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Finland in 2023: Beyond Military Nonalignment and a Revanchist Putin

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If last year was a turning point for European security, this certainly applied to Finland’s foreign and security policy as well. In January 2022, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö’s New Year’s speech made the headlines at home and abroad amid rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Niinistö raised his concern over the situation and touched upon Finland’s NATO membership:

In my opinion, when it comes to Finland, the situation is clear. Finland’s foreign and security policy line remains stable. It has been built to last even difficult times. In the fast-paced world, it is more valuable than ever to know when to hurry, and when to have patience.

Niinistö’s approach to potentially changing Finland’s decades-long policy of military nonalignment seemed in early 2022 to favor a careful and cautious position. As 2023 begins, however, the fundamentals of Finnish security policy have shifted. Alongside Sweden, the Nordic country is adapting to a new reality in dealing with Russia and Vladimir Putin. In his New Year’s speech for 2023, Niinistö took a much more active position against Russia:

The Finnish foreign and security policy is facing a historic turn …. The Russian demands for a sphere of interest and then the invasion of Ukraine. They surely touched every Finn. It generated a spirit and a conviction: we cannot continue along our traditional path any further.

For Finland, this drastic change in position away from nonalignment will mark 2023 as a year of major foreign policy changes and a benchmark for what to expect from Helsinki going forward. As drastic as this change is, it does however follow some traditional patterns in Finland’s behavior. For Helsinki, the decisions that took place last year fall in line with a longer policy of balancing a surging Russian threat.

From Russia, Without Love

Though Finland gained independence from Russia over a century ago, Russia has continued to be a decisive nominator for Finland’s security and defense policy trends. While Finland has never before been a formally militarily aligned country, it has sought to balance a potential threat from its large eastern neighbor during tumultuous times in European security. 

Especially during the 20th century, Helsinki had several different approaches to curb the expansionist ambitions of the Soviet Union. As another world war began to loom over Europe in the 1930s, Finland was involved in discussion of a border-state alliance with Poland and the Baltic States. As the plan eventually faded, Finland had discussions with Sweden to form a bilateral alliance, which ultimately failed due to the latter’s unwillingness to tie itself to Finland’s fate—leaving Finland to face the Soviet Union alone in the Winter War of 1939.

In another attempt to balance the Soviet Union’s threat during the truce after the Winter War, Finland turned to Hitler’s Germany for military assistance to fend off Soviets in the Continuation War of 1941-1944. Germany’s aid was able buy Finland critical time to avoid a Soviet occupation. As the race for Berlin began, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin perceived a complete victory over Finland as less important; instead, he agreed to a truce that led to territorial gains for Russia, allowed Finland to push the Germans out of the country in the Lapland War in 1944-1945, and resulted in a significant downsizing of the Finnish military.

For Finland, the Cold War years led to an active balancing vis-a-vis the Soviet Union through an imposed neutrality. This was ultimately a way of keeping the Soviets at arm’s length but also not so close to the West that it would lead to a stronger influence over Finland. Even though Finland was pressured to sign a Finno-Soviet Treaty in 1947 to maintain close political, military, and economic ties to the Soviet Union, the shallow nature of the agreement became evident when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Finland quickly sought to get rid of the agreement and other limitations to its armed forces set by the Paris Agreement. And most importantly, Finland replaced its Soviet MiG fighters with American F-18 Hornets and joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and the European Union in 1995.

The gloomy conclusion from Finland’s experiences is that Russia has posed a recurring threat to Finland for almost a hundred years, leading some observers to call Russia “the insoluble dilemma” of Finland’s security policy. This dilemma is highlighted by the fact that Finland has frequently sought a tolerable way to live with its neighbor. Yet Finland has and continues to have only a limited influence over Russia’s choices and broader world view.

