Finnish envoy pushes for quick addition to NATO amid ‘illegal’ Ukraine war

Finnish Ambassador Mikko Hautala waits to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine with members of the Senate.
J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press
Finnish Ambassador Mikko Hautala waits to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine with members of the Senate.

Finnish Ambassador to the U.S. Mikko Hautala says that quick ratification of Finland’s ascension to NATO will send a strong message that the defensive alliance is holding strong on pushing back against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Hautala is urging the international community to maintain “steel in its spine” over its support for Ukraine, warning that the Russian leader is a “rational” actor who has shown no signs of abandoning his goal of subsuming the former Soviet state.

The call comes as solidarity among the U.S., European and global partners is being tested over domestic pressures and crises, including ballooning inflation and energy prices, recession fears and political polarization. 

Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, and Sweden are on the brink of joining NATO in the wake of Moscow’s Ukrainian invasion, which began in late February.

The ambassador’s message, however, is also deeply personal. Hautala, who is fluent in Russian and Ukrainian, started his career in Kyiv in the late ’90s and early 2000s. 

“I was an exotic bird back then, studying Ukrainian,” he said in a recent interview at the Finnish Embassy in Washington.  

Before coming to Washington he served as Finland’s ambassador to Russia, from 2016 to 2020, which had him face-to-face with Putin multiple times. 

“He’s not insane. He’s a rational actor,” Hautala said, reflecting on speculation early on in Russia’s invasion that Putin had lost his mind.

“I think we have to take him seriously and I think it would be a grave mistake to underestimate him as a decisionmaker.”

The U.S. has poured billions of dollars of military equipment and heavy weapons into Ukraine, bolstered by humanitarian and economic assistance and sanctions against Russia. The support is in addition to similar efforts from European countries and democratic nations globally. 

But nearly five months into the conflict, Ukrainian and Russian forces are quickly reaching a war of attrition that regional watchers are warning could drag out far beyond the capacity for the world to maintain its focus on providing support for Kyiv. 

“I think this conflict is going to test us, what are we made of? Are we made of some steel in our spine or are we just kind of trying to smell the wind and moving behind it?” Huatala asks.

The ambassador stresses Helsinki is not joining NATO to shore up its personal defense under the Article V shared security guarantee, but is intent on pushing back on Russia’s unprovoked aggression, calling its invasion of Ukraine “illegal.”

“We are not joining or applying to NATO with the idea that we will expect somebody else to do the work. So the first question would be that, ‘can we handle this with our national resources?’ Then, if the answer is ‘no,’ then I think we would be looking for different options.” 

Finland signed a defense pact with the United Kingdom and Sweden shortly before both Helsinki and Stockholm announced their intention to join the larger alliance. 

The U.S. followed up with its own security assurances to further support the Nordic countries, but Huatala said, “The situation is actually quiet” right now, despite Putin’s previous railing against NATOs expansion — one of his pretenses for invading Ukraine.

“We don’t see any extraordinary activities in our close areas,” he said.

Russia’s war against Ukraine deeply resonates with Finns, whose country came under attack in 1939 from the then-Soviet Union in what became known as the Winter War. Similar to Putin’s Ukraine invasion, the Soviets botched their initial offensive, expecting to roll over Helsinki, but were pushed back for nearly 100 days.

While Finland mounted an impressive defense, it was forced to cede 11 percent of its territory to end the fighting, 

Huatala says that Russia’s early failures to capture Kyiv this year similarly do not reflect an inability to take over the country’s eastern regions. 

“They can adjust, they can modify their tactics. They learn from their mistakes,” he said.

The Winter War left deep scars on generations of Finns. Huatala said he couldn’t wear a red T-shirt around his grandfather because “it reminded him of the Soviet Union that took his home.”

Finland has shored up its military strength over the intervening decades, its supporters describing it as a model applicant for the NATO alliance.

President Biden hosted the Finnish president and Swedish prime minister at the White House in May, making clear the U.S. supports their joining the group. 

“The bottom line is simple, quite straightforward: Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger, not just because of their capacity but because they’re strong, strong democracies. And a strong, united NATO is the foundation of America’s security,” Biden said.  

At least six NATO member-states have ratified the accession of both Finland and Sweden to the alliance, and U.S. lawmakers are hoping to push through ratification in the Senate ahead of the August recess.

Huatala said quick ratification in the U.S. would send a “very special message” that NATO is “staying on the course, that NATO is implementing strategic decisions in order to strengthen the Alliance.”

Quick ratification by all 30 member-states is likely to set up Finland formally joining the alliance as early as next year. 

Finland has long-held a status as a valued partner country to NATO, first joining the “Partnership for Peace” program in 1994 and participating in NATO-led operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since 2014, Finland has worked closely with NATO as an Enhanced Opportunity Partner, a significant status that enabled it to advance military interoperability and have structured dialogue with the alliance. 

As a prospective member, Helsinki is set to further bolster the alliance with the acquisition of 64 F-35 fighter jets, having formalized a deal to purchase the war planes in February.

Full delivery is not expected until the end of the decade, a timeframe that leaves open whether the planes will be upgraded as Dual Capable Aircraft, with the ability to carry a nuclear weapon. 

“​We have not started that discussion,” Huatala said, adding that “this was not in our mind when we decided to buy. … I don’t think we had any idea of any nuclear dimension when that decision was made.” 

Still, Huatala said that Finland sees its NATO membership without “conditions or limitations or caveats.”

“We are joining NATO as a member-state, full stop. No kind of limitations from the start.”

Tags Finland NATO NATO members NATO membership Russia Russo-Ukraine war Sweden Ukraine Ukraine crisis Ukraine invasion Ukraine war Vladimir Putin
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