Security for the long-term – Strategic prudence dictates a change of course for Finland

Finland has based its foreign policy on strategic prudence. Where caution used to justify abstinence from NATO membership, now that Russia is extending its claims to Finland, prudence requires a change of direction. Staying outside of NATO would be a greater risk than joining the alliance. Finland should apply for membership together with Sweden, writes François Heisbourg, a specialist in security policy who co-authored Finland's NATO report in 2016.

Six years before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the final touches were being put to the written assessment which the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland had commissioned from a group of four authors on the effects of Finland’s possible NATO membership *.

On its concluding page the following point was made: “…(joining) the Atlantic Alliance and its Article 5 collective defence commitment would represent a sea change, transforming Finland’s security policy overall, and its relationship with Russia in particular. (…) The shift would be…as momentous…as Sweden’s decision to become neutral some two centuries ago, or Poland joining NATO at the end of the nineties. These were decisions made for the long haul.” In other words, it would take a deep and wrenching change in Finland’s strategic environment to prompt such a step.

Seen from Helsinki, such a change was already perceptible but was not yet wrenching in 2016. The power of attraction of Europe had already led Finland to join the European Union in 1995, after Finland discarded the last remnants of the post-World War II limitations of sovereignty. It had dropped neutrality and military non-alignment as EU integration deepened, notably with the 2009 Lisbon Treaty and its Article 42.7 (aid and assistance clause). Finland’s cooperation with NATO deepened. Russia played an ever weaker role in all compartments of Finland’s political and economic life, apart from as a potential security concern to be managed with care.

Finland was put on notice that it too was a target of Moscow’s activism.

Having become a strategically Western country, Finland chose not to exercise the option of joining NATO, while keeping the option open. In 2016 it appeared that Russia would have reason to nurture this status quo rather than to upset it, notwithstanding the recognition in 2016 that Russia was ‘a dynamic and unsatisfied power’.

That assumption was proven wrong in December 2021. Russia tabled two draft treaties which made clear that Russian revisionism no longer excluded Finland. The fact that the drafts were addressed to Washington and NATO made it clear that for Russia Europe counted for nothing in terms of sovereignty. The language of the texts was worse: no new members whatsoever would be allowed to join NATO, whose Open Door policy was to be terminated. This directly challenged Finland’s policy of keeping open the option of joining NATO. In his 2022 New Year’s message, Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö called these texts “ultimatums”. The only consolation was that Russia’s revisionism embraced Europe as a whole, so Finland was thus not alone in its plight.

Shortly after this diplomatic assault, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, a country that is not a member of NATO, is substantially larger than Finland and possesses a similar long border with Russia (1,581 km vs 1,340 km). Russia opened the largest theatre of military operations in Europe since World War II. The unprecedented level of violence changed the nature of the relationship between Russia and all of its EU and NATO partners.

This was a wrenching change. Finland was put on notice that it too was a target of Moscow’s activism. Nor would not be able to count on Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty to provide a credible defence guarantee, given the absence of a consensus among EU Member States as to its meaning. No substantial defence capabilities are attached to the EU institutions.

Strategic prudence, a vital imperative for a vulnerable medium-sized European country such as Finland had changed in nature for the third time in 75 years. During the Cold War decades, Finland had tailored a bespoke policy based on the Paasikivi principles. In the post-Cold War era (1991-2021), it then chose the road to full Europeanisation and convergence with NATO, while paying due care vis-à-vis Russia’s security concerns. Strategic prudence now dictates another change of course, akin to the choice made by the former members of the Warsaw Pact after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It would be strategically desirable if Finland and Sweden both opted for membership.

The 2016 Assessment states in its closing remarks that “the possibility to apply for membership (is) a tool to master the geopolitical dilemma posed by an unpredictable neighbour”. The grave consequences of that unpredictability are now apparent, and the tool is there to be used. Russian revisionism is a long-term feature, not a bug.

Timing of Finland’s NATO membership

As Finland grapples with the issue of NATO membership, the timing of decisions is of the essence and primarily involves five sets of actors.

Finland. The process of considering such a momentous shift as NATO membership cannot be rushed in terms of democratic debate and decision-making in Finland. Finland’s institutions are robust and trusted, the population is familiar with issues relating to security and defence, and as a consequence decision-making in this realm tends to be efficient. If events in Russia and Ukraine continue to worsen, the temptation to expedite the membership process may become stronger: but such a decision to cut to the chase should itself be the outcome of an open and transparent debate.

However, given Finland’s political and institutional characteristics, it would be surprising if the process  of preparing and conducting the debate and bringing it to a clear and considered conclusion would take more than a matter of months.

Sweden. It would be strategically desirable if Finland and Sweden both opted for membership, preferably at the same point in time. An Alleingang by either would be clearly suboptimal to joining NATO together: in political, strategic and operational terms, the benefits of close to simultaneous membership would be obvious.

However, the potential damage caused by an Alleingang would be asymmetric. If Sweden alone decided to join, Finland would become the single Nordic and Baltic sea country not to be covered by Article 5, singling it out for special, and possibly unpleasant, attention by Russia.

It is therefore of great importance that Finland does not end up as the only country out in the strategic cold.

If Finland joins but Sweden does not, the situation would be different, since the strategic benefits of Article 5 would accrue to Finland. In military-operational terms, the defence of Finland would have to be ensured in more trying circumstances than if Sweden were in NATO: with Sweden out, reinforcements from NATO allies would not necessarily be able to use Swedish territory. However, since this is already the case today, this would be an opportunity lost, rather than an actual cost.

