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As Finland Watches: From Alignment to Alliance?

It is unusual for Finland’s defense policy to attract much international attention. But this is turning out to be an unusual year. As Russia surrounds Ukraine with military forces, media outlets and pundits across the transatlantic space and elsewhere have been speculating about whether Finland is considering joining NATO. Even President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have aired the possibility of Finland joining the alliance. Is Finland on the verge of making such a strategic shift? Probably not.

As opposed to the vivid international speculation, Finnish leaders have emphasized the continuity of the country’s current policy. Rejecting Russia’s recent demands to stop the further enlargement of NATO, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö pointedly said in a speech to mark the new year that Finland, if it so chooses, could apply for NATO membership. Some commentators took this to mean that Finland would seek to join NATO should Russia invade Ukraine, coming as it did on the heels of a similar statement by the president weeks before. But these voices ignore that in the same speech Niinistö also said that “Finland’s foreign and security policy line remains stable.”

Finland has already de facto aligned its defense policy with NATO, having taken on more strategic importance since Russia’s 2014 assault on Ukraine. In fact, despite its non-allied status, Finland is already an integral security player in Northern Europe, with capabilities that contribute to Western deterrence efforts in the region. Observers of European security would benefit from a deeper understanding of Finland’s role in Northern European security, the underpinnings of Finnish defense policy, and the significance of NATO to Finland and vice versa.

The Integral Role of Finland in Northern European Security

Finland, with its 830-mile border with Russia, straddles the Baltic Sea region and the High North — right on Russia’s doorstep. Since Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Baltic Sea region is routinely spoken of as a NATO-Russia flashpoint. The strategic importance of the European Arctic has also grown significantly in recent years.

These developments in European security have bolstered Finland’s significance. Its geographic position and the strength of its armed forces make it an essential player when considering a conflict with Russia. At a minimum, Finland’s ability to defend its own territory would help NATO, and especially the United States, to carry out its collective defense mission in Northern Europe.

Unlike most European countries, when the Cold War ended Finland decided to maintain a sizeable army. The wartime strength of the Finnish Defense Forces is 280,000 personnel — a striking contrast to its 23,000-personnel peacetime posture. Moreover, Finland has one of the largest and best-equipped artillery forces in Europe, with 1,500 artillery pieces and precision-strike capabilities. In December 2021, Finland decided to replace its F/A-18 fleet with 64 F-35s, which, when operational, will significantly enhance Finland’s defense capability. The fact that the United States has been willing to sell the country sophisticated weaponry is seen as a signal that a capable Finland serves American security interests in Northern Europe.

While Finland is not a member of any alliance, its security policy is rooted in the understanding that it cannot isolate itself from a European conflict. Finland’s main and minimal contribution to allied efforts would be the protection of southern Finland from a Russian incursion, thereby denying Moscow the use of Finnish territory or airspace to operate against its Baltic neighbors. But Finland could do more. In wartime, certain NATO allies would likely seek to use Finland’s airspace to defend the Baltic countries — a request that would be hard to deny given Finland’s dependence on the West. Finland is reliant on the flow of trade and supplies from the West across the Baltic Sea, and would need its partners’ assistance in a conflict to keep these crucial lines of communication open and, if necessary, to find alternative routes through Sweden or Norway.

In the European Arctic, Finland offers NATO a buffer zone defending the northern coast of Norway — a reality that Finnish defense planners readily admit. The control of northern Norway is critical to the alliance in order to guard the Norwegian Sea and passage to the northern Atlantic, which are in turn critical to America’s ability to reinforce the European theater. In a war, Russia could try to gain control of northern Norway and use it as a spring board to disrupt the flow of U.S. reinforcements to Europe. Thus, from NATO’s point of view, Finland’s determination to defend its territory is linked to the defense of the North Atlantic.

Understanding Finland’s Alignment with NATO

Before 2014, Finnish cooperation with NATO was primarily concerned with crisis management. But Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014 changed things. Finland intensified military cooperation with Sweden and several NATO allies to encompass territorial defense and regional security. The above-mentioned security dynamics in Northern Europe rendered Finland an interesting partner from the perspective of several NATO allies, who, after years of soul searching, were returning to the alliance’s traditional core task: collective defense.