Looking back at this brief historical outlook, Finland’s applying for NATO membership falls in line with the country’s fundamental task of managing a difficult and unpredictable Russia. “Vyzit” (“to survive”) seems to have been Finland’s outlook, as former president of Finland Mauno Koivisto—a fluent Russian speaker, a passionate Russia historian, and a World War II veteran—put it grimly in 2002 when asked about the idea of Finland.

For Finland, 2022 marked the full return of a revanchist and dangerous Russia. Contrary to the idea that Helsinki was afraid of a direct Russian military aggression, the decision to apply for NATO membership in May was based on proactive risk management above all else. Importantly, Finland’s previous restraints—national defense, the international rules-based order, and close defense cooperation with NATO—were deemed insufficient amid the Russian war in Ukraine.

Putin’s threats of preventing further NATO enlargement were also seen as limiting Finland’s sovereignty and potentially as attempts to tie Finland into Russia’s orbit. Outside of NATO’s umbrella, the threat facing Finland would not necessarily have been a direct and all-out military confrontation with Russia. Rather, it would have been a significant weakening of Finland’s geopolitical position.

For example, the threat against Finland could have been from the Russian military or another hybrid scenario. In such a scenario where Finland would not be a member of NATO, Russia could have demanded Finland’s capitulation, using nuclear coercion or limited military options. Without NATO’s Article 5, there would have been no guarantees of assistance, leaving Finland vulnerable.

In the end, Finland seized the moment of Russia’s distraction and inability to prevent NATO enlargement, increased public support for the membership, and Ukraine’s brave resistance, which gave Helsinki vital time to prepare the application process both domestically and internationally. What Putin perceived to be a triumph for Russia in Ukraine turned out to be a grand failure for Russia in Northern Europe as Finland and Sweden are now in the process of joining NATO.

Combining Lessons for an Updated Russia Policy

As of Feb. 24, 2022, Finland’s Russia policy is going through a transformative phase. It’s safe to say that, regardless of the result in the battlefields of Ukraine, Finland’s relations with Russia will not return to the way they were before the war. As Putin has become a persona non grata in the West, the political ties between Finland and Russia are experiencing a historic breakdown: Diplomatic engagement has been reduced to a minimum, economic relations have been severed, and cultural and civic interaction has dwindled.

The severing of Finland’s relations with Russia represents a major breakdown of Helsinki’s previously diplomatic approach to Moscow. In the past, Finland has often been labeled as a “bear whisperer” due to its understanding and appeasement of Russia. Notably, the current presidents of Finland and Russia have met or held phone calls over 40 times during the years 2012 to 2022. Traditionally the presidents met at least twice a year: once in Helsinki and once in Moscow. The last phone call between them took place in May 2022, when the two discussed Finland’s NATO application. Finland’s change of tone became evident after February. In his speech for the Finnish ambassadors in August, President Niinistö noted that there’s not much left of Finland’s earlier relationship with Russia; he noted that trust is gone and there is nothing in sight on which to base a new beginning. Further, in his 2023 New Year’s speech, Niinistö compared Putin to Stalin when assessing the development of the war in Ukraine, a clear signal that relations between the two countries have severely degraded.

The change has not been merely rhetorical. In 2022, developments took place that would’ve been impossible a year earlier. Beyond applying to NATO, Finland, for the first time, sent lethal weapons to a country that was at war with Russia, Finland almost completely closed off the Russian-Finnish border to traffic, the last remnants of gas dependencies were cut off, Finland began to plan strong fences on its borders, and the Russian ambassador to Finland wasn’t invited to the president’s annual Independence Day reception in December.

Until last year, having channels to Moscow was a tool that enabled Helsinki to keep an ear on matters affecting its immediate national security as well as to keep an eye on its neighbor. It also gave Finland access to information and views of the Kremlin, which made Helsinki an interesting partner elsewhere on Russia-related matters. Needless to say, Finland has been able to manage its broad Russia relations without the taint of corruption. If this was not the case, Finland would not be the kind of country to which, for example, the United States would have sold its state-of-the-art military capabilities for the past 25 years. 

