Finland May Finally Want In on NATO

Sweden is not far behind.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto and Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde bump fists.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto and Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde bump fists.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg looks on as Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (left) and Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde (right) bump fists after holding a joint press conference after their meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Jan. 24. John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Just over two months ago, the prospect of Finland joining NATO was virtually unthinkable to most in the northern European country. It had grown closer to the military alliance over the last three decades but resisted the idea of becoming a full-fledged member.

That all changed when tens of thousands of Russian troops rolled across Ukraine’s border in late February. 

Now, top Finnish leaders are edging closer to joining NATO, buoyed by a drastic turnaround in Finnish public opinion that went from opposing the move to supporting it virtually overnight. 

Just over two months ago, the prospect of Finland joining NATO was virtually unthinkable to most in the northern European country. It had grown closer to the military alliance over the last three decades but resisted the idea of becoming a full-fledged member.

That all changed when tens of thousands of Russian troops rolled across Ukraine’s border in late February. 

Now, top Finnish leaders are edging closer to joining NATO, buoyed by a drastic turnaround in Finnish public opinion that went from opposing the move to supporting it virtually overnight. 

“It has been a major change,” said Pete Piirainen, a visiting senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “We feel Russia broke the rules, broke the international system and security architecture.”

Finland’s sudden shift on NATO membership is a sea change in Europe’s security environment in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one that could drastically alter the map of the showdown between Russia and the West.

If Finland were to join the alliance, the total land border between NATO territory and Russia would more than double, from around 754 miles currently to nearly 1,600 miles. It would also extend NATO’s northern flank across the full length of the border with Russia’s strategically important Murmansk region and Kola Peninsula, where a sizable chunk of Russia’s navy is based.

A similar debate over NATO membership is playing out in neighboring Sweden, another longtime partner of the alliance that had spurned full membership for decades—until Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine. Of the two countries, it is the Swedish public that has historically been more open to membership of the military alliance than their Finnish neighbors. That is no longer the case. “The biggest momentum is in Finland, and that has been a bit surprising actually,” said Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council. 

In the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, support for NATO membership in Finland surged into the majority for the first time, reaching 62 percent in a second survey conducted in mid-March by the Finnish public broadcaster. In Sweden, 51 percent now support NATO membership, according to a poll from early March, up from 42 percent in January. 

Although Finland is edging closer to NATO membership than Sweden, most analysts and diplomats agree that the countries are a package deal. If one joins, the other is likely to follow suit. Given their shared geography on the Scandinavian Peninsula—along with NATO member Norway—the alliance would prefer if the two countries joined at the same time. “[With] that, you will have one new solution for the security arrangements,” Wieslander said. 

“Finland is on a path toward membership. I think now it’s a question of when, not if,” said Erik Brattberg, an expert on trans-Atlantic security with the Albright Stonebridge Group, a consulting firm. “I think Sweden is still adjusting to the new geopolitical reality. It has been slower in that adjustment, but they are also moving in the same direction.”

NATO members seem universally ready to welcome Sweden and Finland with open arms. Diplomats from Germany, Britain, France, Canada, Lithuania, and Estonia all told Foreign Policy their governments would likely support Finland and Sweden’s membership bid. 

Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said Washington would “welcome” the two new members but stressed it was up to the governments in Helsinki and Stockholm to make the first move. “They bring very capable militaries. They are some of our closest allies in Europe, and so I can’t imagine a situation where there would be tremendous resistance to this idea,” she told reporters in a briefing on Tuesday. “Quite the contrary, I think NATO allies would be generally enthusiastic.”

The Finnish government is working on a white paper on security due to be released this month, which will fuel conversation about NATO membership ahead of the security alliance’s summit in Madrid in June. The white paper will “clearly influence the debate here in Sweden as well,” Wieslander said. 

Brattberg said the ruling party in Sweden, the center-left Swedish Social Democratic Party, appears to be starting to shift its foreign-policy platform in the wake of Russia’s war, prodded in part by the center-right parties in opposition to renewing a push for NATO membership. “The Social Democratic Party has traditionally, historically stood for Swedish neutrality … and military nonalignment,” Brattberg said. “But even amongst leading Social Democrats in Sweden, that stance is increasingly being seen as less and less relevant in a new era marked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

The question of NATO membership is likely to factor higher than ever before in debate ahead of the Swedish general election scheduled for September. The country’s Moderate Party has already announced that it would back membership of the military alliance.

The prospect of Finland and Sweden joining NATO is likely to further inflame tensions between Russia and the NATO alliance. The Kremlin has characterized the alliance, borne out of the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the West, as its top geopolitical foe and signaled that Ukraine’s prospective NATO membership played a major role in its decision to fully invade the country. A senior Russian diplomat warned last month that there would be “serious military and political consequences” if the two countries joined the alliance. 

Finland’s ambassador to Washington, Mikko Hautala, told Foreign Policy in an interview that he expected a reaction from Moscow if Finland or Sweden were to move ahead with applying to NATO. “[At] a minimum, we will see information influencing … those kind of activities,” he said. “But it’s hard to say what the reaction would be.” 

During the Cold War, as Europe was carved up into spheres of influence, Finland opted for neutrality, serving as an important buffer between the East and the West. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave Finland more room to maneuver in its foreign policy, joining the European Union in 1995 and deepening its cooperation with NATO. “We are basically as close to NATO as you can get without being a member,” Hautala said.

Smith, the U.S. NATO ambassador, said the Kremlin’s fierce opposition to NATO enlargement wouldn’t deter allies from welcoming new members, even in the face of a full-scale Russian war in Ukraine. “Russia tried its very best in recent months to try and get NATO allies to revisit that policy,” she said. “It sent a treaty requesting that NATO basically turn off the process of NATO enlargement, and the answer that came back in stereo surround sound from all 30 allies was: absolutely not. NATO’s door will remain open—full stop.”

NATO diplomats say Finland brings more advantages to the alliance than just military hardware. Few countries know how Russia works better than Finland—at least as well as foreign countries can in the shadowy and opaque power structure that Russian President Vladimir Putin has built. They say adding Finland’s expertise and experience in balancing relations with its larger eastern neighbor would add significant value to the alliance. 

Other experts on trans-Atlantic security said while Russia would likely condemn Finland and Sweden’s membership, it doesn’t view those countries in the same light as other prospective members that used to be in the Soviet Union and, at least in the eyes of Putin, should fall under Moscow’s orbit. 

“Russia would be furious, but I don’t think it would react the same way if, say, Georgia or Ukraine were on a clear track to NATO membership now,” said Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Correction, April 7, 2022: Anna Wieslander’s job title and affiliation has been updated.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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