Finland now boasts deeper defense relationships with Sweden and Norway, as well as with the United States and the rest of NATO. Geography and shared threats make Sweden and Norway natural partners for Finland, and the United States is an indispensable partner in terms of potential wartime reinforcements. The Enhanced Opportunities Partnership with NATO also grants Finland access to the alliance’s demanding exercises, developing Finland’s interoperability with allied forces.

Although the scope of these defense partnerships varies, Finland’s defense cooperation policy has explicit aims, which were most recently outlined in the government’s 2021 defense report. This document highlights that defense cooperation, inter alia, raises the threshold against aggression and creates prerequisites for providing and receiving political and military assistance. The report also clearly indicates that Finnish peacetime cooperation creates a basis for collaboration during emergency conditions.

Finnish policymakers have clarified the principles of this defense cooperation policy by highlighting the likely importance of ad hoc coalitions in a European conflict and the decisive role of shared interests in operational cooperation. In 2017, Niinistö pointed out that in case conflict breaks out, coalitions can take shape without treaty applications. The following year, the then defense minister stated in a speech that Finland hopes that its strong defense forces make it an interesting partner who others want to cooperate with, and that Finland’s readiness to defend itself benefits its partners. That said, Finnish decision-makers understand that NATO has no formal commitment to assist Finland in the event of a conflict. Given its extensive military cooperation and the willingness to prepare for operational collaboration in wartime, Finland’s policy cannot be called neutrality or military non-alignment. But Finland is not allied either. How could its status be portrayed, then?

In one of the classics of international relations alliance literature, Glenn Snyder distinguishes an alignment from an alliance. An alignment, he argues, occur when a group of friendly states, based on mutual interest and threat perceptions, coalesce to prevent and, if necessary, to counter aggression from a shared adversary. Alliances, per Snyder, are merely formalizations of existing alignments.  Finland is aligned but not allied with NATO. Finland and most NATO allies share a potential adversary — Russia — and the aim of their respective policies is to deter Russian aggression in Europe. Finnish policymakers increasingly see effective Western deterrence as the best way to ensure that Finland never ends up being a party to a military conflict. Moreover, and importantly, Finland and its partners are developing prerequisites for conducting joint operations in wartime. Due to decades-long efforts, Finland’s interoperability with the United States, for example, is high, and the two countries currently aim to achieve genuine “day-zero interoperability” for operations in Northern Europe.

Deep cooperation notwithstanding, Finland has not formalized its alignment by joining NATO. This has ramifications for Finland’s position. The deterrent effect of a formalized treaty is stronger than the impact of alignment. Moreover, Finland is not under the American nuclear umbrella, making it, at least in theory, more susceptible to nuclear coercion. Lastly, Finnish-NATO/American interoperability is not yet seamless, but different measures, such as more regular table-top exercises, have been envisioned to help close the gap.

NATO Is Still an Option

This all invites the question: If Finland has already aligned its defense policy with the transatlantic alliance, why is it not making things simpler and just applying for NATO membership? There are at least three reasons why Finland’s unorthodox security arrangement is likely to endure.

First, Finnish public opinion remains against NATO membership. Things may be changing, though. Opposition to membership has steadily declined for several years, although the opponents still retain the upper hand in public surveys. Interestingly, a recent poll showed that although most Finns are hesitant to join NATO now, they could support joining the alliance in the future. However, only two out of 10 parties in the Finnish parliament — one large, the other small — currently support NATO membership, and there is no real pressure from the public to change Finland’s course. Moreover, Finland is a consensus-seeking society, and strategic shifts such as joining a military alliance are not likely to take place without broad political support.

Secondly, the Finnish leadership sees the country’s current status as a useful tool for maintaining the delicate regional status quo and preventing escalation in Northern Europe. Since 2014, NATO allies and Finland have found a functional, non-escalatory way to intensify cooperation. Preserving regional stability has been a lodestar of Finland’s foreign policy for decades, and Finnish politicians are hesitant to rock the boat. Moscow’s approach to NATO is currently outright hostile, and a decision to seek NATO membership could lead to Russian coercive countermeasures against Finland, potentially destabilizing the whole Baltic Sea region.

