March 27, 2015

Why Doesn’t Finland Want to Join NATO?

Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb (L) greets NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the PM's residence in Helsinki, Finland on March 5, 2015.
Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb (L) greets NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the PM's residence in Helsinki, Finland on March 5, 2015.

Former Finnish chief of defence Juhani Kaskeala argued in the Finnish newspaper Iltalehti that Finland didn’t join NATO in the 1990s because it would have been held responsible by the US and UK for defending Estonia.

Iltalehti reported that the architect of NATO’s eastward expansion in the 1990s, US deputy assistant secretary of state Ronald Asmus planned to set up a NATO base in Denmark where Finland and Sweden would have had to assume responsibility for defending the Baltics.
“The philosophy of that time was that the old NATO member states were moving Baltic security on to our side of the ledger– that Finland and Sweden would be the guarantors of the security of the Baltics,” Kaskeala told Iltalehti.
“That position definitely influenced the fact that Finland didn’t want to join NATO,” added Kaskeala.
Iltalehti also said British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd explicitly proposed that Finland and Sweden take the responsibility for the defence of the Baltics.
Kaskeala’s statements could have a good bit of truth in them, but there’s still the nagging feeling that it is a convenient pretext for why Finland shouldn’t join NATO. In the mid-1990s, it was far from unequivocally clear that the Baltics would even become NATO members in the first place. When Estonia became the first former Soviet republic to be invited to accession talks with the European Union, in 1997, it was hailed as a major breakthrough. It meant a country that had been a part of the Soviet Union proper had taken a small step closer to Western structures. But bringing up Baltic NATO membership at that juncture in international circles would have seen as a weak joke.
And Kaskeala’s claims don’t add up in other ways as well. The then president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, allegedly told US Secretary of State Warren Christopher that it wasn’t a real prospect to shoulder this responsibility, anyway, because neither Finland nor Sweden could actually guarantee Baltic security. Finland believed that only the deterrent effect of US military power could keep Russia from using force.
Such a claim leaves the unfortunate impression that Finland and Sweden would have been somehow taking separate responsibility within NATO for the security of the Baltics. It’s as if the enlarged NATO had told Moscow: if the Baltics are attacked, Article Five – the underpinning of collective defence – only applies to Finland and Sweden; that only these two countries and not the entire alliance would come to the defence of the Baltics.
On top of it all, it seems quite strange that Estonian politicians have said nothing of the purported demand from the US and UK that Finland and Sweden be put in charge of defending the Baltics. It doesn’t seem conceivable that the US would conduct diplomacy about the Baltics behind their backs. If Kaskeala’s claims are true, the Americans would have presumably notified the Estonians as well. Of course, maybe we will hear or read of it later, in the first wave of memoirs by 1990s era statesmen and women.
Finland and Sweden are strengthening their defence cooperation both bilaterally and in the European Union system. But they will continue to be in a certain grey zone. The cautiousness of both countries in sending air forces to Ämari for a military exercise could be seen as an example. A sharp contrast could be drawn with the NATO member Denmark, which plans to take part in NATO’s integrated European air defence system. Denmark has received threats from Russia in response, but NATO membership gives Copenhagen a sense of security that Stockholm and Helsinki lack.
This piece, originally in Estonian, aired on Retro FM’s European news on 27 March 2015.

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