Analysis

Finland and Sweden Are Done With Deference to Russia

Even if the two Nordic countries don’t join NATO, they have signaled a new era in relations with Moscow.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg shakes hands with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg shakes hands with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto before their meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Nov. 9, 2016. THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP via Getty Images

“Handsome hero, Kaukomieli/Wandered through Pohyola’s chambers/Through the halls of Sariola/How the hero went unbidden/To the feasting and carousal/Uninvited to the banquet.” Thus goes Rune 27 of the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic—known to the rest of the world through Jean Sibelius’s Kullervo symphonic poem.

Throughout its short history as an independent nation, Finland has been left uninvited to many banquets, but these days, the doors to the Western world’s preeminent banquet, NATO, are wide open to Finland and its neighbor Sweden. And as Finland’s president and prime minister made clear in twin New Year’s messages, Finland intends to decide for itself—without consulting Russia first—on whether to join the alliance.

That’s a remarkable departure from Finland’s Cold War years, which involved consultations with the Soviet Union ahead of any crucial decision. It could, in fact, turn out to be a decisive point in the two Nordic countries’ relationship with NATO.

“Handsome hero, Kaukomieli/Wandered through Pohyola’s chambers/Through the halls of Sariola/How the hero went unbidden/To the feasting and carousal/Uninvited to the banquet.” Thus goes Rune 27 of the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic—known to the rest of the world through Jean Sibelius’s Kullervo symphonic poem.

Throughout its short history as an independent nation, Finland has been left uninvited to many banquets, but these days, the doors to the Western world’s preeminent banquet, NATO, are wide open to Finland and its neighbor Sweden. And as Finland’s president and prime minister made clear in twin New Year’s messages, Finland intends to decide for itself—without consulting Russia first—on whether to join the alliance.

That’s a remarkable departure from Finland’s Cold War years, which involved consultations with the Soviet Union ahead of any crucial decision. It could, in fact, turn out to be a decisive point in the two Nordic countries’ relationship with NATO.


Back in 1995, at a seminar in Dublin, a journalist from the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat noted “NATO is no longer a four-letter word in Finnish political discourse.” Already, things were changing. During the Cold War, Finland and its neighbor Sweden had been famously nonaligned, insisting on securing their own defenses, which they did at a considerable expense and with impressive efforts involving all parts of society. But NATO as a four-letter word? In Cold War Sweden and Finland, mentions of the alliance were indeed as toxic as foul language in polite company.

To be sure, even as it maintained its official policy of neutrality, Sweden secretly cooperated with NATO. Beginning in the late 1940s, Sweden’s social democratic government provided the United States and other NATO countries with intelligence, bought defense equipment from them, and relied on the United States to come to Sweden’s aid in the case of a Soviet invasion.

Even former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who openly disliked the United States and even joined anti-Vietnam War protest marches, kept up cooperation until he was assassinated in 1986. “But the Swedish people were the last ones to get to know anything about this,” Rodney Kennedy-Minott, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden from 1977 to 1980, told Radio Sweden in 1994.

A 2015 Gallup poll showed Finns were more willing than people anywhere else in Europe to defend their country: 74 percent of Finns said they’d be willing to defend their country with arms.

Indeed, so committed were Swedes to their country’s single-handed defense that they willingly, enthusiastically even, participated in what was known as total defense, a highly sophisticated system that provided opportunities for most people to help keep the country safe. Some 3 million Swedes, out of a total of 7 to 8.5 million citizens at the time, served in the armed forces but primarily assisted the country’s defense in civilian capacities, from operating contingency plans (including underground facilities) for vital companies to assisting military radio communications, driving vehicles to support the armed forces, and even training dogs for the military.

So it was that in 1994, when then-22-year-old Pal Jonson was called up for military service, he didn’t try to get out of it even though he was attending college in the United States (on a table tennis scholarship). On the contrary, the budding international relations scholar enthusiastically assumed his new role as a coastal ranger. And he was already convinced that his country should join NATO. “NATO gives countries a seat at the security table,” he told me. “It guarantees the trans-Atlantic link, and it helps allies standardize their armed forces.”

“If you’d asked me back then whether Albania would become a NATO member before Sweden, I would have laughed,” Jonson added, who subsequently earned a doctorate in war studies and today chairs the Swedish parliament’s defense committee. Sweden, of course, didn’t. “Our nonaligned status has more to do with national identity than security policy.”

