Joining the North Atlantic Alliance would mean fundamental changes in Finland’s foreign and security policy
A four-person panel commissioned by the Finnish government to assess the effects of eventual Finnish membership of NATO has completed its work. Its central finding is that, whether in or out of NATO, Finland and Sweden should stick together.
Ever since the occupation of the Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, a part of the Finnish political elite has been living in a strange state of denial.
It is generally accepted that in the Crimea and Ukraine Russia has violated international law and broken the Helsinki Final Act. It is also accepted that, as an EU member, Finland should follow the sanctions regime agreed in Brussels. But does this mean that Finland should also draw some new conclusions over its bilateral relations with Russia? No.
Why an expert opinion?
This is probably why the Finnish government wanted to have an independent expert assessment on the most delicate and difficult question in the nation’s foreign and security policy. It is probably also the reason that the four-person panel did not contain a single representative of the Finnish political elite.
Instead, two foreigners were invited: a Frenchman, François Heisbourg, and a Swede, Mats Bergqvist, both known and widely respected experts on foreign affairs. The panel was completed by two Finns: a former ambassador, René Nyberg, and the director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Teija Tiilikainen.
When receiving the panel’s report of some 60 pages, Finnish foreign minister Timo Soini appeared to be very satisfied and thanked the group for a job well done. But when the politicians got hold of the paper, the first comments were not promising.
“There is Nothing New”
Their persistent battle cry was immediately raised: There is nothing new in the document, we have known all of this all the time; there is nothing in it to make us change our minds. Those who had commissioned the report claimed it proved that “the official Finnish line has been correct all along”.
In fact, there are a lot of new elements in the report. And if it proves anything, it testifies to the fact that the public debate in Finland on NATO membership has so far been very amateurish: strong emotions have replaced facts, baseless assumptions have replaced serious study, and certainty of opinions has hidden lack of knowledge.
Extending the Mandate
The panel was not tasked with voicing a preference for or against NATO membership. Nor was it requested to provide a pros-and-cons, balance-sheet approach. The task was simply to try to provide an evaluation of the potential effects of membership in the most clinical manner possible. The final conclusions would be drawn by the Finnish government when a comprehensive report on foreign and security policy is ready later in the year.
The panel adhered to a strict interpretation of its mandate, with one substantive exception. It became immediately apparent that the choices made by Finland and Sweden (or vice versa) to join or not to join NATO, separately or together, could lead to different effects for the security and defence of Finland. Thus, the group decided on its own initiative to extend its analysis to include a hypothesis whereby Sweden joined NATO but Finland did not, since this would change the regional strategic and military status quo for Finland.
Back to the Balance of Power?
The longest chapter in the document deals with the changing strategic environment. It is divided into two parts: one on Russia and one on the state of the collective security frameworks in Europe.
The report states clearly that Russia, as a dynamic and unsatisfied power—a country ruled by man, not by law—has instigated significant negative changes in Europe. Its policy is ambiguous and it even takes pride in a decision-making process that is as inscrutable and unpredictable as possible. Furthermore, Russia’s ability to make strategic decisions quickly and to implement them militarily and politically with great speed and agility sets Russia apart from the tsarist Empire or the USSR.
In Europe the vision of cooperative security has faded in relation to greater Russian assertiveness and power politics. The model of international order promoted by Russia is based on the balance of power between the main actors consolidating their right to spheres of interest. Russia’s non-recognition of the established system of norms and confidence-building measures has increased distrust. As a consequence, political confrontation and military tension have increased, including within the Baltic Sea region. With the growing risk of military accidents and the escalation of military activities, the security of Finland is seen to have become vulnerable.
Securing the North
At the same time, it is of strategic significance for Finland and Sweden that the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland and the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea remain free. It is therefore in both countries’ interests that the security of the Baltic States be enhanced through adequate military means.
From NATO’s standpoint, joint membership of Finland and Sweden (or indeed of Sweden alone) would be convenient. Circumventing the anti-access/area denial (A2AD) challenges posed by the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and support for the defence of the Baltic States would presumably transit Sweden. It is taken for granted by the panel that, in the event of a serious crisis or military conflict, Finland and Sweden would become involved.
In the light of the changed Russian posture and military activity, Sweden is rebuilding its territorial defence. The Finnish defence posture remains a policy of deterrence by denial. Another result of the changed military environment following the occupation of the Crimea is the unprecedented undertaking to jointly deepen Finnish and Swedish defence efforts including preparations for military cooperation in crisis conditions.
Mapping Out Alternatives
The assessors have done a great job by mapping out in detail the meaning of NATO membership. They describe both the Alliance’s basic purpose and options for full membership. The extension of the panel’s mandate made it possible to study logically all four possible alternatives open to the two countries:
● Both Finland and Sweden stay outside the Alliance
● Finnish Alleingang: only Finland joins NATO
● Swedish Alleingang: only Sweden joins NATO
● Both countries join NATO
In the report, however, only the three latter scenarios are discussed in detail. It is assumed (quite correctly) that, barring some very dramatic occurrence in our neighbourhood, neither of the incumbent governments will act before general elections due in 2018 (Sweden) and 2019 (Finland).
