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Interview: Finland and NATO
#52: With Minna Ålander
Thank you for reading The Hundred, a newsletter in which experts provide analysis on questions that matter. This is our interview format, in which we give one expert a little more space.
Minna Ålander is a Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA). She previously worked at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Our questions are in bold, her answers in quotation marks.
Why didn’t Helsinki want to join NATO before?
“Most importantly for the sake of good neighbourly relations with Russia. It was in Finland’s interest to avoid tensions at the long border. This was reflected in public opinion: support for Finland’s NATO membership fluctuated at around 20-25 percent until last year. Furthermore, NATO membership was not as attractive for Finland, which has consistently kept the focus of its military doctrine on territorial defence, when NATO was focused on out of area crisis management operations and terrorism. Now that NATO returned to its roots (territorial defence in Europe, with Russia as main adversary), it’s very much in the Finnish interest to be part of the Alliance.”
Was the decision to join NATO controversial in Finland?
“Finland has in general a strong consensus culture in security policy but regarding the NATO question it was truly remarkable. In the first poll after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, published on 28 February 2022, there was a majority in support of Finland joining NATO for the first time – the numbers of opponents and supporters were basically reversed overnight. Support kept rising steadily and had reached 76 percent in May when Finland applied officially. Now the number in favour is somewhere around 85 percent.”
What has Moscow’s reaction been?
“So far unexpectedly tame. Finland was prepared for all kinds of possible retaliations, involving the classic Russian intimidation tactics such as violations of airspace, GPS disturbance, cyber attacks, and even different scenarios where Russia could have staged an accident and then used it as an excuse to enter Finland’s territory. But nothing much happened, apart from some cyber attacks on the parliament website. Russia is so bogged down in Ukraine that it does not seem to have capacities left to retaliate, even most of the military bases at the Finnish border have been emptied.”
Were you surprised that Moscow didn’t react more strongly?
“Yes and no. Finland has never been as high up on the Kremlin’s obsession agenda as Ukraine and it was anyways clear that there was nothing short of a military campaign Russia could have done to stop it from happening. Finland had also already been working very closely with NATO for years and in that sense was actually very much aligned with NATO. I would expect that Russia could, however, target Finland with more aggressive disinformation influence campaigns in the future, now that we are a NATO member.”
Finland wanted to join NATO with Sweden. Why didn’t that happen?
“Turkey’s problems with Sweden could not be solved and partly because of the elections in Finland in early April, it was convenient to get the NATO membership done in order to avoid a situation where Turkey would suddenly move but Finland would not have yet formed a new government.”
Do we know what Helsinki had to do to get Ankara’s approval?
“Finland decided to go ahead alone. That was not an easy decision and it was quite a big compromise, or even concession, for Finland to separate the process from Sweden’s accession. Finland’s leadership denies that this was the case – that they officially ever said that they would want to proceed without Sweden. But it was clear enough a sign when Finland decided to proceed with the parliamentary ratification, thus throwing the ball into Turkey’s (and Hungary’s) court. In a way it was a win for Turkey that Finland and Sweden did not get to join together in the power game sense.”
What does Finland bring to the alliance?
“Finland is a rare case by European standards in the sense that it never stopped preparing for a territorial war. Even in the more optimistic decades after the Cold War, Finnish government reports on foreign, security and defence policy never entirely excluded the possibility of armed aggression (from Russia, although it wasn’t spelled out) against Finland.
Therefore, Finland still has a conscription army that gives the Finnish Defence Forces a wartime troop strength of 280,000 and a total reserve of 870,000 – in a country of 5.5 million. In addition, Finland has geared its defence capability to whatever Russia is likely to hit us with: looking at Ukraine, it’s clear why Finland has been and is investing into air and missile defence and has one largest artilleries in Europe (1,500 systems). Finland will get 64 F-35 jets from 2026 onwards, which will fit seamlessly into the wider Nordic fleet together with Norwegian and Danish F-35s and Swedish Gripens. Apart from that, Arctic and winter warfare are Finnish expertise.”
How will Sanna Marin’s loss change Finnish foreign policy?
“Probably hardly at all. There is an overwhelming consensus politically and societally on the two most important questions: supporting Ukraine and NATO membership. Neither topic even really featured in the election campaigns since opposition and government simply agree on both. Continuity is in general a strong feature of Finnish foreign policy.”
What’s a question you wish you were asked and what’s your answer to it?
“Was there no fear of escalation/Russia’s reaction when Finland decided to join NATO?
Not really. Escalation on Russia’s part does not feature in Finnish debates about weapons deliveries to Ukraine either. Russia had been frequently threatening Finland for a decade about consequences of joining NATO so Finns were quite used to it, therefore also the increased huff and puff when Finland got closer to applying did not impress Finns much. The reason why so many people suddenly changed their minds was actually Putin’s demands to halt any future NATO enlargement in December 2021. Finns did not mind Russia threatening with consequences regarding our sovereign decision to join NATO, but demanding to take away that sovereign decision was a red line.”
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