(Analysis) Finland Finds its Footing in NATO

Christopher Ynclán Jr

Finnish President Mauno Koivisto who oversaw the country after the Collapse of the USSR. Source:  © Kalle Kultala / Otavamedia

With significant changes within international politics, states must choose their own path forward to best adapt to their new environment. These moments often do not come very often, nor do they pronounce themselves beforehand. For Russia and the Post-Soviet states, the collapse of the former USSR brought very different policy outcomes for the various capitals of the former union. Following Russia’s aggressive actions against its neighbor, there was an avalanche of scholarship investigating where exactly things went wrong. 

While there were many such pieces since then, one particular piece has stood out by political scientist Stuart Kaufman which was written in 1996. In the article, it documents the choices that Russia could make following the union’s collapse and it details how Russian policymakers could choose a nationalist position which could potentially entail the annexation of Eastern Ukraine among other territories. While this was one of the many positions that could be taken, it is the one which came to pass. Furthermore, the nationalist position is one that Russia took within policy, but contains other positions that it carries in its identity. 

The article further details that Russian policy was often a mix of different things, the so-called liberal approach is farther than it has ever been since the late 1990s. This is especially evident with the recent death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. With this, Russia will concentrate more on the core components of its illiberal policies and identity. 

In contrast to this, Finland pivoted further toward the rest of Europe under the presidency of Mauno Koivisto. This trend continued under the leadership of Sanna Marin who helped to launch the nation’s bid for NATO ascension. Such developments detail a decision to continue to shape its destiny as it sees fit within its difficult neighborhood. However, the nation must understand the challenges it may face on the road to that objective, especially given recent Russian actions against its interests.

Seismic Shift in Finnish Foreign Policy

Flags of NATO members flying outside of the organization’s HQ in Brussels. Source: EyePress News/Reuters

Last October in 2023, there were reports of subsea infrastructure that stretched between NATO members Finland and Estonia being damaged by an unknown party within the Baltic Sea. The primary suspects of this sabotage were both that of Russia and China. Both governments denied involvement in the matter. While this may not be news straight off the press or freshly tweeted on X.com, it is important to consider the context of recent developments concerning northeastern Europe along with the challenges that they may face in the near future.

In 2023, Finland became an alliance signatory by having all other members ratify the mechanisms that lead to its entrance into the organization. Finland was not alone in its application to the alliance as Sweden also wanted to gain entrance into the region’s preeminent security partnership. Sweden’s application to NATO has not been without hurdles as they have faced opposition from both Turkey and Hungary. Although Finland is now a member within NATO and their Nordic neighbor Sweden is yet to ascend formally, the shared regional history with Russia.

Origins of Finnish Neutrality 

Former Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin attending a summit in France. Source: © Ludovic Marin, AFP

In the years leading up to the consequential Winter War, Russian officials such as Boris Yartsev urged Finnish foreign minister Rudolf Holsti and other high ranking Finns to reconsider their neutrality in light of an expansionist Germany. Yartsev also communicated that his government did not intend to wait for a German incursion into the Soviet Union. 

The underpinnings of the Winter War would come from a rejection of Soviet Demands by the Finns to cede territory for the defense of Russia against a German invasion. Finnish forces would put up a significant effort against Soviet forces, but were ultimately defeated by the Russians who were numerically advantaged. The result was the annexation of a significant amount of Finnish territory by the Soviets and the continuation of Finland as a sovereign state. Relations would further deteriorate as the Finns joined the German invasion of the USSR to regain territory lost in the Winter War. Post-War relations would be dictated by a policy of credible neutrality that would extend into the Cold War. This specific neutrality set by the 1948 treaty between the Finns and Soviets rewarded non-conflict between the great powers and provided Finland a sense of pride in the shrewd navigation of 20th century geopolitics. They put this into practice by choosing not to discuss Russia’s incursions into Central Europe during the Cold War.

Modern Threats from Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin Addressing a Conference. Source: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

Since the end of the Cold War, Finland had somewhat retained the policy of neutrality as an official position of their foreign policy, but this did not extend into the realm of economic policy. In the present year it has been nearly 30 years since Finland has been a part of the European Union. The most seismic event in recent foreign policy memory for the Finns was the Russian invasion of Ukraine which largely shifted public support in favor of attaining NATO membership. Now that they are in the club so to speak, they must come to understand the sobering view of what will face them in coming years. This threat was clearly communicated by the Russians on the prospect of weapons being moved into Finland and Sweden.