Cold War Finland, meanwhile, couldn’t have entertained Swedish-style cooperation with the United States even if it had wanted to: The Soviet Union kept its neighbor, which it had forced to sign a so-called friendship treaty after World War II, under close scrutiny. Under the treaty, the Finns weren’t even allowed to maintain the auxiliary defense organizations that allowed Sweden to maintain its impressive total defense.

Powerful longtime former Finnish President Urho Kekkonen, in fact, was a wily operator who often put coordination with Moscow ahead of coordination with Finland’s own parliament—but his actions also provided Finland the freedom to integrate itself into Western Europe without incurring Moscow’s anger. Kekkonen and the friendship treaty notwithstanding, the Finns used the few means at their disposal to keep the country safe from the Soviets. After World War II, they instituted a policy called mental national defense to instill the population with the will to defend the country.

The policy was so successful that a 2015 Gallup poll showed Finns were more willing than people anywhere else in Europe to defend their country: 74 percent of Finns said they’d be willing to defend their country with arms. Swedes came in at 55 percent; Germany, 18 percent. Of course, citizens of a well-governed country that’s not part of a defense alliance are likely to feel more loyal to their country’s defense than those who are used to relying on the U.S. military.

But considering the stakes involved in defending a country of 5.6 million people against a direct neighbor of 146 million people, having three quarters of the population willing to pitch in shows remarkable civic commitment. In addition, in the 1960s, the Finns followed Sweden’s example and launched a national defense course for rising leaders across society. To this day, those lucky enough to be accepted to the residential course—they range from parliamentarians to business executives—study the tenets of Finnish national security and establish unique bonds that aid national cohesion.

And, of course, the Finns had their uniquely Finnish music. Finnish orchestras and choirs kept performing Finnish works even during Kekkonen’s coziest years with Moscow, almost as a collective injection of national determination. And they kept performing “Finlandia,” Sibelius’s most famous work, whose choral hymn ends with the words “Finland, arise, for to the world thou criest/that thou hast thrown off thy slavery/beneath oppression’s yoke thou never liest/Thy morning’s come, O Finland of ours!” (Listen to it here.)


When Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said in his New Year’s speech to the nation that “Finland’s room to maneuver and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership, should we ourselves so decide,” it meant immeasurably more than if, say, the president of Switzerland were to make the same statement.

And it meant more still when Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin made the very same point, noting in her New Year’s message, “we retain the option of applying for NATO membership. We should uphold this freedom of choice and make sure it remains a reality, as this is part of every country’s right to decide on its own security policies.” The two leaders made the statements days after Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, warned of “grave political and military consequences” if Finland and Sweden joined the alliance.

In the end, Finland and Sweden may decide not to apply for NATO membership. But the key point made by Niinisto and Marin is it’s Finland’s choice, just as it’s Sweden’s.

“The Russians are making us talk about NATO,” said René Nyberg, a former Finnish ambassador to Moscow and co-author of a 2016 government-commissioned report about Finnish NATO membership. “But the real issue isn’t Finnish or Swedish NATO membership; it’s Ukraine. By directing the international discussion towards NATO enlargement, Russia tries to hide the deep trauma of a country—Ukraine—it has lost.”

Finland and especially Sweden have spent many post-Cold War years agonizing over NATO membership, and the two Finnish leaders’ words are bound to influence Sweden too. “Sweden and Finland have extremely close military cooperation and even joint defense planning,” Jonson pointed out. Indeed, because the two countries would in reality only join the alliance together, sentiments in both countries matter greatly.

Last year’s annual survey of Finns’ attitudes toward national security, conducted by Finland’s defense ministry, showed 24 percent support NATO membership, while the 2020 survey showed 20 percent support it. Indeed, in recent years, surveys have hovered around 20 percent. A corresponding Swedish poll from early 2021, meanwhile, showed 46 percent of Swedes want to join NATO, up from 43 percent three years prior.

In the end, Finland and Sweden may decide not to apply for NATO membership. But the key point made by Niinisto and Marin is it’s Finland’s choice, just as it’s Sweden’s. What a liberating feeling for two nations—in particular, Finland—that have spent so many decades worrying how Moscow might react to their every military decision.

While Kekkonen felt obliged to consult the Kremlin far beyond military matters, Finland has arrived in the era of Kaukomieli, who takes action unbidden.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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