April 22, 2019

Finland and NATO: So Close, Yet So Far

Finnish machine gunner in Northern Sweden at the Northern Wind 2019 exercise that brought together great numbers of military personnel from Finland, Norway, Sweden, the UK and US.
Finnish machine gunner in Northern Sweden at the Northern Wind 2019 exercise that brought together great numbers of military personnel from Finland, Norway, Sweden, the UK and US.

The government of Estonia’s northern neighbour is very careful in talking about joining NATO, as they’re afraid to upset Russia.


Finland is a liberal Western democracy, a member of the European Union and an active participant in NATO’s Enhanced Opportunities Partnership (EOP). Its military forces are highly interoperable with those of NATO countries, and in the past quarter of a century or so it has actively participated in various NATO-led crisis management operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

In all aspects but one, Finland qualifies as a NATO member. The missing aspect is the lack of political will to join the Atlantic Alliance. Just one-fifth of the Finnish population currently wants the country to join NATO; the rest are satisfied with their country being “militarily non-aligned”.

Why is this? Why isn’t Finland ready and willing to join NATO, an organisation that for 70 years has provided stability and security in Europe, including its far north?

Finland’s Military Links to the United States

Finland has, particularly since the end of the Cold War, carefully cultivated its military links with the US. This has included the purchase of highly sophisticated military hardware, including the F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft and some modern air-defence systems. At the same time, since membership of NATO has not been politically feasible, the focus of Finnish attention has been on cooperating with the US more fully than ever before.

For example, on 8 May 2018, the Finnish and Swedish ministers of defence, Jussi Niinistö and Peter Hultqvist, met with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon. There, after a full honour guard with a 19-gun salute welcoming the two Nordic ministers, the three defence leaders signed a Trilateral Statement of Intent (SOI) to improve and solidify defence cooperation between the three countries.

The SOI will, in the words of the Pentagon press release,

enhance the defense relationship between these three countries in seven areas including defense policy dialogue, policy military-level interoperability, expanded regional situational awareness, strengthened capabilities and posture, combined multinational operations, strategic communications, and U.S.-NATO-EU cooperation.

The SOI is also meant to deepen and expand on the bilateral defence agreements signed between Finland and Sweden in 2014, Sweden and the US in 2016, and Finland and the US, also in 2016.

It should be noted that the SOI is not a legally binding commitment between the US, Finland and Sweden under international or national law. However, the three co-signatories believe that the deepened defence relationships are promoting security in the Baltic Sea region by “reinforcing transatlantic linkages, strengthening stability in northern Europe, and building interoperability between the United States and two of its most capable and likeminded partners”.[i]

The SOI continues:

To achieve these objectives, the U.S. DoD and the MODs of Finland and Sweden intend to conduct cooperative activities including, but not limited to

Regular trilateral meetings on all levels, including study groups;

Exchanges of information at all levels;

Increasing practical cooperation between our respective armed forces;

Coordinated participation in training and exercises;

Shaping exercise design to reflect trilateral cooperation priorities where appropriate;

Development of cooperation in multinational operations;

Coordination of strategic communication concerning incidents and activities as appropriate; and

The enhancement of the EU-NATO strategic partnership.1

Future Relationships: Training and Exercising Together with NATO Member Countries

It is important to recognise that existing bilateral agreements already allowed close cooperation in arranging common military exercises among US, Finnish and Swedish defence force units on land, air and sea. For example, at the same time the SOI was signed in Washington, a Finnish armoured troop exercise codenamed Arrow 18 was being carried out at the Niinisalo training grounds in western Finland, consisting of more than 3,200 Finnish, US and Norwegian soldiers. This was the first time M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks had been on exercise in Finland.

As for other major military exercises in 2018–19, the Finnish Air Force took part in Red Flag 2018 in October 2018 at Nellis Air Base in Nevada—another first—and defence minister Niinistö has announced that a major land forces exercise will take place in Finland in the early 2020s, perhaps in 2021, similar to the large Swedish national exercise Aurora 2017, which numbered nearly 20,000 participants. It should be noted that the Finnish Air Force is considering two US fighters, the F-18 Super Hornet and the F-35, in the ongoing international competition to choose Finland’s next fighter aircraft.

The future Finnish exercises will also bring to Finland various types of military unit from many NATO member countries. In total, in 2019 the Finnish defence forces will be participating in over 80 international military exercises, most of them taking place in northern Europe and the general Nordic-Baltic region. One of these, Northern Wind 2019, brought together Finland, Sweden, Norway, the UK and the US in a large exercise in northern Sweden in March 2019.

The technical arrangements needed for these exercises have been produced through the provisions of NATO’s Host Nation Support Memorandum of Understanding. The trilateral SOI just brings together the substance of the earlier agreements and aims to ensure that there are no overlapping activities and that competitive situations will be avoided in international training exercises.

