The Nordic Dimension of the Ukrainian Crisis
The Ukrainian crisis has focused the attention of the international community and global mass media on the region. The annexation of Crimea and the possibility of several regions in eastern Ukraine seceding have been rightly seen as major changes to the post-Cold War geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe. At the same time these events may have an impact of potentially similar geopolitical magnitude over 1000 kilometres north of Kyiv, in Finland.
Events in Ukraine and the growing assertiveness of Russia have very much revived the discussion about Finland’s defence strategy, in particular its potential bid for membership in NATO. In a broader sense, the discussion revolves around the definition of the country’s position in the emerging post-Cold War geopolitical order. Despite being somewhat geographically remote and culturally different, Finland shares many historical experiences and geopolitical similarities with many of the Central and Eastern European countries. The country had to face Bolshevik sponsored subversive activity after becoming independent in 1917, a Soviet military attack in 1939 and then was under Moscow’s sphere of influence during the Cold War period. Just as Central European countries, Finland was only able to pursue a truly independent foreign and defence policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Already in 1995, Finland became a member of the European Union clearly underlining its western orientation. Finland’s political and economic integration, however unlike countries like Poland and Hungary, was not accompanied with military integration through NATO membership.
Capable and self-reliant
The question of national defence remains in the very centre of national politics and the army constitutes an integral part of Finnish national identity. The defence doctrine is based on its own national capabilities and is total in scope; it assumes harnessing all the necessary resources to defend the entire country. Russia is perceived as a main potential military threat, though Finland is very diplomatic in its defence-oriented rhetoric avoiding unnecessary antagonising relations with Moscow.
Despite a relatively small population of 5.5 million and a modest level of military spending, Finland commands a capable military force. The professional component is highly trained and fully compatible with NATO standards. It is complemented by a system of mass conscription which assures that the majority of the male population receives basic military training. The vast availability of trained reserves allows for mobilising 230,000 and possibly up to 350,000 of reasonably well-trained and equipped reservists in case of war.
The ground forces increasingly rely on mostly modern equipment such as German Leopard tanks or Swedish CV90 infantry fighting vehicles. The air force operates 62 F/A-18 multi-role fighters which, apart from their primary role, can also serve as launch platforms for the recently purchased JASSM cruise missile systems – which allows for delivering a precision strike to a ground target with an effective range exceeding 370 kilometres. The navy, despite reliance on mostly small vessels such as missile boats, poses nevertheless a real threat of effectively disrupting maritime traffic in the Gulf of Finland, a region of strategic importance for Russia.
Finland further complements its own defence capabilities with bi- and multi-lateral military cooperation initiatives. Historically, Sweden has been considered as Finland’s closest ally. Both countries are currently in the process of deepening their security cooperation. However despite close relations, there is no formal mutual defence pact between the countries. Furthermore Sweden’s ability and willingness to act as an effective military ally have been recently questioned both in Stockholm and Helsinki.
Finland is also pursuing close defence cooperation with the United States. The depth of the relationship came recently to light as Finland was allowed by Washington to purchase the JASSM tactical cruise missile system – the only other country allowed to do so is Australia. Helsinki also supports the development of defence capabilities within the EU.
The pivotal question of Finland’s security strategy, however, is related to potential membership in NATO. The topic has been ever-present since 1989 and the recent events in Ukraine brought it again to the forefront of political and public debate.
The NATO debate
Overall, the Finnish society is sceptical about prospects of immediate membership in NATO. A recent poll taken after events in Crimea showed that only about 22 per cent of Finns declared support for joining the Alliance. The sentiment is largely shared by the majority of the political elites, though there are prominent politicians, such as outgoing Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen or former President Martti Ahtisaari, who openly voice their pro-NATO stance. Given the lack of critical mass in both the society and the political elite, one should not expect the issue to be decided upon or even put up for a referendum in the short-term.
Despite limited prospects of formal membership, Finland-NATO cooperation is being continuously strengthened. The Finnish army is fully compatible with NATO standards and for practical purposes can be considered as a de facto member. Furthermore, Finland has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Alliance, which confirms its country’s readiness to receive military assistance from the allied forces and to support their military assets. However, there is clearly no political consensus regarding becoming a fully-fledged NATO member.
