Membership of NATO: the “feeling of increased vulnerability” tipped Finland

After having obtained Turkey’s agreement on Thursday, Finland is preparing to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Nordic country has swapped its policy of non-alignment for a membership card, now perceiving the Alliance as its best protection against the Russian threat.

NATO is preparing to welcome a 31e member. After Hungary on Monday, Turkey finally gave the green light, Thursday, March 30, to Finland’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), during a vote in Parliament.

“Finland will be a strong and capable ally, committed to the security of the Alliance”, welcomed President Sauli Niinistö, thanking the members of the transatlantic organization for their support.

The country, which shares 1,340 kilometers of border with Russia, officially had submitted its request to NATO on May 18, 2022three months after the start of the war in Ukraine, just like Sweden, whose accession remains blocked by Turkey for the time being.

Its now imminent integration marks a historic turning point for Finland, which for several decades had defended a policy of military non-alignment. Nonetheless, the question membership in NATO is not news in this country which, for several years, has been worried about Russian expansionist ambitions.

The border between Finland and Russia is 1,340 kilometers long.
The border between Finland and Russia is 1,340 kilometers long. © graphic studio France 24

Expedited Voting

The large-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24, 2022 had caused a wave of panic, prompting many surrounding countries to rethink their defense policy.

In Finland, this concern vis-à-vis the powerful Russian neighbor was already very present since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Two years later, the government had carried out a study on the possibility of the country joining the Alliancewithout a consensus being reached.

In December 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to negotiate an agreement with the United States to obtain the guarantee of NATO’s non-expansion to the East. A request rejected by Washington and which had also provoked a very firm reaction from the Finnish president.

“I say it and I repeat it: Finland is free to consider the possibility of a military alignment and an application for NATO membership”, he had warned during his greeting speech in January 2022, denouncing the questioning of “the sovereignty of several States” of the EU.

Relaunched by the Head of State on this occasion, the debate on joining NATO was finally the subject of an accelerated vote in the Finnish parliament at the beginning of March.

While the legislative elections are being held on Sunday, “the government wanted to pass this vote before the close of parliamentary debates”, explains Sophie Enos-Attali, teacher-researcher in political science, specialist in security issues in the region. “His goal is to participate as a member at the next NATO summit, in Vilnius, next July.”

Paradigm shift

For the researcher, the Russian invasion of February 2022 acted as a “catalyst”, accelerating a reflection already underway in the country, marked by a difficult and painful history with Russia.

Controlled for a century by its neighbor until the Russian revolution of 1917, the Nordic country has since faced it twice., during the Winter Wars (1939-1940) and Continuation (1941-1944), losing them both. It’s at the end of the Second Fordworld that Finland adopts a posture of neutrality, which will evolve towards military non-alignment with the disappearance of the USSR.

“This policy has long been considered as protection vis-à-vis Russia, for fear of a new conflict with its neighbor”, analyzes Sophie Enos-Attali. “But mentalities have evolved in Finland on this political posture resulting from the Cold War, now mostly perceived as belonging to the past. To this was added the feeling of increased vulnerability caused by the war in Ukraine which definitively tipped the opinion.”

Ambiguity of the Russian threat

In November 2022, 78% of Finns said they were in favor of the country joining NATO against 60 % a few months earlier, in March 2022, at the very beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

While citizens now see integration as the best way to guard against an attack from Russia, Moscow’s reaction to this change in policy remains a source of concern.

While the Kremlin openly regards former members of the Soviet bloc as its sphere of influence, it maintains a more ambiguous position vis-à-vis its Nordic neighbors.

In May 2022, Vladimir Poutine had affirmed that the integration of Sweden and Finland within NATO would not constitute not a direct threat towards Russia. A very different exit from that of his deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkovwho declared a few days earlier that this accession was a “serious error” which would have “considerable consequences”.

Maintaining the game of hot and cold, Russian Embassy in Stockholm split this week from a pest post, threatening Sweden and Finland if they join the Alliance : “You can be sure that the new members of the hostile bloc will become a legitimate target for Russian retaliatory measures, including military measures.”

On the side of NATO, the atmosphere is quite different: Jens Stoltenberg is already preparing to pop the champagne. “I look forward to raising the Finnish flag at NATO headquarters in the coming days”, welcomed the Secretary General of the Alliance on Friday, visibly enthusiastic about the prospect of welcoming Finland into “the NATO family”.

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