Is There a Fast Track?
In addition to studying the implications of membership from the point of view of both the applicant countries and NATO—with detailed analysis of administrative, technical and budgetary matters—the panel also looked at a fast-track option. This would involve a procedure whereby Article 5 commitments would be declared to apply even before Finland (and Sweden) obtained full membership.
This would be the first time such a procedure had been used by NATO. The high degree of overall military interoperability between NATO and Finland and Sweden would make this a straightforward option in technical terms. But politically it would encounter significant problems and uncertainties. Such an option has never been dealt with in the Finnish domestic debate.
How would Russia react to an eventual application and/or membership? According to the panel, Fenno–Russian relations would take a beating and the political reaction would be harsh. The unexpected and unprovoked breach of the border regime in northern Finland in late 2015 is cited as an example of Russia’s propensity to create a problem, then leverage it and offer to manage it without necessarily resolving it.
During the accession process, which could be shortened by any eventual fast-track procedure, the atmosphere would be poisoned and trade could be badly hit. The traditional Finnish bilateral agenda would be in a shambles.
The “First-strike” Question
The panel recalls, however, that, more often than not, Russia’s track record on successive NATO enlargements has followed a repetitive sequence: first, opposition—sometimes strident, with political and economic pressure—then tacit acquiescence, and finally a return to the diplomatic and economic status quo ante once enlargement has taken place.
The panel believes a direct military reaction by Russia would be out of question since Russia would not want to risk an Article 5 retaliation. Such an eventuality is not even seriously discussed in the report. This, however, is the very centrepiece of the Finnish internal debate.
A former prime minister implied, in a serious essay, that membership would almost automatically make Finland the target of a military first strike by Russia. A former foreign minister embellished this view in a blog by suggesting that such a strike could be made with nuclear weapons.
“There is a Limit”
In the panel’s press conference François Heisbourg underlined that his discussions with interlocutors in Moscow had shown that there was a clear difference between the case of Finland and those of Georgia and Ukraine. He emphasised that there clearly “is a limit to the irrationality of Russian foreign-policy decision-making”.
When discussing Russian reactions, the panel makes an important observation, which it calls a paradox: Russia is trying to prevent Finnish and/or Swedish membership of the Alliance by intimidation rather than by reassurance. This aspect of Russian behaviour, or its deeper implications, have never been publicly discussed in Finland.
A Sea Change in the Making?
Time and again, the group stresses that a decision to join the Atlantic Alliance and to be covered by its Article 5 collective-defence commitment would represent a sea change, transforming Finland’s security policy as a whole, and its relationship with Russia in particular. The deepest effects would not be in the sphere of military policy and dispositions but, rather, geopolitical and strategic in nature—and it would be a long-term commitment.
In addition, timing is of the essence. On the one hand, decisions should not be rushed; on the other, applying for membership could be difficult once serious trouble breaks out in the Baltic region.
Finland is currently using the possibility of NATO membership as an implicit threat in an attempt to master the inescapable geopolitical dilemma posed by its unpredictable neighbour. By choosing not to act on its own, Finland is leaving the keys of its own security to Moscow, Stockholm or Brussels.
Pauli Järvenpää, Research fellow at the ICDS
As Jarmo Mäkelä says in his excellent review, the report assessing the potential impact of Finland’s NATO membership is ambitious and has been professionally prepared.
Nevertheless, the compilers have not managed to avoid a certain tinge of schizophrenia. On the one hand, the report states that, should the security situation change, NATO is Finland’s only option. The reader wonders whether the situation in the Baltic Sea region has not changed sufficiently already. What else needs to happen in the region in addition to the Crimea and eastern Ukraine to encourage the Finns to make a decisive step towards the Western security community and full membership of NATO?
On the other hand, the report does not mince its words and states that Russia is a discontented state that endangers the post-Cold War international order. It is not satisfied with itself or the world in general. It rattles its sabre at its neighbours and even threatens nuclear strikes.
What advice can we give to Finland in light of its security challenges? Regional cooperation between the Nordic states is inevitable and Europe is a part of Finland’s modern identity. Collaboration with Sweden is reasonable; the same can be said about increasing cooperation with the US. However, these models of cooperation still give no guarantees to Finland, situated as it is next to Russia.
The report clearly states that NATO is a defence alliance, membership of which would probably increase Finland’s level of security. The Alliance’s ability to implement Article 5 would boost Finland’s deterrent capability and prevent Russia from making miscalculations.
The report refers several times to “Finland’s permanent geopolitical dilemma that cannot be solved”. This is valid from the historical viewpoint. Finland has, indeed, had few choices during its difficult history of being located between Russia and Sweden.
Finland has options today. NATO would finally grant Finland a tool for controlling its strategic environment but the country simply does not want to make this choice.
A nation that has a hard head is the toughest, as Paasikivi would say [Juho Kusti Paasikivi, President of Finland 1946–56—Ed.].
