Latest developments in Finland's NATO quest
NATO and Finland
Finland is about to send a formal application to NATO. The leadership of Finland announced this last week, and while there is a parliamentary procedure, we already know that most MPs will vote yes.
Compared to foreign expectations Finns are remarkably blasé about the potentiality of the Russian threat during the "gray area" between membership application announcement and the actual membership. For instance, this Newsweek story has led to jokes that the only emergency stocking is people stocking beer in preparation for Hockey World Championship games.
Of course, no-one was seriously expecting a full-scale war expect for some random neurotics, but it was fairly common assumption that there might be a large-scale cyber attack, for example. Some of the more excitable columnists and politicians speculated on a scenario where Russia would try a little-green-man operation on some small plot of land so it could create an "area dispute" that would then prevent NATO membership.
One reason is that the Russian reaction has been more subdued than expected; there's some bluster of a "military-technical retaliation" (this curious phrase seems to be meant to imply a direct attack but actually mean something else), threats to put up nukes in the Baltic region (considering that the Russians were just bragging about how their advanced nukes can destroy London in minutes, what difference does it make?), some troop movements, so on.
However, there’s little indication of a more dire Russian reaction – large-scale troop exercises or sustained propaganda campaigns about Finland being a Nazi state and an immediate threat to Russian existence as a state. Mostly, Russia seems to just be accepting it as something they can’t prevent. Putin himself has acknowledged as much. They are now concentrating on trying to prevent the establishment of NATO bases or placement of NATO nukes in Finland, not the actual membership.
Perhaps Sweden and Finland joining NATO was already calculated into the acceptable costs of Ukrainian invasion in the first place. Finland has had a partnership with US/NATO for decades. Of course, if we consider the Russian motivation for invasion to be the “bringing together the Rus lands” or whatever, that doesn’t affect us. Even though we were once a part of the Russian Empire, Finland is not the sort of a “core” territory in the imperial Russian imagination, like Ukraine is.
The Finnish concept of national defense, since the Cold War, has been based on the idea of fighting such a war against a great power – i.e., Russia. We did not expect to actually *win* such a fight. Finns might post memes about Winter War online, but the cooler heads know there is a serious imbalance in our forces. The idea has always been that the Finnish army would be able to do enough balance to make the idea of invading so punitive even in case of success that it would not happen in the first place.
Russia deciding to gamble on this war in a way that shows it will not give up its plans easily even in the face of lack of immediate success and punitive consequences in the form of Western sanctions of course upends this calculus, becoming one of the main motivators for Finland’s NATO approach.
Even before the actual invasion, one crucial factor was the entire process of “exercises” and Russian diplomatic demands to NATO countries before the invasion – including the demand of no military bases in NATO countries. This clarified that Russians indeed have a wish to establish a formal sphere of influence, including in parts that are already within the Western alliance. That, then, created an urgent need to ensure that there is absolutely no question about Finland's particular sphere.
The Russians have stated that Finland will now be a target if there were a war between NATO and Russia – well, no duh! The common assumption has been, though we would not be able to avoid being a target anyway, with there being an extremely high chance Russia would try to accept strategic positions in the Baltic and Arctic regions, preventively even before the NATO-Russia war began. Of course, such an action would necessitate a Finnish reply, and then we would just be in the full-scale war we wanted to avoid.
The whole process has led to crowing from people who supported NATO membership even before it was consensus. For instance, one target of criticism has been PM Sanna Marin, who recently indicated that she has supported NATO for a longer, unspecified time, even though in January she stated that it was “very unlikely” that Finland would join NATO during her watch. This can be interpreted as just her analysis of likelihoods as a political leader, and not her opinion – and as people should already know, “very unlikely” is not the same as “impossible.”
One question that has come up in recent days is whether Turkey wants to block the Finnish/Swedish accession. Erdogan made noises indicating this would be a possibility, though other Turkish officials have indicated there is no issue. The stated Turkish viewpoint is that they think that Sweden and Finland harbor terrorists, PKK in case of Sweden, apparently Gülenists in case of Finland. General belief is that this Erdogan posturing politically for internal political reasons and trying to prove Turkey’s position as a medium power.
Of course, it is a good reminder that there might be surprises in Finland’s (and Sweden’s) NATO journey – after all, we are still at the early phase of the process. Many of Finland’s most fervent NATO supporters seem to believe that once Finland has set its sights on NATO, not only should nothing come on its way, nothing *can* come on its way. Exploration of alternative options - something that should obviously be going on at all times if there’s anything that could even theoretically block this membership - are subsumed into the demand for national consensus.
There are still other NATO opponents exploring those options, of course. They are featured in the media, which has strived to offer a modicum of balance, though it is still mostly obvious that the media is as pro-NATO as the rest of the establishment. However, the anti-NATO faction does not seem to make any headway, simply because the national public consensus has swung, and that is that.
Consensus is one of the cornerstones for Finnish politics, particularly for foreign and security policy. It is obvious why the political system of a small country prizes consensus, since it allows for a stable policy, not easily shift back and forth when things happen in the world, but it makes it harder to then react to black swan events or even white swan events, since the demand for consensus often tends to squelch the debate on the possibilities of future options.
After the "consensus has settled", adverse viewpoints can be simply dismissed in public debate as going against the consensus. This also explains the sheer speed at which the opinion on this issue has changed. Once the idea of a consensus settling has become common, it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whatever security options Finland chooses, it is high time to ponder this dynamic and how well it serves Finland’s security interests.