Finland and NATO: When push came to shove

By | May 26, 2022

Henri Vanhanen writes:

For many, Finland’s decision has represented a sudden change of heart regarding military alignment. While NATO membership certainly did not seem likely in the early months of this year, Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine left Finland with no other option. Yet, applying for NATO membership was also something Finland was ready to do if push came to shove, and this was enabled by three factors.

Firstly, since 2004, Finland had formally practised a ‘NATO option policy’, meaning that Finland could seek to become a member of the Alliance if circumstances demanded it. As Finland enters what may be a rapid process to join NATO, none of this would be possible without decades of well-established compatibility with the Alliance through partnerships, defence material procurement and crisis-management operations participation. The decades-long policy of intentionally removing the technical obstacles to joining the Alliance laid the foundation for the so-called NATO option, which in turn provided the political backbone for applying for membership when the time came.

Secondly, Finland’s NATO ambitions have also been enabled by events beyond its own control and influence. Ultimately, the redemption of Finland’s NATO option was made possible by the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians. If Russia had succeeded in marching into Kyiv in days, Finland’s current position would have been very uncomfortable: a confident Vladimir Putin at the height of his power would have been a formidable threat to Finland.

In other words, Ukraine opened Finland’s NATO window, and its resistance continues to keep it open. As Russia is stretched in Ukraine, its ability to prevent NATO’s enlargement is significantly limited at the moment. More importantly, the West’s initial hesitation towards enlargement faded as the war dragged on. Fear of escalation transformed into a willingness to inflict strategic losses on Russia, and the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO began to suit this goal. Fortunately, instead of becoming the main stage of the crisis, Finland’s NATO ambitions turned out to be a side-event of great power politics.

Thirdly, and importantly, there is the undisputed significance of Finnish popular opinion. Without the sharp change in public opinion, and with it the shift of most parliamentary parties in favour of NATO membership, the room for the Finnish political leadership to take the decisive step towards membership would have been narrow. The strong support from the people and Parliament also serves as a signal of democratic validity, something a NATO applicant must clearly indicate. This also meant that Parliament had an important role in the process, as it formed a legitimate alternative to a risky referendum process with the potential for foreign intervention. [Continue reading…]

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