Ants Laaneots, Member of the Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament) and retired general
Differences in the evaluation of military threats in the early 2000s led the development of Finnish and Swedish national defence in diametrically opposing directions. Sweden did away with territorial defence, ended compulsory conscription in 2009, and formed a small professional army (basically the size of a single division), to be supported by the Hemvärnet (Swedish Home Guard) in a crisis. Finland, on the other hand, continued with territorial defence, compulsory conscription and large defence forces (comprising 350,000 men in 2014) and a paramilitary border-guard agency.
Partnership with NATO is part of Finnish and Swedish security policy and it has a clear political and military function. Both states fulfilled all the requirements necessary for joining NATO without fuss and are fully prepared for accession. The corresponding political decision is the only missing element.
In recent years the security of Finland and Sweden has been substantially influenced by Russian attacks on its allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)—Georgia and Ukraine— and the unpredictable behaviour of Russia’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin. Russia’s breach of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the main principle of which is that state borders can be changed only through negotiations, was a distress signal to the European Union and NATO, as it signified a sharp worsening of the security situation on the continent. Finland and Sweden also feel threatened by their powerful neighbour. While Sweden is now forced to restore its defence capability, Finland’s is at a high level. Even the Russians have acknowledged the good organisation, training and weapons, high readiness and combat power of Finnish defence forces.
The Finns’ will to defend their country is based on the historical experience of fighting against the Stalinist Soviet Union; thanks to the selfless efforts of its people, Finland was the only state to retain its independence among the countries that were on the losing side in World War II. Eighty per cent of the population of Finland are ready to defend their homeland by serving in the armed forces today as well. The number of conscripts in each year’s intake is at the same level.
The discussion on joining NATO has created a deep sense of uncertainty in the security field in both Finland and Sweden. The subject has not been debated so seriously before. The neighbouring countries think that they should join the organisation simultaneously, while they find it difficult to agree upon the timing. If Finland joins NATO alone, guaranteeing its security and defending the state will be significantly harder because it would be difficult for NATO’s reinforcements to get to Finland quickly. The same would happen if Sweden joined NATO but Finland was left out. Finland was in the same situation during the Winter War, when it had to face the Red Army all alone.
Finland and Sweden’s membership of the Alliance is of the utmost importance to the Baltic States. Rapid reinforcement of the Baltics to strengthen their protection at a time of crisis presents a strategic challenge for NATO: it would be extremely difficult in the event of war. The Baltic Sea separates Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from Northern and Western Europe. On the mainland, the states are connected to NATO and the European Union via the 112 km-wide Suwalki corridor, located between Poland and Lithuania. Russian forces have practised closing the “gap” during the Zapad-2009 and Zapad-2013 exercises. Thus, NATO reinforcements could be brought to the Baltic States quickly only by sea or air—and Sweden and Finland have a key role in maintaining this connection.
Estonia’s northern neighbours’ accession to NATO is strategically important not only to themselves and the Baltic States but also to all of Scandinavia. Their NATO membership would allow the creation of a joint Scandinavian–Baltic security space protected by NATO, and greatly facilitate the speed of arrival of NATO reinforcements and their movement on the whole territory in the event of military conflict, even if Russian forces managed to close the so-called Suwalki Gap. A common NATO space would enable control to be maintained over the Baltic Sea (from the security perspective) and guarantee free movement on the sea.
Finland and Sweden’s long hesitation over joining the Alliance is most probably connected to small nations refraining from changing the basis of their foreign and security policy too often, as they value stability and are more dependent on political sustainability than larger states. This is why all substantial changes in the field require internal consensus in Finland and Sweden, so that the decisions are seen as legitimate in the eyes of both the domestic and the foreign public. We hope that the necessary decisions will be reached quite soon.
Marjo Näkki, Baltic States correspondent, YLE
If readers hoped to find a green light for joining NATO in the report, they were in for a disappointment. The report was about weighing positive and negative elements, and its purpose was not to suggest whether the state should accede to NATO. Still, the report was radical in the Finnish context. Even though the proponents of NATO may have been disappointed, this is not an issue. Finland has increased defence cooperation with Sweden and the two countries may form a joint military unit as early as 2018. Each state would decide independently where the unit is to be positioned.
In addition, Finland has developed bilateral relations with the US, as shown by President Sauli Niinistö’s visit to Washington with other Nordic leaders in May. Finland is working to make increasing international cooperation possible. The Eduskunta (Finnish parliament) is working on a bill that would allow Finland to provide and receive assistance. The impulse for this was France’s request for help from the EU and NATO member states after the Paris terrorist attacks. That request was based on the mutual assistance clause in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. Finland could not provide assistance as it did not have a law that permits this. The matter is being resolved so, in the future, Finnish defence forces can help Sweden in, for example, chasing a submarine. Neighbouring countries situated south of Finland could naturally also receive help. The black-and-white “NATO or no NATO” option is therefore not the only subject in the field of Finland’s military cooperation. Different shades of grey are also worth considering. They are an indication of Finland understanding the meaning of international cooperation.
Nääki recently published the book Suomenlahden suhtekirja – Uudet vaaran vuodet (“On Relationships in the Gulf of Finland: New Years of Danger”) with Kaja Kunnas, Tallinn correspondent of the daily Helsingin Sanomat.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.