Finland’s Foreign Minister on Why Helsinki Is Moving Toward NATO Now
Pekka Haavisto once spearheaded efforts to engage with Russia and broaden cooperation. Now he’s helping lead Finland toward NATO membership.
Pekka Haavisto, the Finnish foreign minister, is an understandably busy man these days.
Pekka Haavisto, the Finnish foreign minister, is an understandably busy man these days.
The biggest news in the Nordic region of late is Finland’s apparently imminent decision to join NATO following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February. In January, a month before the invasion, a poll by Finland’s leading newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, showed that 28 percent of the Finnish public supported applying for full membership in NATO, with 42 percent opposed—figures that have been more or less consistent for years, including following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea.
By March 4, a week after the invasion, support for pursuing NATO membership had jumped 20 points to 48 percent, while opposition had dropped to 20 percent. Pro-NATO sentiment has continued to rise as the war has dragged on, to the point that nearly two-thirds of the population now advocates joining NATO, according to a poll taken by the paper two weeks ago.
Of course, the Finns who fought two separate wars with the Soviet Union during World War II, including the so-called Winter War following the Soviet invasion of November 1939, have been ready to go toe-to-toe with Moscow for some time.
Nevertheless, the invasion of Ukraine, with its eerie parallel with the Winter War, clearly triggered a tectonic shift. To be sure, ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Helsinki’s “special relationship” with Moscow, the Finns have been moving away from their traditional policy of neutrality. More recently, they along with the Swedes have been part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace—making them effectively associate members.
Still, they were happy to call themselves nonaligned. Membership in one pan-European club, the European Union, which they enthusiastically joined in 1995, was sufficient.
Then came Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, and, as Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin put it, “Russia was not the neighbor we thought it was.” Spurred by an angered and alarmed Finnish public, the government has accelerated the process for joining NATO—a process that is expected to move into even higher gear on May 12 when Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, a man who had prided himself on his good relations with Moscow before the Ukraine invasion, is expected to announce his support for applying for full membership in the alliance.
Haavisto, who has been foreign minister since 2019, was just as undone by the invasion as Marin and Niinisto, if not more so. One of Finland’s most popular politicians, Haavisto was a candidate in in the Finnish presidential election of 2012, finishing second to Niinisto. He also ran again in the 2018 election, when he was beaten again by Niinisto, who was elected to his second term.
It is a foregone conclusion that he will run for president again when Niinisto retires in 2024. That topic wasn’t on the agenda of during a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Policy on Apr. 26 but just about everything else was—starting, of course, with NATO.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: In 2014, only a quarter of the population backed NATO membership a proportion that remained essentially unchanged until the Ukraine invasion. As Tuomas Forsberg, an academic specializing in the subject at the time, said: “The security environment has changed. But the psychology remains entrenched.”
Apparently the psychology that Forsberg referred to wasn’t so entrenched. According to the latest poll, close to 70 percent of the Finnish people are for joining. What happened? Why has the psychology—apparently—changed so quickly and dramatically?
Pekka Haavisto: I agree that the psychology has changed since the attack on Georgia and the occupation of Crimea. It has changed as a result of three factors. First is Russia’s ability or willingness to take greater risks, including regarding its own safety and the lives of its troops than ever before as we have been in the fighting in Ukraine.
The second factor is Russia’s capability to mobilize more than 100,000 troops in one spot, without fully mobilizing its army. I find this remarkable.
The third factor that has changed and is new is [Russia’s] loose rhetoric about unconventional weapons—nuclear weapons, tactical nuclear weapons, even chemical weapons. This is a totally new situation in Europe, when this sort of rhetoric about unconventional weapons is employed. These factors together have affected Finland and the mindset of the Finns.
The Finnish mindset changed very rapidly after Feb. 24. In March, we already saw the first ever opinion poll where the majority of Finns supported joining NATO. The political parties are now more or less following the wave of opinion. The change in the psychology came probably first and then the political changes after that.
FP: Your predecessor as foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja, who opposes membership in NATO, recently told an American interviewer that he felt that there was a “war psychosis” in the Finnish media in its reporting on this issue.
PH: I cannot speak on his behalf. What I see in the media of course is extensive coverage of the war front and the Russian invasion. I think it is natural that when the war comes close to us that it creates strong psychological reactions here. Russia is our neighbor, and we see Russia behaving in an aggressive way in our neighborhood against other country.
That is how I see it. I cannot explain other people’s views.