It also says a lot about Finland’s relationship with Russia that, unlike the rest of Europe, it never waived conscription or reduced its defense forces to become a nonexistent actor. If not publicly then at least in private, Finland has been prepared for a Russian threat throughout the post-Cold War era. Back in 2007, in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., Finland’s defense minister outlined how, regardless of Finland being located in one of the safest corners of the world, the proximity of its eastern neighbor meant that the three main security challenges for the country were “Russia, Russia and Russia.”

While preparing for a potential threat in the cabinets, some elements and the public narrative of Finland’s Russia policy have been seen by many as naive, where risks and unpleasant developments in Russia were ignored. This was echoed notably by Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s speech at the Heads of Mission meeting in August 2022, when she said Finland should have listened more closely to the Baltic countries on Russia.

Certain geopolitical realities, however, will not change. As President Niinistö has noted in a rather gritty remark, Russia has been Finland’s neighbor both in good and bad times and will continue to be one even if there were no turn for the better. While Finland is facing a dangerous and unpredictable Russia as a neighbor and as a member of NATO, it seems unlikely that Helsinki would adopt an overtly hawkish or defiant public stance on Russia. Late last year, the president hinted at this:

I have gained the impression that Finland is appreciated precisely because we do not always make a big deal of what we do, we just do it. If necessary, with a minimum of noise, but always reliably and thoroughly. What has worked before our NATO membership could also be a good guideline during membership. Less noise, more action. It has become very clear to me that this is what is expected of us.

Finland’s approach doesn’t mean that it would stand for Russia’s imperialism or support Ukraine by all possible means. Instead, its calculus stems from the fact that Finland cannot ignore the 800-mile shared border with its neighbor. While political and high-level connections are on hold, border authorities must maintain technical cooperation while foreign ministries and embassies still communicate with each other. Thus, Finland’s future relationship with Russia will find its place in the middle ground between old and new doctrines

Finland’s national security will be linked to the shared border and its stability, which create the need for some level of communication. The current war-waging Kremlin, by contrast, compels Finland to invest in military deterrence, both at home and in NATO. As Finland’s NATO decision is fundamentally about managing its relationship with Russia, Finland will be a reliable ally that supports a tough approach to Russian aggression—especially when this threat will loom over Europe for the foreseeable future. In Helsinki, there are no hopes for a quick change in relations nor a need to strive for special attempts at dialogue. As such, the necessities brought about by geography and the effort to avoid escalation will be the core of Finland’s relationship with Russia.

NATO’s Nordic Enlargement—Finland as a Reliable and Contributing Ally  

As of January 2023, Finland and Sweden are still in the process of applying to NATO due to objections from Turkey and a pending parliamentary process in Hungary. At this point, it seems likely that Finland’s membership process will be finished by late 2023. Budapest is expected to complete the ratification during March or April, potentially followed by Ankara by NATO’s next summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in June.

While Finland and Sweden are more or less already seen as belonging to NATO’s security sphere, there’s an increasing frustration in both Helsinki and Stockholm over the Turkish delays. The upcoming general elections in Finland in April could also complicate the process as they could offer Ankara an easy way to dodge ratification until a new Finnish government is in place. 

The pending ratification is hampering Finland’s NATO integration as operative planning is possible for actual members, hence slowing down NATO’s regional defense planning in Northern Europe. However, this hasn’t prevented Finland from participating in NATO’s current round of the Defence Planning Process. 

While we might still have to wait some time for Ankara’s ratification to be completed, it’s already possible to envisage insights into Finland’s NATO policies. What we know for certain is that Finland is seeking to become an active NATO member, with no intentions of setting limitations on cooperation in terms of bases, training, and nuclear activities.