The debate about NATO membership is not due to an ideological view of the Alliance, but rather reflects differences in the interpretation of Finland’s current and prospective geopolitical situation. The pro-NATO argument is based on acknowledging the fact that Finland’s capabilities are insufficient in case of direct confrontation with Russia, while membership in the Alliance would provide necessary military support. It is also mentioned that membership would be a natural confirmation of Finland’s pro-western and transatlantic orientation. However, perhaps the most salient argument is based on the belief that for all practical purposes Russia may already consider Finland as a de facto NATO member and a close US ally. Therefore, it is argued, Finland bears the political costs of membership while not enjoying any of its benefits.
Opponents of NATO membership point out that becoming a member would automatically and unequivocally designate Finland as a potential enemy of Russia, at least for as long as Moscow perceives the Alliance as a military threat. While remaining non-aligned provides a degree of strategic flexibility vis-à-vis Russia. It’s also argued, based on previous Russian declarations, that membership would provoke Moscow’s retaliation. Thus, the membership in the Alliance could paradoxically result in the deterioration of Finland’s security situation as the probability of a conflict with Russia could actually increase as a result. Apart from the larger and more aggressive Russian military presence along its borders, Finland would also likely need to face some form of economic sanctions. Given that Russia is Finland’s third export market, its main energy supplier and also hosts several large Finnish direct investments the impact of potential sanctions could be significant.
One of the key reasons why the debate about NATO membership is so complex stems from the character of Finland’s geostrategic situation. Not only does Finland share a 1,340 km long border with Russia, it also is located in a close proximity to several strategic areas of the Russian Federation. St Petersburg, the second-largest city in Russia and an important political and economic centre lies only about 300 kilometres from Helsinki. There is also a significant amount of the Russian energy infrastructure located in the vicinity of the Finnish territory; including the country’s largest oil terminal in Primorsk and the Nord Stream pipeline. In the north, the border lies close to several strategically important Russian military installations on the Kola Peninsula.
Proximity to vital areas of the Russian Federation bestows Finnish territory with significant geostrategic value, which will be further affected by several factors. First is the general level of antagonism between the US and Russia. As relations between both powers become more hostile, Finland’s geostrategic position becomes more important for both Moscow and Washington. In a hypothetical confrontation, Finland would constitute a potential great offensive platform for the US and a strategically important buffer zone for Russia. Furthermore, the increasing significance of the Arctic region makes Finnish territory very relevant in a potential NATO-Russia stand-off in the far north as it provides strategic depth and enhances power projection capabilities towards the Barents Sea. Finally, the modernisation of the Finnish Army, in particular the acquisition of cruise missile systems, naturally increases Finland’s value as a geostrategic actor.
It is clear in this context that Finland’s membership in NATO would have significant repercussions. It would remove current strategic ambiguity and formally designate Helsinki as an American ally. It would also extend and reinforce the presence of the Alliance in the immediate vicinity to several areas of strategic importance to Russia. The degree of Russian control over the Baltic Sea would be weakened further making it a “NATO lake”. Finnish membership could also prompt Sweden to follow suit; the resulting bloc of four Nordic NATO countries would constitute a formidable politico-military challenge for Russia.
Therefore, it would be somewhat paradoxical if Moscow’s strategic gains in the Black Sea region would result in the deterioration of its position in the arguably more important Baltic-Barents area. However this scenario is unlikely as it seems that the Ukrainian crisis has not yet crossed the red line for the Finnish society and the country’s political elites. For NATO membership to become realistically considered in Finland a major escalation of tensions would be required, possibly consisting of open Russian military attack on Ukraine.
However the real “tripwire” is likely located in the Baltic States, in particular Estonia and Latvia. If the Ukrainian scenario was to be repeated in these countries, one could expect that the topic of NATO membership would gain significant traction in both Finland and Sweden. The perspective of Helsinki and Stockholm joining NATO in response to Russian threats to Tallinn and Riga may be actually a very viable insurance policy for the latter.
Despite remaining formally non-aligned with NATO, Finland will nevertheless become increasingly important for both Moscow and Washington. As such, the country will be more central to global geopolitical rivalries with all the benefits and disadvantages that it entails.
Adam Klus is a PhD student of the Past, Space and Environment in Society Doctoral Programme at the University of Eastern Finland. His research interests include; geopolitics of Eastern Europe, country risk analysis, asymmetric threats, unconventional use of military force, and geopolitically disruptive technologies. He works as an investment professional and has several years of experience from financial companies in London and Helsinki.