Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin issued a joint statement on May 12 in which they simply supported joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The reason, says the official text: “Being a member of NATO would strengthen Finland’s security.” In just two paragraphs, it is well understood how this process has been lived in the country, in a way consistent with the Finnish spirit: dialogue and debate, but decision-making when it is considered that the time has come.
“During the spring,” the statement begins, “an important debate has developed over Finland’s possible entry into NATO.” To facilitate the debate, sufficient space for dialogue was given to all parties. The statement concludes by saying that “now that the time to decide is near, we verify our joint position for the knowledge of the parliamentary groups and the parties.”
From January 2022 to today, the percentage of support for joining NATO among the population has tripled; the latest polls mention an astonishing 76%. This very rapid change of position in a town that likes to think about things a lot has occurred as a response to factors external to the country itself. As Niinistö explained on Wednesday, May 11, at a press conference with the president of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, the process of deciding to join NATO was initiated by the change in Russia’s position in recent months. Russia traditionally claimed that the security of the Baltic Sea was much more stable by having as few NATO member states as possible.
Finland and Sweden, therefore, have not aligned themselves for the last 30 years of their own free will, but with the awareness that they were thereby enlarging their great neighbour. The importance of maintaining friendly relations with Russia for reasons of trade, history and proximity was taken for granted.
In this context, most Finns have maintained a clear desire for neutrality over the past decades, no doubt an expression of the fact that for them peace and tranquility are paramount values. However, when Russia told Sweden and Finland in December that they could not join NATO, it seemed to imply that the country had no will of its own. “This,” Niinistö commented, “got us thinking.” The attack on Ukraine on February 24 indeed confirmed that change in Russia. In this sense, Mika Aaltola, director of the Finnish Institute of Foreign Policy, warned from the outset of the danger of relying on a supposed “exception situation” that would favor Finland over other countries.
Niinistö, a man recognized in the country for his prudence, has been from the first moment a reference for the population in the changes that were taking place. Also Marin, despite his youth, has helped with his good work to transmit serenity. From the first days of the attack on Ukraine, Finland has lived with the certainty that the country’s leaders would make decisions with the long-term future in mind and not just in reaction to the Russian attack. Although the truth is that from the first moment it has been seen that the war in Ukraine meant for Finland -with its more than 1,300 kilometers of border with Russia- pressure to position itself in geopolitical terms and the end of an era, with everything that that means. Some see NATO entry as the lesser of two evils.
Following the usual comparison with Sweden, the Finnish media have highlighted the fact that Finland and Sweden’s move towards NATO has been led by the Finns. As has been written, the country has acted as the older brother (iso veli) of Sweden. Göran Djupsund, Emeritus Professor of Political Science, recently commented on the radio that in Finland, when decisions have to be made, they are made, whereas Sweden has a greater culture of debate, which can lead to another debate and another, and so on. . The fact that Marin, from the Social Democratic Party, has supported joining NATO has also had some impact in Sweden, where members of that party were more reluctant to change the position of neutrality. As is also characteristic of the country, in the last three months all these events have been experienced intensely, but with a very low profile.
On the other hand, meetings have been organized at the University of Helsinki to provide psychological support to students who need it. The emerging fragility of a suddenly uncertain future has dealt a blow to the Finnish way of life, where planning and security is the rule of thumb. Also in recent days, some commentators from the country suggested that Finland should now take a greater role in supporting Ukraine, following the example of Poland and others so supportive.
It is clear that Finland will have to develop a new international identity from the moment it enters NATO. By the way, there is a firm resolution in the country not to be intimidated by Russia, Turkey or any other country that may disagree with a decision that has already been made and has been carefully considered. During the strong years of the Cold War, the president of Finland for more than 25 years, Urho Kekkonen (1900-1986), sailed the Finnish ship always checking the conditions of the wind blowing from Moscow first.
The sources also show that the United States was well aware that Finland had withstood the blow of the Soviet Union during the Winter War (1939-1940) and had thus become, in its own right, a stronghold of the West. The well-known Professor Emeritus of International Law at the University of Helsinki, Martti Koskenniemi, told me the other day that in those years there existed in Finnish political life a relatively predictable clarity of a type of Realpolitik de do ut des, in whose practice the Finns. All this has ended the new era of Putin. The world is changing. And with the entry into NATO, a new panorama opens up for Finland to reinvent itself within the organization and outside it, establishing its new political profile of allies and principles to defend. Let’s see it with optimism.
Mónica García-Salmones is a researcher at the Álvaro d’Ors Chair at the Institute of Culture and Society at the University of Navarra and at the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights at the University of Helsinki.
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