How Finland Could Tilt the Balance Against Putin

Helsinki joining NATO is his worst nightmare—apart from losing Ukraine.

hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
Michael Hirsh
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson, speak to the media in Helsinki on March 5.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson, speak to the media in Helsinki on March 5.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson, speak to the media in Helsinki on March 5. RONI REKOMAA/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images

As Russian President Vladimir Putin readies a new offensive in his stalled war with Ukraine, strategists still talk of some form of Ukraine’s “Finlandization”—a kind of cowed neutrality—as a possible negotiated solution. But Finland itself may be about to tilt the balance dramatically the other way—and perhaps hand Putin his biggest defeat yet.

On Wednesday, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin at a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said a decision whether to discard Finland’s post-Cold War policy of nonalignment and join NATO would be made in “weeks rather than months.” A new defense white paper detailing that prospect was sent to Finland’s parliament the same day, and at a news conference in Helsinki, Finnish Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen noted Finland already has “full interoperability with NATO.” Sweden, acting in concert with Finland, also took a notably bolder position this week in declaring it too is beginning an active debate about joining NATO.

It could take up to a year for Finland and Sweden to achieve formal accession to NATO, since the move requires all 30 alliance members to approve it. But a decision to apply by both countries, which traditionally seek to coordinate defense moves, could abruptly alter the overall strategic situation. Nearly two months into Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Western strategists are increasingly skeptical that he can be stopped. Following the Russian retreat from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Putin began signaling he was about to launch a new—and likely very aggressive—offensive in the eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas this week. Putin also declared peace talks to be at a “dead end.” Meanwhile senior officials from Washington to Berlin remain bogged down in debates over whether they can afford the political risk of tougher sanctions and more offensive arms transfers to Ukraine.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin readies a new offensive in his stalled war with Ukraine, strategists still talk of some form of Ukraine’s “Finlandization”—a kind of cowed neutrality—as a possible negotiated solution. But Finland itself may be about to tilt the balance dramatically the other way—and perhaps hand Putin his biggest defeat yet.

On Wednesday, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin at a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said a decision whether to discard Finland’s post-Cold War policy of nonalignment and join NATO would be made in “weeks rather than months.” A new defense white paper detailing that prospect was sent to Finland’s parliament the same day, and at a news conference in Helsinki, Finnish Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen noted Finland already has “full interoperability with NATO.” Sweden, acting in concert with Finland, also took a notably bolder position this week in declaring it too is beginning an active debate about joining NATO.

It could take up to a year for Finland and Sweden to achieve formal accession to NATO, since the move requires all 30 alliance members to approve it. But a decision to apply by both countries, which traditionally seek to coordinate defense moves, could abruptly alter the overall strategic situation. Nearly two months into Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Western strategists are increasingly skeptical that he can be stopped. Following the Russian retreat from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Putin began signaling he was about to launch a new—and likely very aggressive—offensive in the eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas this week. Putin also declared peace talks to be at a “dead end.” Meanwhile senior officials from Washington to Berlin remain bogged down in debates over whether they can afford the political risk of tougher sanctions and more offensive arms transfers to Ukraine.

Now, the very Western alliance of democracies that Putin has turned into his rhetorical enemy will likely be expanding both its territory and muscle. With Turkey buttressing NATO’s south and the Baltic states taking up the middle of the eastern lines of the alliance, Finland and Sweden’s NATO presence in the north would signal precisely the sort of grand alliance Putin and other nationalists have been fearing. “Their membership would fundamentally change the Northern European security landscape for sure,” said Sean Monaghan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

For Russia—which, for most of the past century, has pressured Finland into taking a nonthreatening posture—no outcome could be more devastating, except perhaps the very defeat in Ukraine Putin is now trying to avoid, experts said. Helsinki sits less than 200 miles from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, and Finland’s NATO membership would deliver “poetic justice” to him if this whole conflict “allegedly was about preventing Ukraine from joining NATO and shutting NATO’s open-door policy,” Monaghan said.

“It pushes him further into a corner,” said James Dobbins, a former senior U.S. diplomat now at the Rand Corporation. “If he wins in Ukraine but loses Finland, he comes out of this without having gained much. If he loses both, which is more likely, then he’s compounded his problem and the sort of nightmare scenario of an overriding NATO right on Russia’s border.” Finland’s 830-mile border with Russia would double NATO’s border against Moscow, amounting to the longest potential front between the European Union and Russia. “It’s a new problem not just in a military sense but in a cultural and economic sense,” Dobbins said.

Provoking the “self-encirclement” of his country is a catastrophic strategic error, wrote Aaron Friedberg, a former senior U.S. official and scholar at Princeton University, in an email. The entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO “would be at least as important as the shifts in Germany and maybe more so,” Friedberg wrote, referring to Berlin’s new willingness to arm up against Russia.