FP: Given your efforts to engage with Russia and cooperate on certain issues, was the invasion a personal defeat for you?
PH: It is of course frustrating when you consider what we have been trying to do with Russia, engaging it on environmental issues, on the protection of Baltic Sea, on Arctic cooperation, and so forth.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the main objectives of the European Union has been trying to find ways and means to bind Russia to a democratic development. Of course there have been many frustrations. There was the Navalny case. The grassroot NGOs have been indicating that things were getting more difficult for them for a long time.
Then last year Memorial, the organization which was established to find the truth about Stalin’s victims, was closed, and so forth. We could see the institutional threat against human rights activists and environmental activists and so forth. We could see the trend.
Still, of course the invasion was a shock. I am not sure if I would characterize it as a personal defeat, but of course it was seriously disappointing to say the least.
Meanwhile of course many of my [Russian] friends in the human rights and environmental movements have left the country altogether.
FP: What is the process for Finland joining NATO? What happens next?
PH: The foreign ministry just gave parliament a white paper on security in which the situation after Feb. 24 is discussed. That paper is now making the rounds of the parliamentary committees. The idea is that parliament will form its own opinion on the changes in the security environment as well as the advisability of joining NATO. When parliament has completed its deliberations, then the government will technically be ready to produce another white paper, which then outlines the steps involved. It’s complicated, but the process is moving forward.
FP: In other words, you are trying to amass as much support across the board as you can, correct?
PH: Yes, NATO requires the support of the population of the applicant nation to become a member. We have opinion polls which are clear, more than 60 percent. Then we would like to have as big a majority in parliament as possible, hopefully more than 160 MPs [out of 200]. Then the political parties are forming their positions, we need to have them.
This is of course because there might be a situation that there are new elections while the application is under review by the other members, because that process will take some time, possibly up until or through the spring 2023 parliamentary elections. So we need to have the backing of all the parties, or as many as possible, so that they continue their support for the application through the next parliament.
FP: Hypothetically speaking, what are the pros of Finland joining?
PH: Well, I think, first of all, the additional security that NATO could bring. We have a very strong reserve of 280,000 soldiers, we have a conscription army, which is one of the strongest in Europe. We have just ordered the top-of-the-line F-35 jet fighters from the U.S. We have modernized our military equipment.
Our weakness is [dealing with] chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, nuclear threats; it is very difficult to address these kinds of threats, which are now on the table, by ourselves.
FP: What would Russia losing Finland’s neutrality or nonalignment mean for Russia? What are the consequences?
PH: I think Russia has been saying quite systemically three things. First, for Finland or Sweden to join NATO is their own decision. They have repeatedly said this. So has President [Vladimir] Putin.
The second thing Russia has said is that, if Finland or Sweden does join NATO, that will change the military-political landscape of Baltic Sea area.
Thirdly, the Russians have said that this alteration in the military-political landscape will require a response of some sort from their side. Naturally, [if Finland joins] that will bring NATO to their border. That will require a change in Russia’s plans. We understand this.
Additionally, former President Dmitry Medvedev has said if we join the Baltic Sea will no more be a non-nuclear area. So that would probably mean that Russia will want to increase nuclear capability in the Baltic Sea area. This is how they have said they will react.
FP: Speaking of Sweden, what is the nature of the understanding you have with Stockholm? There has been some talk of Finnish-Swedish defense union. What was that about? Also, to what degree are you synchronizing your membership drive with Stockholm?
PH: People have been talking about such an arrangement as an alternative to joining NATO. If you look back to those threats I mentioned or those changes in the security environment, an alliance between Finland and Sweden would not be enough to tackle those new threats. That much is clear.
Now, of course it is possible to have some sort of enhanced cooperation within NATO by which the two countries surveil airspace together or something of that nature. That is possible.
As far as the process of applying for membership is concerned, it seems that the heightened debate about joining NATO here also triggered more active discussion in Sweden.
According to the most recent polls, public opinion for joining in Sweden is a little behind compared to Finland. At the same time, those same polls show that if Finland does in fact join, it will lead to 10 percent more support for joining NATO in Sweden as well.
I wish to underline, as do both of our governments, that our respective decisions to join NATO or not are made independently. We can’t make a decision on behalf of Swedes, and Sweden cannot make a decision behalf of Finns.
These are separate processes, but, yes, they are taking place around the same time. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we are synchronizing.
Also, people are asking, how would for example a Swedish “No” affect Finland. Of course we might maybe be sad if that happened, but it wouldn’t stop our procedures. We are independent entities.
