While countries were thinking about the security dynamics of Europe, Finland’s Prime Minister had insisted that her country was unlikely to join NATO even as Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian border in February. Three months and one invasion later, Finland is hurtling to join the alliance — a monumental shift for a nation with a long history of wartime neutrality and staying out of military alliances.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has responded by saying that the move would be a threat to Russia and warned of a possible retaliation. We take a look at why Finland has chosen to ditch its neutrality and what the move’s impact might be.
Why join now?
On Thursday, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto urged his country to apply for NATO membership “without delay”, with the wider government expected to formally announce its decision on Sunday.
The country, so far, has stayed away from joining such alliances as it always wanted to maintain cordial relations with its neighbour Russia. For a long time, the idea of not joining NATO or getting too close to the West was a matter of survival for the Finns. However, the change in perception and an overwhelming support to join NATO came about following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
NATO membership would strengthen the country’s security and defence system, President Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said. Niinisto has held Russian President Vladmir Putin responsible for this dramatic stand. “You (Putin) caused this, look in the mirror,” he said a day before the announcement.
Former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb said that there was no surprise in the announcement and that this was a “done deal” as soon as Russia set foot in Ukraine.
According to a public poll conducted by Finnish broadcaster YLE, 76 per cent of Finns favour joining the alliance. This number used to be around 25 per cent for years before the invasion, The New York Times reported.
Was this a long time coming?
For Finns, events in Ukraine bring a haunting sense of familiarity. The Soviets had invaded Finland in late 1939 and despite the Finnish army putting up fierce resistance for more than three months, they ended up losing 10 per cent of their territory.
The country adopted to stay non-aligned during the cold war years. However, insecurities started growing since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 as Finland brought back conscription and military spending went up.
Talking to the BBC, Historian Henrik Meinander said that Finland was “mentally prepared” to join the organisation for a long time. “In 1992, Finland bought 64 US combat planes. Three years later, it joined the European Union, alongside Sweden. Every Finnish government since then has reviewed the so-called NATO option,” Meinander added.
What about Sweden?
Sweden is likely to apply for a membership after Finland’s final call. If Finland joins, Sweden will be the only Nordic non-member of NATO. Now, unlike Finland, whose policy stance was a matter of survival, Sweden has been opposed to joining the organisation for ideological reasons.
The ruling Social Democratic Party is currently conducting a security policy review in its parliament to analyse the pros and cons of joining NATO and the results are due on Friday. In terms of public perception, the Swedes seem to be on the same page with the Finns. A poll conducted by Swedish daily Aftonbladet this week showed support for a NATO membership rise to 61 per cent, as compared to a 42 per cent in January.
What would a membership mean and will it benefit NATO as well?
Being a member of NATO will give the nations a security guarantee under the alliance’s “Article 5” on collective defence. The article essentially guarantees a military response and protection by NATO countries if any member of the organisation comes under attack.
NATO, too, has shown eagerness about Finland and Sweden’s memberships. Usually, becoming an official NATO member can take up to a year as it requires the approval of all existing member states. However, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has ensured that the countries could join quickly and that the organisation would make full security arrangements during the interim period.
Finland’s geographical location plays in its favour as once it becomes a member, the length of borders Russia shares with NATO would double and it would also strengthen the alliance’s position in the Baltic Sea.
The symbolic consequence of this cannot be ignored as well. More sovereign powers siding with the west and increasing its strength is a direct blow to Russia. Former Prime Minister of Denmark Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote in a New York Times column that if Sweden and Finland do join NATO, especially under these circumstances, “it would show Putin that the war is counterproductive and it only strengthens Western unity, resolve and military preparedness”.
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How have Russia and other countries reacted?
Russia’s foreign ministry has said that they will be forced to take military steps if the membership materialises and said that Finland should “be aware of its responsibility and the consequences of such a move”.
Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, too, took a similar stance and said that this move will be clearly interpreted as a threat and that everything will depend on how the process takes place. Dmitry Medvedev, a close ally to Putin has warned that this may prompt Moscow to deploy nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania.
However, fellow European nations and the United States have welcomed the announcement. Norway and Denmark said that they would push for a faster approval of NATO admission.
The US stated that it was ready to provide any defence support or address concerns that might arise till the membership becomes official. “We are confident that we could find ways to address any concerns either country may have about the period of time between a NATO membership application and the formal accession to the alliance,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.