HELSINKI—The Turkish parliament is poised to vote on Thursday to make it official: Nearly 10 months after formally applying for membership in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland is about to become NATO’s newest member. After months of delays due to concerns from Hungary and Turkey, which ultimately led to Sweden’s membership bid being further delayed, Finland is going it alone. After the vote, and once some more paperwork is done, Finland will formally join the 30-country Western military alliance, ending decades of military neutrality.
For the Nordic country, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia and has sought to maintain a careful balance in its relations with Moscow and the West—the Cold War-era notion of “Finlandization” springs from just that high-wire act—joining NATO is a big deal. At the same time, it’s also a culmination of Finland’s security policy over the last three decades, which has kept a wary eye on Russia and in recent years held the so-called NATO option in reserve should Russia overstep.
“This is a really big change,” said Juhana Aunesluoma, an expert on the history of Finnish foreign and security policy at the University of Helsinki. Seismic though it is, the shift marks the endpoint of decades of inching toward the West and away from a nonaligned stance. “A lot of the groundwork has been done over the last 30 years,” he said.
Finland’s attitude toward Russia and national security goes back centuries: It spent more than 100 years as part of the Russian Empire, until it declared independence in 1917. Two decades later, in the Winter War, the Soviet Union invaded in an effort to annex Finland, taking some territory in the country’s east; after Finland allied with Nazi Germany during World War II, it sought to reclaim that territory. During the Cold War, Finland pursued a strategy of Finlandization, refraining from provoking the Soviets by staying out of NATO, while continuing to pursue closer relations with the West.
Since the end of the Cold War, the country’s leadership has followed a two-pronged security strategy: maintaining good relations with Russia and shoring up its national defense. Finland fostered economic and social ties with Russia, but at the same time built up a large military. In a country of 5.5 million people, Finland can call on as many as 280,000 troops and has a total of 900,000 people trained as reservists.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Finland was content to stick with its decadeslong policy of military nonalignment. Finns wanted to believe in the best-case scenario, where Russia remained an economic and diplomatic partner, but also wanted to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Finnish leadership saw no reason to join NATO at the time but reserved the right to apply for membership if the security situation with Russia changed.
“There has been this tradition that in Finland politicians do not talk about Russia as a threat,” said Johanna Vuorelma, a researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Center for European Studies. But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she added, “There’s been a massive transformation from not speaking about the Russian threat to speaking about it in very direct terms.”
The Russian invasion changed everything. All of a sudden, it was clear the best-case scenario was no longer possible—and after years of keeping the NATO option in its back pocket, Finland was ready to whip it out. Practically overnight, public opinion swung massively in favor of joining NATO, and top Finnish politicians from nearly all the country’s political parties got on board: A poll conducted by Finnish broadcaster Yle last May found that three-quarters of Finns wanted their country to join NATO, up from less than one-third in previous years.
“Finland would not have joined NATO if it were not for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Putin’s attack,” said Alexander Stubb, the former Finnish prime minister and finance minister. “This turned the opinion polls around not overnight, but over three nights, and the reason for that was obviously to a certain extent fear, but also realism: That if Putin can slaughter innocent Ukrainians like that, there’s nothing that will stop him from doing the same in Finland.”
Stubb’s party, the center-right National Coalition Party, is one of the only parties in Finland that has been pushing for years for Finland to join NATO. Other parties, while not vehemently opposed to NATO membership, preferred to keep the status quo and leave NATO as an option down the line. But today, all three of the biggest parties—the governing Social Democrats, under Prime Minister Sanna Marin; the National Coalition Party; and the populist right-wing Finns Party—support Finland’s NATO membership.
As a result, NATO has been virtually absent in the run-up to this weekend’s parliamentary elections. “If Russia hadn’t attacked Ukraine, we would have had a really very lively NATO debate. That would have been a divisive and hot issue [in the campaign],” Tuomo Turja, a Helsinki-based pollster, told FP.
In fact, the only drama surrounding Finland’s NATO bid has been from other NATO members intent on delaying the process. Last May, Finland formally submitted its application to join NATO along with Sweden, making a symbolic statement by applying together. But leaders of two NATO member states—Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—expressed concerns. Orban objected to both countries’ criticism of democratic issues in Hungary, while Erdogan took issue with how Finland and Sweden had handled Kurdish groups considered terror organizations in Turkey.
Ultimately, both Hungary and Turkey opted to move forward with Finland’s bid, while putting Sweden’s on hold for the time being. During a visit to Ankara earlier this month, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said he still considers the two countries’ bids to be complementary, even if Finland’s is approved first.
Security policy experts said that despite Finland’s overt neutrality, it has slowly but surely been integrating itself into the Western security and military framework. Finland joined the European Union in 1995, which was seen as a decisive step toward European integration, and that intensified after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Since then, and even before, Finland has increasingly collaborated with Western defense forces. In 2009, it joined the Nordic Defense Cooperation, a collaboration with Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, the latter three of which are NATO members. Last year, both Finland and Sweden participated in joint NATO exercises on the Baltic Sea.
Leading up to last February, Finland did “all the things you can do that are necessary to prepare, without establishing a formal military alliance,” said Aunesluoma, the University of Helsinki policy expert. Finnish leaders, he added, were “taking it pretty much as close to that status as you can without forming a formal alliance.”
But there’s a “psychological” element to it as well, Vuorelma said. Joining a military alliance like NATO means Finland will need to adjust its view of itself and its role in Europe, moving from a go-it-alone mentality to integrating into an alliance with dozens of other countries. And although this process has been underway for years, it’s still a big step.
“It’s about hard security, but it’s also about psychology and sort of the rethinking of the national self. Rethinking things like, what does it mean to Finland as a nation, how can we rewrite the national narrative?” she said. “Because it has been so strongly connected to the idea of being outside of any of the military alliances. And so this process, I think it will take some time.”
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