What the Finns Can Expect

While the threat of invasion by Russia is obvious, there have been indications of what sort of threats could follow Finland’s newfound membership. In a non-military context they include hybrid operations utilizing migrants to sow discord among the states of Northern Europe. Further hybrid operations come in the form of interference in the affairs of democracies through cyber operations that are tailored around Russian strategic culture. To combat these types of threats, the United States has created a counterintelligence office aimed at countering disinformation campaigns done by malign actors. This sort of organizational reforms could prove prudent to states on the alliance’s eastern flank.

The staying power of these beliefs can be shown through the examination of statements made by Boris Yeltsin to former President Bill Clinton in which he asked for Europe to be left to the Russian Federation. Such sentiments which date back to the rule of Peter the Great demonstrate the long-term hurdles faced by Finnish policymakers in the face of Russian notions of regional primacy. Regarding Putin’s invocation of the Second World War to justify his invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that this justification can be blanketed to include Finland given its complex history. While Finland’s new status as an alliance signatory, it is unlikely to be invaded, but that does not mean it will be unscathed by Russian efforts to destabilize them. With regard to the military aspects of Finland’s role in NATO, there has been much discussion over the history of past conflicts with Russia.

This scholarship predates Finland’s entrance into the alliance, but it has become more pronounced with the war in Ukraine. While there are some which highlight the potential who point out the potential contribution that Finnish forces can have in the vein of the winter war, there are caveats to be gathered.  Field Marshal Carl Gustav Mannerheim of Finland in the war was noted to have said they had 20 years of experience in the tactics of delaying the enemy. The Finns have not had 20 years to prepare and are now prepared for a game of catch up in terms of determining their role in the alliance as well as future strategic culture. Furthermore, the Russians have implemented a strategic culture rooted in decades of innovation and continues to display this in Ukraine

A key contribution that Finland has the potential to make is concerning arctic capabilities. This has been something that has been discussed by Finnish policymakers. Such a contribution can compliment current American shortcomings in the Arctic domain. However, this is not to be taken into account without Russian aims in the Arctic. The Russians have moved the region up on their list of priorities as it presents a new economic frontier and place for power projection. Economic considerations are especially attractive to the Kremlin in the wake of the ever expanding sanctions regime placed on their economy. They have completed economic projects in the past such as the Baikal Amur Mainline railroad which carried with it military implications.

Finland at a Crossroads

Lastly, Finland will have to deal with matters of intelligence at probably a heightened degree. It was just recently in which a Russian professor was detained in Estonia on suspicion of spying for Russia. During the Cold War, Berlin was known as a capital of spies because the city was a flashpoint for geopolitics as well as a demarcation between the Free World and the Warsaw Pact. Russia will view the new European landscape as malleable and therefore have a much more broad theater of operations than it did in the Cold War. Finland will have to navigate a far more difficult operating environment due to advancements in drone technology as well as signals technology. Further complicating the matter is that it can face a discontent ethnic Russian population that can be easily pushed into covert activities given the alienation caused by institutional anti-Russian sentiment.

Finland is now at a crossroads in its destiny as a sovereign state. In the past it pursued a pragmatic foreign policy rooted in neutrality to safeguard its sovereignty in the face of Soviet aggression. While its neighbor has a new name the situation remains remarkably the same. This neutrality served its purpose when the USSR collapsed and Northern European states met this event by ending the Treaty of 1948 which long guided its neutral foreign policy. To meet the occasion, Finland must take steps to address the new reality it faces and to not do so would mirror the mistakes made by Peter the Great at Narva in which he attempted to solidify his aims regardless of the advancements that had been made in military affairs. Though it cannot take on Russia alone, Finland must also meet the same determination in Arctic affairs and other domains like intelligence as it had done in its pursuit of neutrality and just as Russia has done in the pursuit of innovation during conflicts.

Suggested Readings

Lipunov, Nikita and Devyatkin, Pavel. “The Arctic in the 2023 Russian Foreign Policy Concept”.  The Arctic Institute, 2023.

Noorman, Randy. “The Russian Way of War in Ukraine: A Military Approach Nine Decades in the Making”.  Modern War Institute, 2023.

National Security Archive. “Memorandum of Conversation: Meeting with Russian President Yeltsin [Istanbul, Turkey]”. National Security Archive, 2022.

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(Analysis) Finland Finds …

by Christopher Ynclán Jr time to read: 7 min