May 4, 2016

Finland’s NATO Membership Dilemma

Finland's army soldiers attend the multinational NATO exercise Saber Strike in Adazi, Latvia, June 11, 2015.
Finland's army soldiers attend the multinational NATO exercise Saber Strike in Adazi, Latvia, June 11, 2015.

A recent report by four experienced Finnish, French and Swedish international security experts (M. Bergquist, F. Heisbourg, R. Nyberg and T. Tiilikainen: „The Effects of Finland’s Possible NATO Membership. An assessment“.) summarized in a traditionally rather cautious way Finland’s perspectives for NATO membership and the likely consequences of joining or continuously staying out of the Alliance. The report has been presented seemingly in preparation of an unprecedented domestic public debate on this crucial matter. It is obviously not at all accidental that the report came out before NATO’s Summit in Warsaw, especially given the Alliance’s declared plans to deploy additional forces to the Baltic States and Poland in response to Russia’s increasingly aggressive behaviour.

The NATO membership issue has gradually ceased to be a taboo in non-aligned Finland and Sweden, but apart from random opinion polls and brief statements by certain politicians on this issue a genuine popular debate has yet to emerge. In Finland, but much less so in Sweden, the Russian response and the economic and political damage that it might produce is the focal point of considering and comparing pros and cons of NATO membership. Finland tends to promote a geopolitical twin-relationship with Sweden in this context. The authors of the report suggest therefore that Finland and Sweden should make a simultaneous and similar decision on NATO membership or otherwise Finland’s different choice would be actually detrimental to its security.

These considerations are equally well understood in the Kremlin, and that’s why Russia actively promotes a policy of divide et impera even at this micro level, in order to avoid a Finno-Swedish consensus on joining NATO. Moscow labels Sweden as one of the most “Russophobic” European nations, alongside the Baltic States and Poland etc., in contrast to the “friendly” Finland. A recent warning by Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov issued namely to Sweden (that Russia’s defence structures “will take relevant technical and military measures” in response to Sweden’s NATO membership), as well as a politically motivated refugee crisis with Finland (that was as quickly solved, after the Finnish President Sauli Niinistö visited Moscow, as it was created) exemplify the Kremlin’s desperate attempts to split Finland and Sweden on the NATO membership issue.

There are actually three probable scenarios considering Finland’s and Sweden’s options on the matter, leaving aside the Sweden in and Finland out alternative that doesn’t make any sense for the Finns. One may argue, indeed, that the latter option is theoretically possible if Finland decides to continue to “sit on the fence”, notwithstanding Sweden’s choice to bolster its defence by joining the Alliance, because of fearing dramatic consequences from the East. However, in such a case the angst of remaining alone, on its own, in spite of demonstrated self-confidence, would most likely outweigh the anxiety over Russia’s response.

Both out. This is the most likely and politically and economically the least problematic option, especially for Finland. It would not be militarily helpful for either Finland or Sweden, as well as for NATO’s efforts in the region, in spite of the increasingly closer cooperation, but it could act as a certain deterrent against Russia if Finland and Sweden would unambiguously declare that they will not attempt to stay out of a regional conflict instigated by Russia against EU (and NATO) members, and would therefore become, under such circumstances, NATO allies (de facto or de iure).

Both in. Finland and Sweden are clearly preparing militarily for possible NATO membership. Nevertheless, the political decision to join the Alliance is a heavy burden for any government in Helsinki or Stockholm. The Western-Russian relations are increasingly confrontational and there are no credible signs of the Kremlin’s wish to decrease tensions, but it would probably take a lot more for Finland and Sweden to finally make up their mind in order to apply for NATO membership. The public opinion in both countries, in terms of perception of Russian threat and NATO membership, will be greatly influenced by local political leaders in the course of wider debates, if these occur, but ultimately by Russia’s behaviour. The Kremlin has set Turkey as a notorious example of punishment for “misbehaviour”, and it suggests that Russia could react even more disproportionately, perhaps also militarily, in order to defend its interests and prestige. Therefore, the Finns and the Swedes may wish to “reserve their right” to become NATO members not in the nearest future, when it would be desirable according to NATO allies’ – especially the Baltic states’ and Poland’s – preference, but when this becomes inevitable. The two countries have wilfully missed three consecutive waves of NATO’s enlargement after the end of the Cold War, and they would likely miss another enlargement in peaceful conditions. Still, Finland and Sweden should not be misguided by expectations of eventual automatic NATO membership, as it was argued by the Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, or reliance on NATO’s (or the US) umbrella without actually being Allies. The process of becoming NATO members entails applications, reports, assessments, discussions, decisions and formal approvals at 28 that take considerable time, even under expeditious procedures.

Finland in and Sweden out. This option is possible, even if Finland would certainly prefer to join NATO together with Sweden. In case of an imminent conflict, Finland may choose to quickly join forces with the Alliance (invite allied troops to its territory, offer its air space and infrastructure for allied operations etc.), and thus become at least de facto a NATO member, because it has a very long border with Russia and would face a direct threat of invasion. However, Sweden may wish to stay out of the Alliance, at least at the start, because Finland would act as a buffer-zone. If the situation de-escalates, then Sweden could remain as a non-aligned oasis amidst NATO territory (provided that Finland goes on with its NATO membership), just like Austria and Switzerland, even if in Russia’s relative proximity. If the situation escalates into outright conflict then Sweden could follow its best interests, just as it has done in anticipation of conflict during the Cold War, much to the sorrow of Finland. This scenario is not at all catastrophic for Finland in terms of defence and security. The above mentioned report claims erroneously that Finland would not be linked by land to NATO territory if Sweden doesn’t join the Alliance (page 6, Togetherness) – in fact, it would have a much longer land connection with Norway than the Baltic states have with Poland, and no Kaliningrad oblast in-between. However, the Finnish leaders would be most likely concerned about the inevitable political split with Sweden, the “elder brother” that actually links Finland to the Scandinavian “club”. Even worse, Finland could be once again regarded by Russia as a “fourth Baltic state” (language used in the Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact of 1939) in the context of NATO’s North-Eastern flank, to which Sweden would not belong even formally.

In conclusion, Finland should not hesitate to consider what it is best for itself rather than be guided by the Swedish approach to NATO membership. Looking from Russia, Finland stands not behind but in front of Sweden, and it is therefore the critical potential member of the Alliance in our region. Russia would certainly punish Finland (and Sweden) for joining the Alliance, which therefore has to be done in the speediest possible manner, but the Finns should keep in mind that their country has repeatedly passed through hard times with Russia. Some 25 years ago Finland survived quite successfully the collapse of the former Soviet Union that equally provided to it certain economic advantages under a policy of “friendship”.

Last but not least, Finland and Sweden acknowledge the utmost positive impact to their security by the Baltic states’ membership in NATO and EU, but they should likewise admit that this profitable effect has to be sustained, as well, not only in words, but also with deeds. In terms of regional deterrence and defence this means the closest possible relationship of alliance, which would be Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership.

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