An expert's point of view on a current event.

Putin’s Nordic Shadow

Why Finland and Sweden need to stop pretending they are neutral and join NATO already. 

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

HELSINKI — Discussing Finland's relationship with Russia, its much larger and increasingly aggressive neighbor, a senior official in the Finnish government reverted to a common local aphorism. "Let's not make a big number out of it," he said over drinks at a bar in the Finnish capital.

HELSINKI — Discussing Finland’s relationship with Russia, its much larger and increasingly aggressive neighbor, a senior official in the Finnish government reverted to a common local aphorism. "Let’s not make a big number out of it," he said over drinks at a bar in the Finnish capital.

This tendency of Finland to keep its head down, stay out of trouble, and not make a fuss is not difficult to understand. Finland is a sparsely populated, geographically large, yet isolated country of just 5.5 million. And living next door to Russia — which occupied it for over a century in tsarist times — has conditioned Finns to be wary of doing anything that could be interpreted as a provocation.

During the Cold War, Finland adopted a crafty policy of studied nonalignment. In 1948, it signed a treaty with the Soviet Union allowing it to stay independent and trade extensively with the West, provided that it did not join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). That condition of coerced neutrality was so pronounced that it inspired a pejorative term in the study of international relations, which foreign-policy wise men such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski have dredged up as a solution for Ukraine, another country that borders Russia: "Finlandization."

Yet in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the once-dormant debate about joining NATO is heating up in both Finland and its Nordic neighbor, Sweden. Both countries cooperate extensively with the Atlantic alliance (for instance, deploying troops to Afghanistan and the Balkans) and are members of NATO’s "Partnership for Peace," a bilateral program that offers extensive defense coordination. What it does not offer, however, is the most crucial benefit of actual NATO membership: protection under Article 5 of the organization’s charter, which deems an attack on one member as an attack on all. Indeed, Norway’s defense minister said in 2013 that she was not certain her country would come to Sweden’s defense in the event of an attack.

This month, Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen raised the possibility of NATO membership, the mere discussion of which is something of a taboo in Finnish politics. "My personal opinion is that Finland should belong to NATO. It would strengthen Finland’s position," he said, acknowledging that this position placed him "in the minority." But Katainen was speaking only for himself and his center-right political party, the only one in Finland that supports NATO membership. The broad coalition government of five parties that he leads does not have a position on joining NATO. And Katainen spoke out on the issue as a lame duck: The previous week, he had announced plans to resign.

Most Finns oppose joining NATO. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Crimea, a poll found that fewer than 20 percent supported becoming a member of the alliance, reported the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. And though that number increased to about one-third after Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, it occurred as part of a broader phenomenon of polarization that saw a sizable dip in undecideds. "Whenever something happens, both sides go into their own holes," explained Patrik Gayer, an advisor to the Finnish defense minister and a proponent of NATO expansion.

Part of the reason, Gayer said, is that the "ghosts of Finlandization" still haunt the Finnish public. Although the country maintained a degree of sovereignty far greater than any Warsaw Pact country during the Cold War, it was still heavily influenced by its powerful neighbor, which quietly exercised a veto power over the composition of Finnish governments, induced a culture of self-censorship in the media, and essentially prevented Finland from having an independent foreign policy. Although most Finns would be loath to admit it, a sense of trepidation about provoking Russia remains widespread, nearly 25 years after the Cold War’s end. Among the Finnish political class, support for NATO is popular almost exclusively among ex-politicians (like former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari), or those on their way out the door, like the current prime minister, who feel more comfortable raising the issue once they no longer have to answer to the public. This year, a group of five former defense ministers signed an article supporting NATO membership.

At the same time, however, opposition to NATO expansion is soft. Polls indicate that a majority of Finns would support NATO membership were the country’s political leaders to come out decisively for it. Among the country’s military brass, the debate is largely over; 66 percent of military officers want the country to join the Atlantic alliance. "Things will change the day when the leadership says that we should join the NATO — that is very obvious," Carl Haglund, Finland’s pro-NATO defense minister, said in April at the Lennart Meri Conference, an annual security forum held in Tallinn, Estonia.

Unsurprisingly, many Finns fear that joining NATO could prompt reprisals from Moscow. "There is a very deep sense against antagonism," explained Gayer, who pointed to a national condition of not "want[ing] to pick sides." Finland receives a significant portion of its energy from Russia, and many worry that Moscow would cut it off to spite Helsinki. The senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, raised the prospect of Russia suddenly discovering impurities in Finnish milk (which has a large Russian export market) or closing off its airspace to Finnair (which has heavy traffic to Asia), should the country make a move toward NATO membership.

