Finland’s Journey, from Neutral to NATO

Context: Finland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), becoming its 31st member. This is a significant event, given that NATO security guarantees will extend to this country which shares a 1,340 kilometre border with Russia. This historical moment in NATO’s history was full of symbolism, since NATO had clearly scored an additional point against Russia.

‘Conventional deterrence’ as a response to post-cold War Russian policies:

  • The main rationale behind Finland’s decision has been to receive additional security guarantees from NATO, which are specified in Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty. It ‘binds the members together, committing them to protect each other and setting a spirit of solidarity within the alliance’.
  • Finland’s NATO membership can be viewed through the lens of ‘conventional deterrence’.  As described John Mearsheimer this concept as ‘an attempt to persuade an adversary not to initiate a war because the expected costs and risks outweigh the anticipated benefits’.
  • Finland is certainly not the first and will not be the last neighbour of Russia to join the alliance. Before Finland’s accession, countries such as Norway (1949), Latvia (2004), Estonia (2004), Poland (1999) and Lithuania (2004) were already a part of NATO. 
  • In this scenario, Russia needs to learn how to navigate through these growing complexities, which it is partly responsible for.

Complicated past of Russia and Finland

  • The ‘relationship between Finland and Russia has been a combination of struggle and compromise. In 1809, the Russian Tsar Alexander I defeated Sweden, acquired Finland, and made it an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian empire. 
  • In 1917, the collapse of the Tsarist regime and the Bolshevik Revolution paved the way for the full independence of Finland’. This made Finland pursue a pragmatic security policy which was flexible enough to balance its autonomy with the need for military cooperation with the West. 
  • In the post-war era and during the cold war Finland saved itself from the spread of communist ideology. In 1948, the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance was signed between the USSR and Finland, outlining ‘Finland’s desire to stay outside the conflicts of interests between the great powers’. This came to be known as Finland’s ‘neutrality’.
  • Paasikivi’s line (named after Juho Kusti Paasikivi, the president of Finland between 1946 and 1956) emerged and began to morph into what would eventually become Finland’s foreign policy strategy.
  • This Paasikivi’s line was based on the idea of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union with neutrality being its cornerstone. It helped Finland navigate complex international relations after the turbulent time of the Second World War.
  • While the Finno-Soviet Treaty of 1948 helped Finland boost trade with the Soviet Union, it became heavily dependent on Moscow thereby making it vulnerable to economic and political overtures from the Soviets.

Policy Change?

  • There were tensions between Finland and Russia as a result of the flux in domestic politics in both countries. For instance, Nikita Khrushchev was willing to negotiate with Finland and allowed for increased trade and cultural exchange between the two countries, despite the 1950s seeing Finland side with the West when the Soviet Union called for a boycott of the 1956 Summer Olympics in Australia.
  • Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it sought to build closer ties with Russia while also pursuing greater integration with Europe. 
  • The country has been an active participant in European security initiatives such as the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO). At the same time, it has been able to maintain close economic ties with Russia.
  • The cooperation between Finland and NATO began as early as in 1994 with the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. Finland had the status of an ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partner’ and contributed in a significant manner to the NATO-led operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Possible Outcome and wayforward

  • Finland’s accession to NATO gives the impression that Finland’s security concerns are mostly assuaged. 
  • However Russian authorities have signalled possible ‘countermeasures’ to the alleged ‘assault on its security and national interests’.
  • International political scientist believe that Russia and NATO should exercise cautious behaviour vis-à-vis the other. NATO and Russia should search for ways out of the constant cycle of implementing ‘measures’ and imposing ‘countermeasures’. During the last decade, a classic example of ‘security dilemma’ has been unfolding, whereby Russia and the West have been enhancing their security and creating a more precarious environment altogether.
  • Neither Finland nor Russia should see an escalation in their relations. The newly elected centre-right government in Finland should not exaggerate the potential threats from Russia but engage in bilateral dialogue, trying to understand the other’s security concerns. There should be at least some NATO members who would be willing to rely more on diplomatic tools and ‘lower the temperatures’.

Further reading about NATO and accession process
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