Finland in NATO: A Historic Change

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 By Roberta Lajous on August 1, 2023


This article was originally published in Este País and translated from Spanish by the Council for Global Cooperation. Also in Spanish (see below)


Finland’s Social Democratic Prime Minister Sanna Marin lost the election in April by a margin of less than one per cent, but there will be no change of government until September when a coalition led by Conservative Party leader Petteri Orpo can be formed. After successfully steering her country through the pandemic and achieving a successful entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in record time, marking the end of Finland’s neutrality since independence in 1918, the youngest head of government received a setback from the electorate. Despite her charisma and commitment to achieving a carbon-neutral economy by 2035, which won her green credentials, the electorate preferred centre-right and populist right-wing parties that propose cutting public spending. 


A large majority of Finns, across all parties, are committed to supporting Ukraine in the face of Russian invasion and to strengthening its role in NATO by taking greater responsibility for its defence. Their incorporation into the military alliance was very quick because they have always had a robust defence system and, since the end of the Cold War, Finland has established close cooperation with NATO military commanders by participating in many NATO exercises. They are now bringing their expertise to bear on Arctic defence.


For many ideologues in the Western world during the Cold War, “Finlandisation” took on a pejorative character: they proposed that all countries join the US-led NATO to confront the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. The view that “you are either with me or against me” prevailed. The neutrality of Finland, Sweden and Austria was condemned by the short-sighted as at least opportunistic, if not immoral. However, neutrality allowed them to coexist with the Soviet Union and did not prevent them from strengthening their democracy and joining the European Union (EU). The current official version – still from the Social Democratic government – is that Finland was forced into neutrality. Given the current context of Russian aggression, the Finns celebrate their accession and await Sweden’s membership to complete the defence of the Baltic. But they are not alone: 68 per cent of Europeans see an attack on Ukraine as an attack on Europe.


Finland, with a border of more than 1,300 km with Russia, had to cede 15 per cent of its territory to the USSR in 1942 in order to get Soviet occupation troops to leave. It retained its sovereignty with a neutral foreign policy that also extended to Sweden, a country of which it was originally a part and whose language it shares in certain regions. In 1955, Austria declared itself neutral, once it had managed to get the Soviet occupation troops out of the country. The Soviets wanted the Austrian model for Germany, but as this was not accepted, it remained divided, with each side adhering to a military pact against the other, until the end of the Cold War. At its end, countries that had been members of the Warsaw Pact gradually joined NATO, arousing Russia’s growing discontent.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2021, justified by Vladimir Putin as a result of the existential threat posed by NATO’s expansion to 23 countries from the initial 12, has achieved the opposite effect to that intended. Two of the neutral neighbours, Montana-sized Finland and California-sized Sweden, immediately applied for NATO membership. Moreover, they strengthened Europeans’ willingness to bear the cost of their defence and not leave it to the United States. All 27 members of the European Union – 26 of which belong to or are in the process of joining NATO – see Ukraine’s defence as their own and are rushing to find new sources of energy to reduce their dependence on Russia. Finland prides itself on its transformation to a green economy – aided by its huge forest area – which means it is not dependent on Russian hydrocarbons unlike other European countries, such as Germany.


General de Gaulle declared in 1962 that Europe would be the centre of world power when it acted in coordination from the Atlantic to the Urals. The first step proposed by the General has been accomplished with the Franco-German reconciliation, but the Gaullist proposal will have to wait for a post-Putin stage for Russia to participate in European institutions as it dreamed of at the end of the Cold War, when it joined the G-7 (the group of the world’s 7 largest economies), which for several years was called the G-8, and established collaboration with NATO. 


In 1997, George Kennan, the author of the USSR containment theory, the backbone of US foreign policy since 1945, declared that NATO expansion would be “the biggest mistake in US policy since the end of the Cold War”. Whether NATO expansion or Russia’s aggressive behaviour was at the root of the current war will be debated for decades to come. The fact is that there is an ongoing war in Europe that threatens world peace and has allowed conventional weaponry to be tested on European soil. Weeks ago, NATO mobilisation exercises were conducted on Finnish territory. As I write this, Germany is coordinating multi-member air exercises on its territory while the rest of Europeans are asking it to take on a greater role in national defence. It will be necessary to analyse the German defence strategy published a couple of days ago.


It has not been easy for the Global South to choose between the two warring sides. China has chosen to maintain its friendship with Russia on a declaratory level while benefiting from the global realignment caused by economic sanctions on the aggressor country and making it its supplier of raw materials. For India and Africa, with a recent colonial history, it is difficult to accept Europe as the embodiment of the values of democracy and respect for human rights. Brazil seeks to regain Latin American leadership with a peace proposal that has not been taken seriously, while the rest of the region’s countries consider that they have no dog in the fight. Mexico has made a dignified condemnation of Russian aggression against Ukraine in the UN Security Council but refuses to apply sanctions despite its privileged trade partnership with the other two North American countries committed to the defence of Ukraine.


NATO members’ commitment to Ukraine, despite the risk and cost involved, will allow the war to drag on as long as their political determination allows. If they are able to prolong the conflict indefinitely, they could so wear down Russia’s political system as to accelerate internal change. We should not forget that the Star Wars, initiated by President Ronald Reagan, as absurd as it seemed, forced the Soviet Union to such great expense that it disintegrated. Out of it came new countries which, like Ukraine, have been threatened by the aggression of Russia, which refuses to lose its former empire. We are living through the transition from a world that has not yet died and another that has not yet emerged. Everything seems to indicate that we are moving from a unipolar to a multipolar world. The painful reconfiguration of global power could help NATO strengthen but keep its role limited to the defence of member states and abandon the extra-regional presence it had, for example, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Europe and North America’s trade relationship with China will also have to be reconfigured and cannot suddenly be ended. In Finland there is talk of de-risking the relationship with China, rather than de-coupling, as has been proposed in recent years. What is important is that the transition serves to strengthen the rules-based world, as conceived with the creation of the UN and as committed by the great powers.


Original link (in Spanish):

[This article was translated from Spanish by Vitor Emmanuel Maia Souza, Research Director, Studies on Third Wold and Global South and Program Director, Latin America Program at the Council for Global Cooperation]