But such fears may well be misplaced. Arguments that Russia would react strongly to a Finnish bid to join NATO are predicated on the assumption that Moscow does not already consider Finland to be part of the West. Russian actions, however, suggest that it does. In 2013, the Finnish Foreign Ministry’s communications network was hacked, presumably by Russia, and Helsinki has long been an intelligence target for Moscow’s spies. According to Riho Terras, Estonia’s chief of defense, there exists "no neutrality for Russia. You are either with us or against us. The nations along the Baltic Sea should take that into consideration." Gayer concurred: "Once we picked the EU, we picked our side," he said.

Moreover, Finland already leans on NA
TO for support, whether or not it’s a formal member. "If you want to have a meaningful defense, a small country cannot afford it, simply," said Henrik Lax, a former Finnish presidential candidate. The Finnish suffer from a false sense of security, he said, stemming from their being a "hostage of misinterpretation of their history. Too many think that [during the years of Finlandization] it was our own smartness that gave us a margin to act, a space for maneuver in the international arena. Yes, we were able quite skillfully to use the situation. But fundamentally NATO was behind us.… Not invading Finland was [Russia’s] price to not have NATO on its borders. If the Soviet Union had threatened us militarily, Sweden would have joined NATO."

While it doesn’t border Russia, Sweden would similarly be reliant on NATO in the event of an attack. In December 2012, the head of Sweden’s military caused a stir when he revealed that without external support, Sweden would only be able to defend itself against an invading force for a week at most, and, even then, only Stockholm and its environs would be protected. At the Meri conference, Karlis Neretnieks, the former chief of operations at the Swedish Central Joint Command, decried the "deplorable state" of the Swedish armed forces. Most Swedes seem to agree with his assessment; one 2013 poll found that a whopping 83 percent of those surveyed do not think the country could defend itself in the event of an invasion. Yet this widespread recognition of the country’s vulnerability exists simultaneously with a plurality of Swedes opposing NATO membership. Presumably, most people just don’t think that Russia would ever try to attack them — or that joining the alliance might invite such an eventuality.

Like the Finns, Swedes trust that their policy of official neutrality is what has long kept them safe. Yet this belief rests on a misinterpretation of history that mirrors that of their Finnish neighbors. Although the country was formally neutral during the Cold War, it cooperated extensively with NATO — cooperation that was kept secret so as not to inspire domestic criticism or antagonize the Soviets. Diplomatic cables released several years ago by WikiLeaks revealed that Sweden signed an intelligence-sharing agreement with the United States and Britain in 1954, and documents unveiled by fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden show how Sweden has engaged in espionage against Russian targets at the behest of Washington.

Stefan Olsson, head of the Stockholm Free World Forum, a Swedish think tank, told me that from "a pure military point of view there is absolutely no rational reason whatsoever why Sweden shouldn’t join NATO. If Sweden wished to be nonaligned for real and be able to withstand a major armed attack on its own, Sweden would have to increase its defense spending tenfold." Given that Sweden is not about to do that, he said, it should put aside its historical baggage and join the alliance. That would mean, ideally, joining with Finland "to keep enough forces to make the alliance strong enough to deter Russia from any military operations in the Baltics. Then we could actually use the small, highly trained, and well-equipped army that we are building right now."

As for NATO itself, many of its members, particularly those in the Nordic region, would welcome Sweden and Finland with open arms. Having both countries in the alliance would further secure the Baltic Sea — which is surpassed only by the straits of Hormuz and Malacca in terms of the volume of energy transports that pass through it — by turning the sea into a "NATO lake," in the words of Jan Joel Andersson, a senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Finland’s and Sweden’s current nonmembership creates what analysts have termed a "gray area," a region that exists without protection from a military alliance such as NATO and is thus vulnerable to potential foreign intervention.

Like inserting the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, many European security experts want to fill in these gray areas and erase any doubt in Russian minds that the Baltic region could ever be up for grabs. "We hope the Finns and Swedes enter a serious discussion on NATO membership. It will fill a hole in a common dike," said Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, a former Danish foreign minister. He made light of the two countries’ membership in the Nordic Battlegroup, a component of the European Union’s toothless Common Security and Defense Policy, which some Swedes and Finns argue offers sufficient protection against any future threat. The insignia for this unit is a lion noticeably missing a certain appendage, Ellemann-Jensen slyly observed, a sign that nothing short of full NATO membership will deter Russian aggression.

James Kirchick is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.” Twitter: @jkirchick

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