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Finland Changes Leaders and Joins NATO: An Unexpected Lurch or a Logical Step Forward?

10 May 2023
By Dr Stephen Hoadley
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö. Source: NATO/

Finland’s smooth application into NATO owes greatly to its professional military forces and long association and training with NATO members. Its long border with Russia, however, dictates a much more relaxed NATO presence in the high Nordic country. 

On 2 April, Finland’s voters relegated the Social Democratic party of a popular young female prime minister to third place. They elected the National Coalition Party and the Finns Party as the top two parties in the parliament, thereby shifting the political centre of gravity from left-of-centre to right-of-centre. The runner-up Finns Party is populist and nationalistic, raising alarm among internationalists that Finland might drift in the same Euro-sceptic direction as Hungary, or become ambivalent towards NATO like France.

Two days later, Finland was formally admitted to the NATO alliance. Thus ended seven decades of neutrality as Finland became host to a new thousand-kilometre military interface between NATO and Russia. Alarmists predicted heightened tensions and risk of Russian retaliation.

Have Finns altered the fundamentals of their domestic politics and international posture and taken an unprecedented risk of provoking their giant neighbour? There is reason to be sceptical of this view. A closer look shows that there is less change here than meets the eye.

To start with politics, the proportional representation system of Finland has obliged even the most popular of parties to form coalitions with other parties to achieve parliamentary majorities and form governments. The previous government led by Social Democrat Prime Minister Sanna Marin was such a coalition. It was left-of-centre on balance, but not uniformly so, and was moderate and incremental in its decision-making. At time of writing (6 May), it remains in office as a caretaker until a new government led by Petteri Orpo can be formed, a process that may take weeks, even months. The leader of the Finns Party, Riikka Purra, has already indicated a willingness to compromise in order to join the new government in prospect.

Furthermore, the electorate of Finland, while divided by adherence to a dozen different political parties, is far from as polarised on fundamental democratic values as Italy or the US, for instance.  Commitment to social welfare and trust in institutions is high, and political leaders and officials are expected to be moderate and responsible. Commitment to stout defence is bedrock.

Finland’s public and most political parties appear comfortable with the step from neutrality to multilateral commitment. The populist Finns Party may be ambivalent about a hypothetical undermining of sovereignty, but its leader has indicated acceptance of the decision. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty may identify an attack against one as an attack against all, but it also obligates members only to consult to meet the common threat. Finns Party leaders can rationalise NATO membership by arguing that no attack will automatically draw Finland’s forces into battle without a sovereign decision made in Helsinki. In any case, it is the president, Sauli Niinistö, who exercises constitutional authority over foreign and external defence affairs, and he is expected to provide continuity and stability, damping any partisan turbulence that may erupt over Finland’s historic transition from neutrality to NATO alliance membership.

To turn now to Finland’s decision to join NATO, this was more a logical step forward than an unexpected lurch to the right. Since World War II, when it lost 10 percent of its territory to the Soviet Union in 1945, Finland has maintained a high degree of military readiness. Its neutrality was never a reflection of pacifism, but rather a prudent response to the unpredictability of its hostile giant neighbour. Conscription, maintenance of a large reserve force, and regular upgrading of weaponry, logistics, intelligence, and command-and-control capabilities were policy constants throughout the period of neutrality. On a per capita basis, Finland has maintained one of Europe’s most extensive and combat-ready military establishments. Its artillery forces are regarded as especially formidable.

But self-sufficiency did not mean isolation. Starting in the 1960s Finland deepened military interaction with the four other Scandinavian militaries, arrangements that were consolidated and formalised in Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) in 2009. In 2012, Finland began negotiations with the Nordic and Baltic states plus Netherlands and Great Britain on modalities for a Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF). This multinational formation was designed explicitly to be compatible with, and able to coordinate with, NATO. The planning process was accelerated after Putin encroached on Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022. The JEF is now reinforced by a web of recently concluded bilateral and trilateral military cooperation agreements, with more to come, putting Finland in the middle of a regional quasi-alliance enmeshed with NATO.

As a member of the European Union from 1995, Finland also participated in decision-making and planning to implement the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (from 1993) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (from 2007).  Finland has contributed over 200 troops to EU peacekeeping in South Sudan, Mali, Cyprus, Somalia, and Israel-Palestine, and coordinated planning with five EU battlegroups.

When the western Europeans and north Americans established and then expanded and elaborated the NATO alliance from 1949 onwards, Finland’s leaders followed developments closely, albeit with circumspection, as befitted their neutral posture. Discretely, Finland’s military specialists set up links with NATO counterparts, adopted NATO standards (adapted to Finnish conditions), and engaged in working-level exchanges and exercises.

In recent years Finland’s association with NATO has deepened to include not only observation, joint training exchanges, weapons procurement, and doctrinal standards, but also participation in NATO-led deployments to Kosovo and Afghanistan.

This leads to the realisation that Finland has had close working defence relations with its Nordic, EU, and NATO partners since well before 2022, even before 2014. Russian leaders may protest the optics of Finland’s new NATO membership, but will be made aware by Finnish diplomats that little has changed substantively. Finland’s government has explicitly ruled out foreign bases or nuclear weapons deployments on its soil. NATO may have gained strategic depth, but that space is to be garrisoned exclusively by Finland’s troops. NATO may have “moved east” but at the same time Finland has “moved west.”

Going forward, Finland must now negotiate with NATO the modalities of joint command and operational authority, and of tactical responsibilities. This will challenge the new coalition government of Finland, whichever parties may comprise it. But most observers anticipate a smooth integration into the institutions of NATO, building on the long history of prior cooperation and current commitment.

In conclusion, it is to be hoped that Finland’s incremental adjustments to NATO within a context of political consensus and continuity will convince the Kremlin that NATO’s inclusion of Finland, though deeply angering, will not threaten Russian security materially. Finland’s and NATO’s defence officials can reassure their Russian counterparts that the military balance at their common border has not altered significantly, and that there is no plan for NATO forces to deploy to the Finland-Russian frontier. Indeed, while Putin has complained angrily about NATO’s expansion, and threatened to move new forces to the border region, he has not escalated this issue into an existential crisis. While pessimists warn of the risk of expanded conflict with Russia, mainstream analysts believe that the risk is manageable by diplomacy and transparency, and that in the longer term Finland’s membership in NATO will have a deterrent and stabilising effect.

Dr Stephen Hoadley is an Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations, the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He is an honorary captain in the Royal New Zealand Navy. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.