With NATO move, is normally neutral Finland boosting security?

Almost as soon as the Ukraine war broke out, Finland, which shares a border with Russia, embraced the Western military alliance.

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin attends SAMAK summit, Co-operation Committee of the Nordic Social Democratic parties, in Stockholm, Sweden
Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin is leading her country's historic shift towards NATO membership [File: Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/via Reuters]

Finland and Sweden’s path to NATO marks a major step forward in the military alliance’s growth – and has sparked a sense of unity among many existing members.

Aside from Turkey, the United States and most other members of NATO, which has not expanded on this scale since the 1990s, have welcomed these two Nordic countries to Europe’s premier security organisation with open arms.

Although officially “neutral” for decades, Finland has long coordinated with NATO while also maintaining its traditional coexistence with neighbouring Russia.

The move comes with some risks for Finland, yet the government in Helsinki and most of the public believe that the benefits will outweigh them.

Helsinki has mostly enjoyed amicable relations with Moscow because of its past neutrality towards its neighbour.

Before November 2021 when Russia was building up troops along the Ukraine border, Finland did not perceive Moscow as a grave threat.

But as alleged Kremlin-driven disinformation campaigns and violations of air space and cyberattacks grew, Finland and other countries in the Baltic region began to rethink their geopolitical positions.

Between November 2021 and February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Moscow was pushing for “security guarantees” while demanding an end to NATO enlargement, which upset Finnish officials.

“As Russia looked more and more likely to attack Ukraine, the rational fear was that Russia was developing and imposing a new norm, a new rule, for Europe,” Edward Hunter Christie, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told Al Jazeera.

“Even though governments in Europe understood that Ukraine and Belarus have a particular significance for Moscow, nobody could be sure how extreme Moscow was becoming. Perhaps … the Baltic states could be ‘on the menu,’ maybe even Finland.”

Then Russia’s overt invasion of Ukraine resulted in Finland’s government and most of the public wanting to join NATO.

“The [Russian] invasion of Ukraine has reinforced the notion that Putin’s Russia was an aggressive revisionist power, and therefore the Cold War model of neutrality no longer applied,” explained Eldar Mamedov, a foreign policy adviser in the European Parliament, who spoke to Al Jazeera in a personal capacity.

“Even though Finland, like Sweden, already enjoyed close cooperation with NATO and high levels of military interoperability, joining the NATO means availing yourself of the ultimate security insurance – Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Finnish political class, backed by the bulk of the public opinion, decided that the moment has come to close that remaining gap.”

The shock of the Ukraine war has impacted Finland massively.

In January 2022, public support for NATO membership in Finland was at 28 percent, according to a Helsingin Sanomat newspaper’s opinion poll by Kantar TNS. At the time, that was a record high. But that figure soared to 61 percent in late March.

In response, the government led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s Social Democrat Party, which historically has not had a particularly pro-Atlantic stance, shifted its security and defence policies in favour of joining NATO.

Finland’s ascension will add 835 miles (1,345 km) to the Russia-NATO border while turning the Baltic Sea into a “NATO lake” – moves that essentially guarantee hotter tensions with Moscow.

“It is likely that there will be a long period of very limited contacts and an overall change of Russian attitude towards Finland,” said Hanna Ojanen of the University of Tampere.

Whether Helsinki allows NATO to establish military bases on Finnish soil will likely determine how Russia perceives Finland’s entry into the Transatlantic Alliance.

“The biggest risk [for Finland as a NATO member] is to be targeted militarily in case Russia chooses to attack a NATO country,” explained Christie. “For example, under a scenario of Russia attacking Estonia, or Poland, then Finland goes to war against Russia together with the entire alliance. That is the risk inherent to joining NATO. But it is balanced by the security of knowing that if Russia chooses to attack Finland, then all of NATO would come to the aid of Finland, including the United States.”

So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response has been relatively calm; he has claimed that Finland’s decision to join NATO was the Nordic country’s right.

But Putin’s response needs to be understood within the context of Moscow wanting to avoid a crisis with Helsinki, given the extent to which Russia is currently bogged down in Ukraine.

Shortly after Finland and Sweden completed accession talks with NATO officials, a Finnish public broadcaster revealed that Russia had removed about 100 military vehicles from its military base in Alakurtti, which is about 31 miles (50km) from Finland, since May – and is likely to send these vehicles into Ukraine.

As Alakurtti is Russia’s only military installation near the Finnish border, it could be argued that the ongoing Ukraine war has prevented Russia from maintaining a military presence near Finnish territory, much less amass its troops there.

Nonetheless, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has issued vague warnings about the Nordic states’ entry into NATO.

“Such options are being worked out not in the Kremlin, but in the Ministry of Defense. We have already said many times that there are relevant plans there, and work is being done to ensure our security,” he said last week.

Further down the line, Russia is expected to act against Finland and other NATO members in the Baltic Sea.

Moscow will likely continue militarising Kaliningrad while Russia will also probably “further swallow Belarus in its security sphere and engage in lower key resolve-testing provocations against NATO, like violating airspace of its members, cyberattacks, [and more]” predicts Mamedov.

On July 7, the Finnish parliament passed legislation to replace the light wooden fences along some of its border with Russia with a “sturdy fence with a real barrier effect”, underscoring how Helsinki is preparing for Russian threats.

Source: Al Jazeera