Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2022. On 4 April 2023, Finland became the 31st member of the Nato security alliance and the country’s flag was raised at the alliance’s headquarters.
BERLIN – Finland, which shares a long border with Russia, is on the cusp of abandoning its Cold War-era policy of neutrality in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. In a joint statement on Thursday 12 May, its president Sauli Niinistö and the prime minister Sanna Marin said that “Nato membership would strengthen Finland’s security,” before adding that the country’s application should be made “without delay”.
Sweden, which does not border Russia, is expected to apply for Nato membership at the same time as Finland, in what would represent one of the biggest shifts in European security for decades. The countries’ requests will need to be ratified by the alliance’s 30 existing members, a process expected to take several months. Both Sweden and Finland, as EU members, are already covered by the EU’s mutual defence clause, which obligates all members of the bloc to come to the defence of another if attacked. The UK also signed a defence pact with both countries, allaying fears that they could be vulnerable to attack during the Nato accession process.
The decision will more than double Russia’s land border with the alliance, which currently measures about 1,215 kilometres. Finland’s frontier with Russia stretches 1,340km.
In 1939-40, Finland fought the Winter War against the Soviet Union, which attempted to conquer Finland. Finnish forces succeeded in holding off Moscow’s advance but the country lost swathes of territory, including the city of Vyborg, as a result of the eventual peace deal. As a result, during the Cold War, Finland maintained a stance of official neutrality, pledging not to take any action that could be interpreted as threatening the security of the Soviet Union.
After the Soviet collapse, Finland moved closer politically to the West, acceding to the EU in 1995, but made no attempt to join Nato. The country’s leaders had in recent years hinted that it might abandon its traditional neutrality. That change was finally catalysed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year.
“By joining the EU, we diluted our neutrality [already in the 1990s]… we are clearly behind the Western democratic world. So Nato membership is actually not that great a step,” Miapetra Kumpula-Natri, an MEP for Prime Minister Marin’s Social Democrats, told me. “Of course, the decisive factor was that we have a very unpredictable neighbour,” she added, referring to Russia.
A recent poll for Yle, Finland’s national broadcaster, found that support for membership of the alliance among Finns has soared to 76 per cent in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, with just 12 per cent opposed. Public opinion had previously been strongly against Nato membership. In 2016, a previous poll found that just 22 per cent would support joining the alliance, while 55 per cent were opposed.
Much of Helsinki’s current military thinking is geared towards repelling a Russian attack on the country. Finland was one of the few European capitals not to significantly dial down its military spending after the end of the Cold War. Its army can expand to 280,000 during wartime. A third of the adult population – about 900,000 people – are reservists. Its artillery force is viewed as one of the most capable in Europe.
The expansion of Nato’s border with Russia may raise the chances of accidental or intentional escalation between the two powers. Christopher S Chivvis, the director of the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment, has argued that it is unrealistic for the US to shoulder a major part of the commitment to defend a new Nato member when it shares a border hundreds of kilometres long with Russia.
However, Finnish airspace and military capabilities would help repel a Russian attack on the three Baltic states south of Finland, the most likely targets of a possible assault by Moscow, thereby strengthening the alliance. “We can help defend the whole of the Baltic Sea, which covers Norway, Denmark, Germany and Poland as well as the three Baltic states. So actually the missing pieces of the puzzle are only Sweden and Finland,” Kumpula-Natri said.
Russia has threatened to retaliate if Sweden and Finland were to join Nato. Responding to Helsinki’s application, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, said Finnish membership of Nato “threatens” Russia, though he added that Moscow’s reaction will depend on how much equipment is moved to the border.
Finnish leaders, before making this announcement, will have made certain that it enjoys unanimous support from other members of the alliance. It is likely to be rapidly ratified, representing one more strategic setback for Russia. Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine to stop it joining Nato, an unlikely prospect that would have taken perhaps a decade or more to be realised. Mere months into his catastrophic war, the Russian president looks set to have catalysed the most significant security restructure in northern Europe for decades – in a stroke, doubling the length of his country’s border with the military alliance he views as Russia’s greatest threat.
[See also: The meaning of Sanna Marin's defeat in Finland's election]