“Finland and Sweden won’t just be free riders, but will add materially to NATO’s combat power,” he wrote, adding that these decisions are very unlikely to be reversed. “They will mark a permanent change—one that the Russians have tried for years to prevent.”

Yet there are “acute dangers” to such an arrangement, Dobbins said, and “it is not one we should enter with unalloyed joy.” Finland—if it allows NATO bases, troops, and weaponry within its borders—could permanently heighten the hair-trigger environment that now exists between the Kremlin and Washington. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov warned last week against such moves by Finland and Sweden, saying Russia would have to “rebalance the situation” by ratcheting up its own security along the border.

U.S. President Joe Biden has not spoken directly about the latest round of possible NATO expansion, and U.S. officials have been careful not to get ahead of other NATO allies, even though Washington founded and still nominally leads the alliance. “Membership in NATO is a choice for a country to pursue, and a question for the full Alliance,” a U.S. National Security Council spokesperson wrote in an email.

Still, at a news conference last week, U.S. ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith indicated that Washington would likely join the other 29 NATO members in welcoming the two countries. “NATO’s door will remain open, full stop,” Smith said. “I think from the U.S. perspective, we would welcome these two members. We find that they already bring tremendous value to the alliance.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that the alliance would “warmly welcome” Finland. He added, “We can quite quickly make the decision to have them as a member.”

If it joins NATO, Finland could also opt to go the way of Norway, which—although it was a founding member of NATO—has sought to placate Moscow by not allowing foreign military bases and nuclear weapons as well as placing limitations on NATO exercises. Even so, Norway has begun taking part in NATO defense measures to a much greater degree in recent years.

A senior Finnish official told Foreign Policy that the “Norway model” was being considered. Finland, whose long history in standing off Moscow’s aggression includes its successful defense against a Soviet invasion during World War II, has seen to its own defense for decades, including compulsory conscription.

“We’re not in desperate need of foreign bases because we have our own,” said the Finnish official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Our military is one of the strongest in Europe in numbers and weapons.” Although Finland’s military is smaller than major NATO nations—such as Britain, France, and Germany—its longtime lone preparedness against Russian aggression has made it one of the most formidable in terms of artillery firepower, airspace surveillance, and cyber and missile readiness. The Finnish military can “swiftly mobilize” 280,000 troops, the official said, “with a maximum of 900,000.” Finland, despite having a population of 5.6 million people that is dwarfed by Germany, even possesses more battle tanks than Berlin. It also deploys an air force of 64 F-18s armed with highly sophisticated U.S.-supplied “smart” missiles and has ordered 64 more new F-35s, with deliveries scheduled to start in 2026, according to Finland’s official figures.

The main “value add” NATO membership would bring, the official said, was that it would supply a guarantee of collective security against Moscow under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, according to which an attack on any alliance member “​​shall be considered an attack against them all.” That requires of each nation “such action as it deems neces­sary, includ­ing the use of armed force, to restore and main­tain the secur­ity of the North Atlantic area.” Article 5 has been invoked only once in NATO’s 73-year history: in defense of the United States after 9/11.

At the news conference in Helsinki, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said his country’s formerly careful calibration about not provoking Moscow has been dramatically altered by Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Finland, he said, is worried about Russia’s willingness to “take higher risks than earlier,” concentrate large numbers of troops, and promise veiled nuclear threats.

Haavisto said he expects a decision will be made by the Finnish government before the summer solstice holiday begins in late June.

Sweden too has been thrust into an abrupt reconsideration of its longtime nonalignment policy—which came about as an attempt to reassure Russia. “This is an important time in history,” said Andersson, whose ruling Swedish Social Democratic Party has traditionally opposed NATO membership. “The security landscape has completely changed,” she said, speaking at Marin’s side on Wednesday.

For Finland, in particular, the embrace of NATO would mark a virtual revolution in Helsinki’s hitherto careful approach to Moscow. During the Cold War, Finland endured a humiliating state of quasi-acquiescence to Moscow that became known as “Finlandization,” under which it managed to avoid pressure to enter the Soviet Warsaw Pact by keeping its distance from the West and NATO. But since the end of the Cold War, Finland has abandoned its longtime neutrality and gradually aligned itself with the West, joining the European Union and deepening defense ties with the United States, including its purchase of F-18 and F-35 fighter jets.

Until Putin’s full-on invasion began on Feb. 24, the Finnish public had remained against NATO membership in large numbers. But a March survey by the Finnish Business and Policy Forum, a think tank known as EVA, found that 60 percent of those polled supported joining NATO, an increase of 34 percentage points from 2021. Other surveys have reported similar results.

For a nation that fought wars with Moscow twice in the last century—and bravely rebuffed its aggression at the start of World War II—Finland joining NATO would deliver a historic turnabout to Putin.

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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