Finland on the verge with NATO

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin attends a press conference in Berlin
John MacDougall/Pool via The Associated Press
Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin in a March 16, 2022, photo.

Finns today find themselves in an unusual situation. They are on the verge of a decision that could have geostrategic implications of global magnitude. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shattered one of the fundamental underpinnings of the post-Cold War world order: the prohibition against the alteration of international borders through violence. A Finnish decision to join NATO will significantly affect the world order that emerges from the carnage of Bucha.

European solidarity in the face of Russia’s barbaric assault has been impressive. Economic, trade and financial sanctions will cripple the Russian economy for years to come, effectively bankrupting the country and penalizing many of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cronies. Russian officials acknowledge that Ukrainian forces have inflicted terrible military losses and halted Russia’s advances. Western support has helped to sustain Ukraine’s morale and grit against its far larger neighbor and, in some instances, helped them turn the military tide. 

But even if Russia decided to settle for consolidating its control over Ukraine’s eastern regions, that would not be enough; as a deterrent to future aggression and a demonstration to other predatory powers of the high price to be paid for such aggression, Putin and Russia must pay an even higher price for the crime against European peace and global security.

If Western retaliation is limited to financial sanctions, when the fighting in Ukraine dies down the world essentially will return to the geostrategic status quo ante. Russia will be much poorer but will retain control over the Ukraine’s Donbas region; it will have a strengthened bond with China; will have driven a wedge between the United States and India; and will have planted several seeds of dissent within NATO, particularly through its growing bond with Viktor Orban’s Hungary. It will have suffered no territorial punishment since the war has not been fought within its boundaries. 

This must not be allowed to stand. Only a true geostrategic loss will forge a future deterrent.

Several generations of Finns have resisted the benefits of NATO membership, seeking stable security through military nonalignment. The inherent vulnerability of sharing a 1,300-kilometer border with a nuclear-armed, often bellicose adversary in possession of one of the world’s largest military forces has been a compelling disincentive. However, as Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin has said, the relationship with Russia now is irreversibly changed. Suddenly the assurance of collective security through NATO’s Article 5 guarantee seems very attractive and as many as 62 percent of Finns favor membership. 

Finland is, for its small population of under 6 million, a formidable military power, able to mobilize as many as 300,000 trained and well-equipped fighters in a matter of weeks. It would be a welcome and able force provider to NATO and could significantly help strengthen NATO’s northern flank. Although Russian officials have made ominous veiled threats against both Finland and Sweden, should they join NATO, this would be a propitious moment to do so while Russia is preoccupied on its southwestern front. If Russian military leaders remember their history, they will remember the horrible casualties they suffered in the Winter War of 1939

Finland’s application for NATO membership likely would nudge Sweden to take a similar step. The two long have said they would be out together or in together. And recent polls in Sweden show that more Swedes favor NATO membership than oppose it. Joining NATO would alter the geostrategic balance dramatically, bringing NATO right up to Russia’s border in the north, while Ukraine — regardless of the outcome of this war — will remain a hostile population on Russia’s southwest border. 

This is geostrategic asymmetry; to effectively counter Russian belligerence in Ukraine doesn’t necessarily require a Western response in the same region. NATO enlargement through Finnish membership — let alone Finnish and Swedish membership — is precisely the opposite outcome that Putin sought with his invasion of Ukraine. It would be a dramatic reversal of fortunes and would demonstrate the agility of the liberal democratic countries in applying the diplomatic element of power, well below the threshold of war, that gray-zone space in which Russia — and, for that matter, China — has been so nimble in the recent past.

Michael Miklaucic is a senior fellow at the National Defense University and the editor-in-chief of its journal PRISM.

Tags Finland NATO Russian invasion of Ukraine Sanna Marin Sweden Viktor Orban Vladimir Putin

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