From neutrality to buffer: Finland in the NATO

The current crisis is no longer a spiral of security dilemma, it is a “vortex” that draws everyone and everything in without the possibility of thinking anything through in a substantive and calm manner. In this new (hopefully cold) war without gentlemen, without statesmen with a view to the future and new ideas and without clear rules, Finland – a previously neutral country, will now turn into another buffer state in Eastern Europe on the side of the United States.

This article was published on 17 May 2022 at the Czech site !Argument.

Finland is unsurprisingly moving towards membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Last week, both President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) supported the NATO application, while most political factions in parliament, including the radical left, were also in favour.

NATO membership now has historically record support from the Finnish public, which has made the current political decision and the pro-Atlantic campaign easier.

The domestic debate, framed by the war in Ukraine, has been intense, emotional and short: on Sunday 15 May, President Niinistö officially announced the application to join NATO, and it now remains to be confirmed by parliament. A country with a relatively long tradition of neutrality and a long land border with Russia has thus reassessed its security situation in a matter of months and reacted “lightning fast” to the Russia-Ukraine war.

Russia has repeatedly reacted negatively to the Finnish (and Swedish) prospect of alliance membership, considering them a “threat” to Russian security. Vladimir Putin has already let it be known that this is an issue to which Russia will respond (update: he did not immediately label entry as a threat, however).

In other words, Finland’s decision will likely lead to Moscow seeing its neighbor as another danger (or euphemistically just a problem), which will change the overall situation in their shared neighborhood, including the Baltic Sea. By joining the alliance, Russia’s border with NATO will double, which is not negligible information.

It should be added, however, that it was Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade neighbouring Ukraine and violate its sovereignty by military means that immediately provoked a Finnish response or provided strong ad hoc arguments to Finnish Atlanticists.

Finland considers the current Russia a threat, and Russia will now consider Finland as a NATO member a threat again. As recently as 2018, Finland’s current President Niinistö claimed that if Finland became a NATO member, Russia would see Finland as an “enemy”: “The Russians have made it clear that when they look beyond the border, they see the Finns. If we were in NATO, they would see enemies. That is their attitude.” This attitude of Moscow has not changed, but Finland’s policy has changed – being Russia’s enemy now guarantees Finland’s security.

Sanna Marin, the youngest Prime Minister, leads her country into joining a military alliance after decades of neutrality. Photo: Pekka-Jukka Flander, CC-BY-ND.

But Finland’s flirtation with NATO membership is not just a matter of a few months of war in Ukraine.

It is a longer process that was most recently re-established a few months ago (October 2021) in the context of Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to the two Nordic countries. The Secretary General was disingenuously pleading for their entry into NATO and hinting at the benefits of Article 5 membership before Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine militarily. The mantra of a country’s right to free choice also resonated in Finland, which in practice today means that countries close to Russia decide on their security without regard to Russian interests (which are seen en bloc as a manifestation of Moscow’s imperial appetites, a “zone of influence” to which Russia has no claim).

In Finnish politics, since the end of the Cold War, there have always been parties and politicians who have long supported the prospect of alliance membership. In the last decade, membership was first debated after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 in the context of Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. Even then, public support for membership increased, only to fizzle out again later with the routinisation of the issue. Finland did increase military cooperation with NATO, but ultimately did not join NATO after Crimea.

The end of the Cold War and EU membership changed the setting of the country, whose neutrality built on the so-called Pääsikivi-Kekkonen line was gradually fading. Finland’s neutrality was the child of two factors: the lost Continuation War (Jatkasota, 1941-1945) and the Cold War with its “gentlemanly” agreements (i.e. agreements that respected and formed the rules of the game of conflict) and respect for the horror of nuclear weapons. While Finland tried to maintain its status as Russia’s exceptional northeastern neighbor with its relatively calm and pragmatic tone and by maintaining direct contacts and investments in Russia, this alone was not enough.

Russia’s perception of Finland has also changed considerably. Recent Finnish research has shown quite clearly that Russian diplomacy and policymakers do not see Finland as a state that can play the role of a neutral mediator in the EU or the wider West. Paradoxically, this research also recommended taking Russian interests seriously when conducting dialogue.

Since the Helsinki Conference, Finland’s status has objectively changed, and the current move will effectively seal this longer evolution for Finland.

In Finland, joining NATO is now seen as a security guarantee, while at the same time the country’s decision contributes to the current profiling of the alliance as an already overtly anti-Russian security structure. For NATO, Finland and its territory will be a strategic gain that will ‘strengthen the security of the alliance’. From Helsinki in recent weeks, the message is that the Russian-Ukrainian war has dramatically changed Finland’s security and foreign policy environment. Quite common is the very “un-Finnish” argument that the decision cannot be delayed (the Finnish mentality is manifested by long deliberation according to the proverb “measure twice, cut once”), that just now is the right moment (understandable, given the conjuncture of public opinion). The question of a referendum on NATO membership has somehow been put on the back burner.

The main argument is therefore Russia’s recent actions. In the broader context, Helsinki has actually sided with the interpretation claiming that NATO’s expansion into Russia’s strategic proximity was the right process from the beginning to prevent the planned, long-term imperial aggression of Putin’s Russia, i.e. to secure against Russia. The interpretation that Russian aggression was the result of an expansion that deliberately ignored Russian interests was effectively dismissed as irrelevant. The war is seen as a unilateral act of Vladimir Putin essentially expressing Russia and its conquest. Moscow, however, has vehemently contributed to this with its fatally flawed handling of the situation, which has taken the wind out of the sails of all advocates of a pragmatic policy towards Russia, or a policy based on compromise, listening to each other, diplomatic solutions to problems and conflicts and an inclusive concept of European security, in which all participants would participate without excluding some and integrating others.

Finland’s intention to join NATO is thus a manifestation and continuation of the systemic security crisis in Europe that has been gradually maturing since the mid-1990s.

The crisis that has escalated with the conflict over and in Ukraine into the current war that threatens the peace of Europe and the world. It is an expression of negative dynamics, but it will hardly stop the escalation, only perhaps from a narrowly local perspective and psychologically reinforcing a kind of sense of security (we are not alone) in the neighbourhood of the now inscrutable Russia.

Also, what alternatives did Helsinki have in the end, when the whole concept of European security today proclaims another version of T.I.N.A. (there is no other alternative)? The current crisis is no longer a spiral of security dilemma, it is a “vortex” that draws everyone and everything in without the possibility of thinking anything through in a substantive and calm manner. In this new (and hopefully cold) war without gentlemen, without statesmen with a view to the future and new ideas and without clear rules, Finland will now also be on the side of the United States. This will turn a previously neutral country into another buffer state in Eastern Europe. Whether this will be a promising basis for Finnish and European security remains to be seen. There are plenty of reasons for doubt.

P.S. Russia’s 2014 security doctrine considers the military threat to be: ‘Strengthening the power potential of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its global functions, carried out in violation of international law, bringing the military infrastructure of NATO member states closer to the borders of the Russian Federation, including through further expansion of the bloc…’

Cover photo: Finnish defence forces parade, 4 June 2017. Source.

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