Due to Finland’s contribution through its strategic location as an Arctic and Baltic Sea country, its modern military capabilities (such as a modern air force and navy, and the largest artillery in Europe), and its fulfillment of NATO’s 2 percent defense expenditure target, as well as niche expertise on Russia, Finland is well placed to promote both NATO’s and its national interests effectively. Even before the application for membership, Finland was a desired partner for NATO. This was based specifically on Finland’s location and capabilities—and, more importantly, for NATO’s deterrence in the North after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Finland is technically more than ready to become a NATO member. In the first decade of the 2000s, Finland focused on defense material procurement from the West for all military domains (such as joint air-to-surface standoff missiles, Stinger missiles, guided multiple launch rocket systems, and, most recently, the purchase of 64 F-35 fighter aircraft to replace its fleet of F-18 Hornets), integration into NATO standards, and participation in NATO’s crisis management operations overseas, including the Resolute Support Operation in Afghanistan, KFOR in Kosovo, and NATO training operation in Iraq. The experience and lessons learned throughout these years enabled Finland to deepen its ties with the alliance, making Finland perhaps more NATO interoperable than many member states. (And it is no exaggeration to say that Finland boasts of some of the best troops and equipment in Europe.) 

For Finland and NATO, the important aspect of the Nordic enlargement is that it happens in a world where Russia is waging war in Europe, arming the Arctic, and trying to increase pressure on the Baltic States by absorbing Belarus completely in its orbit. These moves by Russia are reshaping the foundations of European security—strengthening NATO’s deterrence and collective security for years to come. As a result, Finland is joining an alliance that is in the process of rebuilding its deterrence and defense posture, which began in 2014 and is accelerated by 2022 as well as NATO’s new Strategic Concept.

The inclusion of Finland and Sweden into NATO will not only improve their security but also partly relieve the Russian challenge for NATO. With hundreds of miles of new coastline in the Baltic Sea, NATO will possess a variety of options to support its easternmost members. Similarly in the High North, Finland can be expected to ease the Russian challenge to Arctic defense and supply routes essential to U.S. and U.K. military aid for the region in potential crisis between Russia and NATO. 

NATO’s Nordic enlargement also presents an opportunity for a new and effective burden-sharing and specialization in the region to improve deterrence vis-a-vis Russia. This could mean a new NATO Command Structure in the North, creating a common air command for the entire Nordic area and improving maritime activities. Other analyses suggest NATO should utilize the accession of Sweden and Finland to create an ambitious deterrence-by-denial “bubble” over Northern Europe.

Concerning Finland’s NATO profile, it’s only natural that Finland will become an ally that emphasizes maintaining deterrence against Russia in Northern Europe—hence linking it closer to NATO’s member states in the Nordic-Baltic and Central-Eastern European hemisphere as well as the U.S. and the U.K. Finland’s essential role in NATO will be to take care of its national defense, but NATO will likely also expect Finland to develop capabilities for the alliance’s needs.

When it comes to the political aspect of Finland in NATO, Finland is positioned to be an influential member state due to its “model student” status in a strategically important region. In terms of NATO and the military, Finland is closer to being a regional great power on a European scale. It would be in Helsinki’s interests to use this influence to constructively encourage others to fulfill their part of the alliance’s current and potentially new targets to make sure there’s fair burden-sharing instead of outsourcing. As the Russian threat increases and NATO needs to counter this reality, it’s likely that the 2014 Wales Summit targets for member states’ defense spending and capability development need to be reevaluated. 

In the end, NATO has no reason to expect major conflicts as a result of Finland’s membership as the strategic interests of both coincide. However, the principal lesson for Finland is to learn to talk about defense policy in a way that takes into account both its national interests and, more broadly, NATO’s interests. This is related to the way Finland communicates—for example, deterrence, nuclear weapons, exercise activities, and, in general, the goals of the entire alliance. As a member state, Helsinki can no longer execute security and defense policy with purely Finland in the front. It needs to learn to communicate in a way that emphasizes alliance unity—and especially its strength and force, if necessary.

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