Moscow’s precise response to a Finnish NATO bid is hard to predict. It would likely use many means simultaneously, ranging from coercive diplomacy to economic pressure, such as harassing or restricting Finnish companies operating in Russia or banning certain Finnish goods. Retaliatory economic measures could be painful to the Finnish economy, as Russia is the fifth biggest destination for Finnish exports. Other measures could include the weaponization of migrant flows — which Finland has already experienced. Cyber operations targeting Finland’s critical infrastructure are also possible. The use of military force against Finland would nevertheless be highly unlikely. Rather, Russia would probably enhance its force posture in Finland’s vicinity. Broader regional consequences could include military saber-rattling in and around the Baltic Sea — something that the area witnessed in the immediate aftermath of the initial outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict.

Thirdly, there is a strong consensus in Finland on maintaining a functional relationship with Russia despite grave disagreements concerning European security. Finland’s peculiar small-state realism has traditionally put a strong emphasis on reassuring Russia about Finland’s friendly intentions. Moreover, regular interaction between Niinistö and Russian President Vladimir Putin has given Finland a decent grasp of the Kremlin’s thinking, making it a useful interlocutor in the eyes of major players like the United States, Germany, and France. Furthermore, Russia’s force posture close to Finland’s borders is limited, and Russia has not been as antagonistic with Finland as it has with Sweden and Norway. A Finnish bid for NATO membership would shake the foundations of its Russia policy, which is a genuine — but not necessarily insurmountable — concern for its policymakers.

Be that as it may, Finland’s current policy is not set in stone. There are conceivable paths to NATO membership in the coming decade. A first avenue would be a Swedish decision to seek membership in the alliance. Sweden’s membership could jeopardize the future of deep bilateral defense cooperation, making Finland’s position as the only non-allied Nordic-Baltic country politically untenable. Decision-makers in Helsinki and Stockholm know this, and seeking membership together would be the sensible course of action.

Secondly, persuasion from NATO, and particularly from the United States, for Finland to join the alliance could alter Helsinki’s calculations. Hitherto, NATO allies have been agreeable to developing cooperation without treaty obligations. If this approach changed, or if there were a real risk of NATO closing its door for good, Finnish leaders could be ready to hand in the application. The instrumentalization of the option to join NATO is a crucial part of the Finnish security policy doctrine, and it is used as a “soft deterrent” against Russia — like Niinistö did in his new year’s speech. If NATO closed its door, Finland would see its options diminish.

Another possible path to getting Finland into NATO would be a change in Russia’s policy vis-à-vis Finland. Should Moscow take on a more aggressive posture, Helsinki might come to see joining the alliance as its best option. Russian leaders probably understand this, and it is likely the chief reason for their pragmatic policy towards Finland.

Ultimately, Finland’s potential NATO membership boils down to a cool-headed cost-benefit analysis: Would the benefits of joining NATO outweigh the risks related to the danger of regional escalation and Russian countermeasures? From a purely defense policy point of view, NATO membership would be more credible than the status quo. It would not, however, be a silver bullet. Finns are asking legitimate questions about whether a diverse alliance can reach unanimity in a crisis or whether any NATO allies besides the United States have the capacity to reinforce Finland in a conflict. Furthermore, before making any choices Finland would have to be certain that its membership bid would enjoy unanimous backing among NATO members. The timing of the potential decision would also be of the essence in mitigating escalation risks. Presently, Western-Russian ties are extremely tense, and several allies could see NATO’s enlargement closer to Russia’s borders as an unnecessary escalation. Indeed, the tenser the security situation gets, the more wary NATO members may be to accept new allies. This is something that stability-seeking Finnish leaders should be mindful of.

From the perspective of enhancing NATO deterrence in Europe, having Finland in the alliance would make strategic sense. Finland’s membership would not bring substantial new burdens for the alliance. Its self-sufficient approach to defending its territory would likely continue, and Helsinki would take its alliance obligations, including that of assisting the Baltic States, seriously. But this would not be a big difference from what Finland is already doing. Even if it were to join NATO, the other members of the alliance would not necessarily expect Finland to provide significant reinforcements in a regional conflict. Rather, Finland’s chief priority would continue to be the defense of its territory, to the benefit of its neighbors. On the other hand, if Finland and Sweden were to join NATO, this would allow the alliance to prepare operational plans for the whole Northern European strategic region. This fact should be kept in mind if the discussion on halting NATO enlargement gathers more steam in the United States and in the alliance more broadly.

Matti Pesu,Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. His research interests include Finnish foreign, security, and defense policy, Northern European security, and Euro-Atlantic security.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Airman 1st Class Viviam Chiu)

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