A view of Russia from Helsinki

Associated Press/Martin Meissner
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin talks at the Finnish Parliament in Helsinki on May 16, 2022. Public opinion overwhelmingly supports a vote by Finland’s lawmakers to apply for NATO membership.

The euphoria in Washington, London, Berlin and several other NATO capitals that greeted the Swedish and Finnish applications to NATO has dimmed as Turkey has outlined just what it requires to vote in favor of the Nordic countries’ accession to the alliance. Ibrahim Kalin, a leading aide to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said Turkey would withdraw its objection only if Sweden ceased to support the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with weapons and equipment; extradited 28 PKK members living in Sweden; and lifted sanctions that Stockholm has imposed against it. He said Finland should extradite 12 PKK members living in that country. 

Turkey considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization, as does the United States. So far, neither Sweden nor Finland has acceded to Ankara’s demands.

While Sweden appears to be Turkey’s primary target, Finland considers itself to be almost collateral damage. Helsinki appears to have received nine, not 12, extradition requests, and acceded to two of them; a decision on a third request is yet to be made. Finnish officials consider that they have decent relations with the Turks. They have emphasized to their counterparts that the accession by Finland and Sweden would bolster NATO’s deterrent — not only in northern Europe, but throughout the alliance’s territory. They seem optimistic that a solution will be found to enable both countries to join NATO and are hopeful, though hardly certain, that Turkey will lift its objections in time for the NATO Madrid Summit that begins on June 29.  

In the meantime, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initially mild reaction to the news of Sweden’s and Finland’s decisions, Russian spokesmen have continued their threats that the West will suffer “consequences” if the two countries proceed with their applications. In particular, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the European Union said that Finland’s joining NATO would raise questions about the status of both the self-governing Åland Islands, which Helsinki administers, and a 27-mile canal running from the central Finnish city of Výborg into Russia.

Finland shares an 807-mile border with Russia — the longest in Europe — and is unlikely to respond positively to Russia’s implied threats. Indeed, it was in reaction to Russia’s aggression, most recently against Ukraine, that Finnish public opinion swung heavily in favor of NATO entry. As an astute Finnish observer pointed out to me recently in Helsinki, Russian bellicosity had the opposite of its intended effect; it stiffened Finnish resistance to Moscow’s pressure.

Indeed, in the fall of 2021 an EVA poll showed only 26 percent of Finns supported NATO entry and, in December, as Russia was massing its forces on Ukraine’s border, another poll had only 24 percent in favor of their country joining the alliance. Once Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, however, Finnish public support for NATO entry shot up to 53 percent, climbing to 62 percent in April and 76 percent in May. The consensus in support for Finnish entry was so overwhelming that when the issue was put to a vote in the Finnish parliament, 188 out of 200 members voted in favor — the largest margin in favor of any measure in Finnish history.

Moreover, both the public opinion polls and the parliamentary vote reflect a fundamental change in Finnish policy. Whereas previously, in no small part a reflection of the country’s careful relationship with the Soviet Union — which critics derisively termed “Finlandization” — and with its Russian Federation successor, Helsinki’s policy was not to break with its huge neighbor, it now concluded that Russia has prompted a break, freeing Finland to go its own way.

Finland has cooperated closely with NATO, in general, and with Washington, in particular, for nearly a decade. Having joined the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) in 1994, 20 years later — the year that Russia seized and annexed Crimea — Helsinki became a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner, the highest PfP tier. During the Obama years, Finland increasingly expanded its military cooperation with the United States, culminating in 2018 with its signing, together with Sweden, a Tripartite Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Defense.

Russian aggressiveness also spurred Helsinki to increase its defense spending from about 1.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2020 to 1.85 percent in 2021, and to 1.96 percent this year. In addition, the five-party governing coalition, with no serious opposition objection, agreed to allocate an additional 2.2 billion Euros in the five years beginning 2023, thereby bringing its percentage of GDP above NATO’s 2 percent target.    

Finnish leaders are optimistic about the country’s prospects for joining NATO. Together with Sweden, Finland will convert the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake. It adds more focus on what formerly was called NATO’s Northern Flank but in reality, given the alliance’s greater proximity to Russia, more accurately should be termed NATO’s “Northern Front.” And it will constitute yet another demonstration to the Kremlin that its attempts to bully its far smaller but determined neighbor can only backfire.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 a

Tags Finland NATO Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Russia Sweden Ukraine war

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