FP: Let’s talk about the so-called gray zone. Are you worried about something happening between now and June or between the time you actually apply and are accepted?
PH: Well of course we have to be ready. Actually, the gray zone would persist until the last NATO member state approves Finland as a member. We need 30 parliaments’ decision to ratify the membership agreement. We know that that process can take from four months to one year.
Meanwhile, of course we are bound to continue to look out for own national defense and the upkeep of our forces. We won’t have the protection of Article 5, that is clear.
At the same time, we Finns also like to point out that NATO has an open-door policy. For NATO, it is important to protect somehow a country that is in the process of joining. If you don’t do that, then you don’t have an open-door policy, do you?
FP: Have there been any Russian overflights? One might expect that the Russians might act in a provocative manner at this time. Has that been the case?
PH: There was an overflight of military aircraft over Gotland, in Sweden, this spring. We don’t expect anything, but we are of course prepared for everything. Of course at this time when there is a war in Europe, we are intensifying our border control and our airspace control and our maritime control. [Editor’s note: After this interview was conducted, on May 5, there was a suspected overflight of Finnish airspace by a Russian military aircraft close to Kesalahti on the southeastern Russo-Finnish border.]
FP: If you had to describe Finnish-Russian relations now, what word would you use? Formal?
PH: Yes, I would say they are formal, our border authorities are cooperating on those issues that are necessary.
FP: I know that Allegro, the train between Helsinki and St. Petersburg, stopped running.
PH: Yes. Allegro stopped because of the U.S. sanctions. Then some other train traffic was halted because of U.K. sanctions. We follow sanctions very carefully.
FP: What about the Saimaa Canal? Is it open?
PH: It is open and functioning.
FP: Are you cooperating with Russia on any level now?
PH: We are continuing to cooperate on border control issues. We would like to see more movement of citizens between the two countries, but that is difficult because of the heightened control on the Russian side. One day of course I hope that relations are normal again and that we have tourists visiting each other’s countries again, but right now that is not possible.
FP: What about environmental cooperation, something you are invested in?
PH: Environmental cooperation unfortunately has stopped. Cooperation on the Arctic is also frozen at the moment. So is cooperation on the Baltic Sea.
FP: And the Aland Islands? Are you concerned about the Russians’ interest in the archipelago?
PH: Well of course if you look from the strategic point of view, the control of the Baltic Sea, the Aland islands are important, just as Gotland is. We are very aware of this issue or potential issue. For us it is important that we have our military planning regarding Aland, but of course that is only put in place if there is any threat against the islands.
FP: How do you feel about Emmanuel Macron’s reelection as president of France—are you relieved?
PH: Of course we have had very close cooperation with France. The foreign minister of France, [Jean-Yves] Le Drian, just visited Finland. Our president Niinisto has very close links to President Macron, so we see continuity.
The French-German cooperation is very essential for the future of European Union. We are pleased that the continuity on the foreign relations is ongoing. We are on the same page with France in many ways, including the possible Finnish application for NATO membership.
FP: I take that as a “Yes.”
PH: [Smiles.] We are pleased there are no changes on the French policy.
FP: So Northern Europe is the last redoubt of liberal democracy? Would you agree with that?
PH: I agree with you that the values of liberal democracy [are] something ingrained in us in this part of the world. Even this NATO process is, I think, quite transparent. We are forever looking for ways how to do things in the most democratic manner possible, so that as many people as possible should be involved, and that everyone has as much information as possible, and that they share that information.
FP: Is it fair to say that you’re cautiously optimistic about the future of democracy?
PH: Yeah, you can say so.
Gordon F. Sander is a journalist and historian based in Riga, Latvia. He is the author of several books about Finland, including The Hundred Day Winter War and, most recently, Kansalainen Kekkonen in Finnish. He also writes for the Washington Post and Politico.
More from Foreign Policy
Russians Are Unraveling Before Our Eyes
A wave of fresh humiliations has the Kremlin struggling to control the narrative.
A BRICS Currency Could Shake the Dollar’s Dominance
De-dollarization’s moment might finally be here.
Is Netflix’s ‘The Diplomat’ Factual or Farcical?
A former U.S. ambassador, an Iran expert, a Libya expert, and a former U.K. Conservative Party advisor weigh in.
The Battle for Eurasia
China, Russia, and their autocratic friends are leading another epic clash over the world’s largest landmass.
Join the Conversation
Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.
Already a subscriber?.
Join the Conversation
Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.
Not your account?
Join the Conversation
Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.