Therefore, Finland could join NATO without waiting for Sweden’s decision to do so as well.

NATO. Given today’s dramatic strategic circumstances, there are obvious advantages to a short membership process, with rapid negotiation of the agreement with NATO and early ratification, so that Article 5 will apply without delay. This would be greatly facilitated by the fact that the country’s defence dispositions can, to a large extent be plugged into NATO: negotiations would presumably be quick.

This fast-track could go as far as some or all of the existing NATO members ostensibly extending a unilateral Article 5 guarantee even before the ratification of the accession treaty. This could be counterproductive to the extent that it may be construed as prejudging the outcome of the ratification process. Such was the view taken on this option in 2016 and even under the current circumstances, such a course should be viewed prudently.

Russia. Ever since the NATO enlargement process began, from the 12 founding members to the current 30, the sequence of Soviet and Russian attitudes has followed a pattern: objection, with or without threats; countermeasures (e.g. creating the Warsaw Pact in 1955); grudging acceptance. Finland is no exception. In July 2016, a few weeks after the Assessment was published, President Putin stated that if Finland joined NATO, it would respect that decision but would respond. The level of discontent has risen significantly: in March 2022, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that “…if Finland and Sweden join NATO…there will be serious military and political consequences”.

The greater part of wisdom would be to have matters involving Finland tied up before January 2023.

These threats must be taken seriously. Their existence pleads in favour of completing accession while the Russian armed forces are still licking their wounds from the invasion of Ukraine. However, even when the stakes of accession were at their highest, as with the membership process of West German rearmament in 1955, the Kremlin never made such an occurrence a casus belli: conversely, threats of war were uttered during the Berlin crises of the following years, indicating where Moscow’s priorities lay at the time, with NATO enlargement taking second rank.

Finland, along the lines adopted by other countries, notably Denmark and Norway, could tailor its eventual membership of NATO to limit tension with Moscow. In the case of Norway, this means no nuclear weapons and no foreign bases, and the presence of only a limited number of forces in Finmark.

The United States. In 2016, the rise of China as a peer competitor of the US was already well understood as was the risk that Asia-Pacific would draw increasing claims on US attention and energy. But there were no grounds to expect that the US could withdraw from its NATO commitment. It took the election of Donald Trump to make this a real-world possibility, even if he left office before irreparable damage was done. The current Congress remains supportive of NATO. However, the combination of a renewed Trumpian surge with competition for resources from the Indo-Pacific could resurrect this spectre.

In any case, it would be unwise to expect the 2022-24 Congress to have much time or appetite for ratification debates for prospective new NATO members. The greater part of wisdom would be to have matters involving Finland (and Sweden) tied up before the end of the outgoing lame-duck Congress in January 2023.

Strategic consequences of NATO membership

For Finland, NATO membership must not, or not principally, be considered as a short-term response to a short-lived crisis. It serves two long-haul goals.

The most obvious is to offer a guarantee against the dangers and uncertainties flowing from events in Russia. Today, these flow from President Putin’s militant and military revisionism whose temporal and geographical bounds have no clear limits. They include the reconstruction of a Russo-centric empire, the transformation of the European security order and strategic partnership with like-minded non-status quo powers, most portentously China. In the longer run, there is no assurance that Putin’s eventual departure from power would automatically usher in a return to status quo policies. A new ‘time of troubles’ may be just as likely. The peaceful transition of 1989-1991 was a historical anomaly, not a default mode.

The evolution of America’s level of commitment or of its role as the lead power in European-Atlantic strategic affairs is also best managed through NATO membership. America’s strategic Schwerpunkt is towards the Indo-Pacific, with what the British Integrated Review (2021) calls ‘the Tilt’. This does not necessarily mean a US disinterest for European affairs: at the very least, Europe will be valued in Washington as a substantial strategic make-weight in the US competition with China. The EU and the US cannot afford to work at counter purposes in the digital, technological and normative aspects of the strategic contest with the Chinese superpower. Symmetrically, the strategic partnership between China and Russia ties the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific theatres together. The fact remains that the US will be devoting fewer assets in relative terms to the Euro-Atlantic area. European countries belonging to a strategic grey zone are unlikely to get prime access to those resources.

Long-term prospects in addition to immediate fears should drive its choice.

In this context, it is worth noting that the divisive debate between the EU strategic autonomy and NATO-centric defence will tend to fade away as European defence spending increases and as a higher degree of congruence is established between the membership of NATO and the EU: the entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO would mean that 22 out of 26 EU members would belong to NATO. Complementarity will be the name of the game.

In the more dire hypothesis in which the US basically opts out of its role as the Article 5 lead nation, NATO as an organisation and a guarantor would presumably become an essentially European affair. This would not be an ideal situation: underwriting Article 5 without American power and its extended nuclear deterrence would be quite a challenge. But in this undesirable and strenuous situation, prospects would be even harsher for those outside such a ‘Euro-NATO’.

In Finland’s democratic debate on NATO membership, long-term prospects in addition to immediate fears, should drive its choice. Remaining outside of NATO would the higher risk choice when you consider the Russian danger and America’s strategic evolution in combination.

(*) François Heisbourg is special adviser to the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique and senior adviser for Europe of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Along with Mats Bergquist, René Nyberg and Teija Tiilikainen, he was one of the drafters of The Effects of Finland’s Possible NATO Membership: an Assessment, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Helsinki, April 2016