Public support and political momentum for Finland to join NATO has reached an all-time high as a result of the war in Ukraine, raising the very real possibility that the alliance’s borders with Russia could stretch more than 830 miles. in a matter of months.
Why it matters: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced European capitals to settle accounts on defense spending and security policy. If Finland joins NATO, it would represent the biggest transformation of Europe’s security architecture in years.
State of the situation: The Finnish government is expected to present a report to parliament on the changed security environment later this month, starting a debate and eventually a recommendation on applying for NATO membership.
- 60% of Finns now support joining NATO, according to a poll made last month, a 34-point jump from last fall, and the highest level since polling on the subject began in 1998.
- NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week he expects “all 30 allies to welcome” both Sweden and Finland into the alliance if the Nordic neighbors decide to apply, suggesting the membership process would move quickly.
What they are saying: “I think the Finns at the moment are motivated by what I call rational fear,” former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb told Axios in an interview.
- “You have to balance realism and idealism. The realism is that you have a strong military like we have, and the idealism is trying to cooperate with a great neighbor,” Stubb said.
- There’s been this good faith attempt to forge a working relationship with Russia, and now that people see that that’s impossible, especially under [President Vladimir] Putin, they have changed their minds.”
Driving the news: Stubb told Axios that he thinks the government could decide to apply to NATO as early as May, a surprising timeline given that public opinion was only a few months old.
- “I’m not saying it will happen on Russian Victory Day (May 9), but it will come very soon,” Stubb joked.
- Some Finnish lawmakers are pushing for an application to be submitted before the NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June.
The panorama: Finland maintains a formidable army of 280,000 soldiers and 900,000 reservists, and has been deepening cooperation with NATO for years.
- Finland’s NATO membership would bring significant capabilities and “strategic depth” to the “particularly exposed” Baltic region, says Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels office.
- “Finland is a tough nut to crack. It would be and has been in the past, and the Russians of course remember that,” Lesser added, referring to the 1939-1940 Winter War in which invading Soviet troops suffered heavy casualties.
Between lines: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted for non-aligned countries like Sweden and Finland that having close ties to NATO is a far cry from Article Five protection, as kyiv’s pleas for a no-fly zone have failed to received response.
- “You cannot be complacent about NATO support outside of Article Five, no matter how big a stake Europe and the United States may have in their own security,” Lesser told Axios.
- “I think the sentiment of most Finns is that we never want to be left alone again, like we were during World War II,” Stubb added.
What to see: Applying to NATO increases the risk that Russia could take aggressive action against Finland in the aftermath of the decision and before membership is granted.
- Stubb dismissed the Kremlin threats as mostly saber-rattling, but warned that “obviously” there will be hybrid threats, such as cyberattacks or information warfare.
- Still, he insisted: “We have lived side by side with Russia throughout our existence. We know how to deal with Russia.”