In a seminar arranged by the Swedish Embassy in Washington after the SOI signing ceremony, Secretary Mattis praised Finland and Sweden for “providing a steady anchor of stability in a region more tense as a result of Russia’s unfortunate, unproductive and destabilizing choices from Ukraine to Syria”, and the Finnish and Swedish defence ministers lauded “the increased stability through a heightened U.S. military presence in Northern Europe”.

During the seminar, Alexander Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary-General of NATO, recognised the high praise amply due to the three countries for their efforts to stabilise the Baltic Sea region, but quipped: “Wouldn’t it all be far simpler if Finland and Sweden were members of NATO?”

Finland: Why Not?

Yes, indeed it would. Many of the methods and forms of cooperation between Finland and NATO that will be carried out in any case—such as participation in NATO-run training and exercises—would be much simpler if Finland were a member of the Alliance. So, why hasn’t it sought to join?

The answer lies in how Finland’s eastern neighbour, Russia, sees NATO: the Kremlin regards the Atlantic Alliance as an adversary and considers any NATO enlargement as a threat to its security and national interests. Finland recognises this and understands that, for Russia, Finnish membership of NATO would not represent only a slight change in policy but a sea change of huge proportions.

In April 2016, the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs published a study entitled “The Effects of Finland’s Possible NATO Membership: An Assessment”.2 The study strongly emphasises that Finland is a Western European country, and a member of the broader family of like-minded democracies that respect international law and their other international commitments. In this respect, for Finland, the post-Cold War era was a sort of a homecoming, with EU membership in 1995. Given its strong European orientation, Finland shares the broader strategic concerns of its EU partners, along with the rising challenges to both the east and the south of the continent.

As for Finland’s relationship with Russia, according to the Finnish MFA’s assessment Finland remains deeply aware that there is “no solution to the specific strategic dilemma posed by its unpredictable neighbour, which requires continuous management”.3 In this context, it is important to emphasise that Finland is no longer “neutral”—how could it be, as a member of the EU?—but rather a country that is “militarily non-aligned”. In addition, Finland wants to keep open the option of joining the NATO alliance.

How would Russia react to Finland’s membership of NATO? As an “unsatisfied power”—a term used in the MFA assessment—Russia has made unpredictability a strategic and tactical virtue, and at the same time regards any NATO enlargement as a threat to its national interests. Hence, there is no doubt whatsoever that Russia would attempt to block any move by Finland to join NATO. According to the MFA assessment, Finland would most likely face a strong, perhaps even harsh, reaction from Russia if it sought membership of NATO. This is a risk the Finnish political leadership has not wanted to take.

Finnish Public Opinion and NATO

Hence, as the Russian reaction is expected to be strong, Finland’s political leadership has, from one president to another and from one government to another, opted for a careful consensus on the question of membership: “Finland is a militarily non-aligned country that keeps an option open to join the NATO Alliance”. Since this is Finland’s official position extending over several presidents and governments, public opinion has tended to follow suit. Consequently, anywhere between 20% and 30% of Finns support NATO membership, roughly half are against it, and the rest do not have an opinion on the issue or do not want to express it. However, it is interesting to note that, according to a recent poll, 67% of the professional military support Finnish membership. Almost 80% of general staff officers would like Finland to be in NATO.

It is clear that Finland and Sweden form a common strategic space and therefore have compelling reasons to make the same fundamental choices on their future security and defence, especially given that they face the same strategic challenges and uncertainties in the Nordic-Baltic region. When Finns are asked what they would like to do if Sweden were to seek NATO membership, more than half express the wish to join NATO along with Sweden. This indicates the tremendous importance to Finland of the Swedish decision.

Moreover, if the question is posed as “If Finland’s political leadership decided to seek NATO membership, what would your opinion be?”, 54% of the population would want Finland to join. This indicates that, on the one hand, Finns have strong trust in the wisdom of their political leadership, and that on the other there is room for change in the popular position on NATO.


Finland is strongly engaged in all those organisations that contribute, each in their own particular way, to stability and security in Europe. This applies to the OSCE, Nordic cooperation (NORDEFCO), the EU, NATO and others. In all but one of these Finland has sought to be a full member.

The only exception to this pattern has been NATO. True enough, Finland has gained a special relationship with NATO too, through Partnership for Peace, PARP and EOP, but these relationships do not take the place of full membership.

As much as it hurts this writer to say so, there are no indications that these circumstances will change in the foreseeable future.


1 “Trilateral Statement of Intent among the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Finland and the Ministry of Defence of the Kingdom of Sweden”. Available at https://www.government.se/49993c/globalassets/government/dokument/forsvarsdepartementet/2018/trilateral-statement-of-intent-8th-may-2018.pdf (accessed 12 April 2019).

2 Available at https://julkaisut.valtioneuvosto.fi/handle/10024/79160 (accessed 12 April 2019).

3 Ibid., p. 5.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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