The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has triggered a major shift in Finland’s foreign policy. Shedding its previous hesitancy, Finland along with Sweden, applied for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership on 17 May 2022.[i] While Sweden is yet to become a full member, Finland’s membership was ratified in March 2023. It became the 31st member of NATO[ii] on 4 April 2023, which also marked the 74th anniversary of NATO’s founding in 1949.[iii] The ratification was completed within a year, making this the fastest membership process in the alliance’s recent history despite being blocked by Hungary and Turkey initially. This viewpoint examines the importance of Finland’s NATO membership and its impact on European security as well as transatlantic cooperation.
In a departure from its policy of ‘Finlandisation’ or forced neutrality between Russia and the West, Helsinki applied for NATO membership in May 2022. The country’s decision to be an official NATO partner reflects its growing security concerns vis-à-vis Russia with which it shares a 832-mile-long border.[iv] Article 5 of NATO Treaty offers ‘collective defence’ of all Member States and commits to protection against attack from a third country. In this respect, Finland’s decision was driven by the need to secure guarantees against Russia.
It is pertinent to note that although not a part of the alliance earlier, Finland had advanced its ties with NATO with the Partnership for Peace Program (PfP) in 1994. It has also participated in NATO joint military exercises to develop interoperability. It has also hosted a number of NATO exercises and air and sea exercises.[v] For instance, the NATO exercise BALTOPS (Baltic Operations) was conducted in June 2022 where roughly 7,000 troops, 45 ships, and more than 75 aircraft from 14 NATO allies, plus Sweden and Finland, took part in the alliance’s 51st annual BALTOPS exercises.[vi] However, since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on 24th February 2022, domestic support for joining NATO in Finland increased exponentially. Statistically, support increased from about one-fifth of its population to four-fifth of the population supporting it today.[vii] Domestically, the decision to join NATO was backed by all mainstream parties as well.[viii]
Impact on the Transatlantic Alliance and European Security
Finland’s accession has reinvigorated the transatlantic partnership and has increased the scope of defence cooperation between NATO and Europe. It has also expanded the NATO border and influence in the Baltic Sea region.
Moreover, Finland’s inclusion implies a significant addition to NATO’s resources. The country maintains a huge and well-trained army. Its conscription-based reserves have reached almost 9,00,000, with a wartime strength of 2,80,000. It is also one of the few NATO Member States that has been able to commit 2 percent of its GDP on defence spending. It also has a huge civilian military infrastructure, developed as part of its that could be put in place if contingency arises. In Western Europe, Finland's artillery forces are the largest and best equipped and will be a key strategic asset to the alliance. The Finnish artillery has more artillery firepower than the combined militaries of Poland, Germany, Norway, and Sweden, with some 1,500 artillery weapons, including 700 Howitzer guns, 700 heavy mortars, and 100 rocket launcher systems. Europe's largest artillery training area, Rovajärvi, in Northern Finland, and other training areas offer NATO strategic military opportunities for capability training with plenty of artillery pieces, which still dominate the modern battlefield.
Finland is the world's leading icebreaker designer, having designed some 80 percent of the world's icebreakers. It is currently operating nine state-owned icebreakers. With the Arctic becoming a major arena of competition as the thawing of its frozen passages opens its vast resources and express routes for shipping, the strategic importance of Finland increases in the North Sea.
The expansion also has implications for European security. Finland and other Nordic States have been proactive in responding to the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Along with Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland, they have been most vocal in their criticism towards Russia and have shown greater support for the transatlantic alliance. This comes at a time when Western European countries such as France have been promoting the idea of European strategic autonomy. On the other hand, Germany has also shed its traditional defence inhibitions and has made endeavours to increase its defence spending. It is, thus, evident that there are divisions within Europe on the extent of reliance on NATO for European security. The rising profile of Nordic-Baltic region along with Poland reflects that “centre of gravity is moving eastwards in Europe”.[ix]
The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has been instrumental in redefining Finland’s approach to security. Although a close partner of NATO earlier, the country applied for official membership only after the beginning of the Ukraine conflict in order to ensure security guarantees from NATO against Russia. Meanwhile, the accession of Finland carries positive implications for NATO as well. Along with an extended border and influence, Finland offers crucial military resources which would strengthen NATO’s capacity. Overall, it is a mutually beneficial move and has opened new avenues for transatlantic cooperation. However, its membership comes at a time when the NATO/EU faces new challenges as some of its members are working towards strengthening the alliance while others are working towards securing strategic autonomy.
*Varuna Shankar, Research Intern, Indian Council of World Affairs, Sapru House, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
iNATO. (n.d.). NATO celebrates historic 74th anniversary, with Finland set to join. NATO. Retrieved June 5, 2023, from https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_213452.htm
iiDahl, A.-S. (2011). Sweden, Finland, and NATO: Security partners and security producers (Nordic-Baltic Security in the 21st Century: pp. 6–11), Atlantic Council, https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep03562.5
[iv]Explained: What does NATO's Nordic expansion mean for Europe's security architecture?, Indiatimes, https://www.indiatimes.com/explainers/news/what-does-natos-nordic-expansion-mean-for-europes-security-architecture-569616.html, April 19, 2023, 12:01:58
[v]Why Finland hasn’t joined NATO?, Aaron Korewa, Why Sweden still hasn’t joined NATO?, Atlantic Council, May 17, 2016
[vi]Major Baltic Sea exercise kicks off as Swedish, Finnish NATO bids wait on Turkey, Joe Gould, June 04, 2022; Major Baltic Sea exercise kicks off as Swedish, Finnish NATO bids wait on Turkey (defensenews.com)
[viii]NATO’s Nordic expansion: Adding Finland and Sweden will transform European security, Carl Bildt, April 26, 2022; NATO’s Nordic expansion: Adding Finland and Sweden will transform European Security (foreignaffairs.com)
[ix]As Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland integrate air defence to counter Russia, C Raja Mohan writes on the ‘New Warsaw Pact’, March 28, 2023, The Indian Express, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/denmark-sweden-norway-finalnd-integrate-air-defence-to-counter-russia-8524000/