series of overflights of Finnish territory – have some Finns rethinking their neutrality.

Lehtikuva/Finnish Air Force/AP/File
A Finnish Air Force handout shows a Russian AN-72 transport plane, taken by a Finnish aircraft pilot in August. Finland's Defense Ministry said it suspects Russian military aircraft of violating Finnish airspace three times in six days in August.

Seven months ago, when Russia seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, Finns seemed relatively unconcerned. The world's northernmost country shares some 800 miles of border with its huge neighbor, but just a quarter of Finns said they felt threatened by Moscow. And a similar number told pollsters their country should consider joining NATO in interest of self-defense.

Since then, Russia's behavior has become more provocative, and not just in eastern Ukraine. During one week in August, Russian military aircraft conducted three unauthorized overflights of Finnish airspace. The Finnish public reacted accordingly. A poll last month by Finnish daily Aamulehti showed that 43 percent of those polled perceived Russia as a danger, an increase of nearly 20 percent from March.

But support for Finland joining NATO remained almost unchanged: a mere two percent higher, the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation (YLE) found. Why hasn’t Finnish wariness translated into stronger support for NATO membership? And what, if anything, would persuade Finns to join the defense pact? 

Defense Minister Carl Haglund says that the foundation for the Finnish public’s aversion to NATO membership stems from its complicated, and oft-misunderstood relationship with Russia. “This [reluctance] goes back to [our] history,” he says, “especially the end of the Second World War and the cold war.”

“Put it this way," says Pekka Ervasti, political editor of YLE. "Finnish neutrality dies hard.”


The 1948 treaty which Finland signed with the USSR – which defeated Finland in two wars during World War II – codified its enforced rapprochement with the Kremlin. Finland agreed not to join or assist NATO, which was established the following year. The treaty laid the basis for the peaceable – and mutually beneficial – relationship between Finland and the USSR which followed, along with half a century of Finnish military non-alignment. “Active neutrality,” Helsinki called it.

Critics had another term for it: “Finlandization” – the process by which a democracy such as Finland avoided provoking Moscow, in return for independence and trading privileges. It's a policy that served Finns well for decades, and many are reluctant to abandon it.

A dose of anti-Americanism is also at play, adds Ervasti. “People feel that NATO is run by Americans and they fear that the US will drag us into foreign wars, like Iraq. Others worry that nuclear weapons will be stationed here.”

Then there's the bottom line for business. “I’m not sure whether joining NATO is such a great idea in the long run,” says Ami Hasan, head of Hasan & Partners, a leading Helsinki ad agency. “Russia with its 150 million people is a huge potential trading partner for Finland and we have 1,300 kilometers of shared border. I doubt that Russia would be thrilled to share it with NATO.”

Governmental divides

Despite the generally warm relationship between the two countries in recent years, Russian officials have explicitly warned Finland against joining NATO. In June 2012, Russian Chief of Staff Nikolai Makarov, sounding much like the Soviet bear of yore, said that cooperation between NATO and Finland, which joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace “affiliate” program in 1994, threatened Russia’s security.

The debate was rekindled in September, when Finland signed a new agreement with NATO that allows it and Finland to hold joint exercises on Finnish soil and permits assistance from NATO members in situations such as “disasters, disruptions, and threats to security.”

To some, the agreement seemed to draw Finland closer to the alliance. “It’s obvious that the memorandum takes us one step closer to NATO,” said Finnish legislator Annika Lapintie. “There’s no other way to look at it.”

Finland’s foreign minister, Erkki Tuomija, disagrees. "The memorandum doesn’t oblige Finland or NATO to provide or receive assistance or to permit transit,” he says. For his part, Mr. Tuomija is opposed to NATO membership, as is his party, the Social Democrats. “Finland’s security policy should be to strengthen and secure long-term organization and national security through the EU.”

The ruling five-party coalition is split – two of the parties support joining NATO, while the other three, including the Social Democrats, are opposed – and has ruled out any debate on NATO membership. 

President Sauli Niniisto has said that a national referendum would be required before Finland could apply to join NATO. 

'Bet on continuity'

Still, NATO is bound to arise in the run-up to the next Finnish parliamentary elections in April. And some may be rethinking their views. One of those who has is Panu Laturi, former secretary general of the Green League, an opposition party. 

“Russia has clearly developed in an ‘uncertain’ way and Finland cannot defend itself," Mr. Laturi says. “I have come to see that Finland needs NATO’s security guarantee and the protection of Article Five,” referring to the treaty's mutual defense clause.

Recent polls suggest that Finns' opposition to NATO membership may also be similarly changeable. A majority says that they would support NATO membership if the nation’s political leadership came out wholeheartedly for it, according to a TNS Gallup survey.

Still, many Finns fear that joining NATO would trigger Russian reprisals that Finland would face alone, as it did during the 1939-40 Winter War with the USSR. “One thing we can’t change is geography,” says Mr. Hasan, the ad executive.

Others say that they are waiting to see what neighboring Sweden will do. The Swedes have an even longer history of military non-alignment than Finland, and are just as conflicted about joining NATO.

"My guess is that the [Finns'] wariness is a legitimate desire not to rock the boat," says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former US deputy secretary of State who has written widely on the subject of NATO enlargement. "If, however, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was reckless enough to test NATO's commitment to its member states Estonia or Latvia, there might be a change of attitudes in Finland."

For his part, Tuomas Forsberg, professor of international relations at Tampere University, is skeptical that Finland will join NATO anytime soon.

“If one were to bet, it might be better to bet on continuity,” he says. “The security environment has changed, but psychology remains more entrenched.”

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