The Soviet Union’s unprovoked invasion of Finland in November 1939 and the four years of war that followed are still fresh in the minds of many Finns. My father-in-law was 12 years old at the time. At school one day, when teachers heard air raid sirens, they took the students out to the schoolyard in hopes of showing the invading pilots flying overhead that there were children in the building. The attack nevertheless proceeded. My mother-in-law never psychologically recovered from the bombings — until she died, she would unravel upon hearing loud sounds.
Today, in an odd combination of irony and justice, Vladimir Putin’s brutal, illegal invasion of Ukraine has already made NATO stronger and more relevant than it has been since the end of the Cold War. His geopolitical aggression may even provoke one of the most significant expansions of NATO since its founding, as Finland is set to discard decades of neutrality to join the alliance. Perhaps Sweden will follow. This development would contribute greatly to a more secure, and democratic world.
Before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, fewer than a third of Finns and Swedes wanted to join NATO; now, upwards of 70 percent are on board. The Finnish Parliament’s recent review of the changing security environment in Europe in light of Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine initiated a new phase of the debate about NATO membership. All major parliamentary groups and political parties now support applying for accession. And with the president and prime minister expressing their backing as well, Finland’s application to the Alliance is imminent.
`A Strong Net Positive for NATO’
Contrary to the concerns of critics of Finland’s accession, its membership would be a strong net positive for NATO. It would significantly strengthen the North Atlantic Alliance and contribute to European security by enhancing allied military and intelligence capabilities and burnishing NATO’s democratic credentials.
Finland boasts highly capable armed forces, which are interoperable with NATO as a result of years of partnership, and would significantly add to NATO’s combat power. Indeed, Finland for years has been a significant contributor to NATO-led missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Finland regularly participates in NATO training exercises and recently hosted a massive exercise, Arrow 22, alongside American, British, Estonian and Latvian soldiers.
As a result of its well-funded, well-trained, and ready military, it would also enhance NATOs ability to defend the Baltic states, which have long been in Putin’s sights as a result of their determination to split from the former Soviet Union and stay that way. Finland’s membership in the Alliance would raise the barrier to the use of military force by Russia in the Baltic region, and thus enhance regional stability. Finland also would be essential in maintaining NATO’s strength in the increasingly competitive Arctic region. It also has a memorandum of understanding on Host Nation Support that allows for logistical support to NATO forces located on, or transiting through, its territory in a crisis.
Moreover, unlike many current NATO members, Finland has continued to invest in and improve the capabilities of its armed forces. Finland’s defense budget exceeds the 2 percent of GDP expected of NATO members. As a result, the country has powerful air, artillery and missile firepower, naval and cyber capabilities, and the capacity to rapidly mobilize 280,000 troops. Finland’s ability to project artillery firepower exceeds that of any other European nation, and it owns more combat tanks than Germany, a country with eight times its population. Finland also would bring considerable intelligence capabilities that would enhance NATO’s situational awareness and ability to collect and analyze intelligence on Russia’s activities.
In sum, Finland would help ensure that the system of collective security ushered in after 1945 remains in place.
Commitment to Democratic Principles
Finland’s commitment to NATO’s democratic principles is also undisputed. Its parliamentary system features free and fair elections. The judiciary is independent, it is the world’s least corrupt nation, and freedoms of speech and religion are respected. At a time when democracies are on the wane, and those of some more recent NATO members are sliding, it’s notable that Freedom House scores Finland as 100 out of 100 in its global freedom ratings.
Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, critics of Finland joining NATO could more easily argue that such a move might escalate tensions with Russia, a nuclear power that shares 800 miles of border with Finland. But Putin’s February assault – only the latest and most violent of repeated meddling in Ukraine – shows that he sees neutrality as weakness, not deterrence. Now, one analyst expressed concern that admitting Finland and Sweden “might create a major new vulnerability for the alliance just as the chances of conflict with Russia are rising.” Another critic called for “all parties concerned to take a deep breath and slow down” arguing that the threat of Russia invading either Finland or Sweden is remote, and that “admitting them to the military alliance will redraw and deepen Europe’s 20th century divisions in ways that will probably preclude far bolder and braver thinking about how to achieve peace and prosperity in the 21st.”
However remote the Russian threat may feel to some Western members of NATO, the Finns feel differently. Not only has Russia continued to violate Finland’s airspace, including most recently on May 5, but it also has launched cyberattacks on the government. As Russian aggression gets increasingly brutal in Ukraine and reckless elsewhere, now is a time for “security, not creativity,” as David Miliband put it (alluding to the wish for “bolder and braver thinking”), while also reminding Russia that NATO is fundamentally a defensive – not offensive – alliance.
In fact, Finland’s accession to NATO could help deter Putin’s ongoing and future aggressions, because NATO’s forward force would be bolstered, and may make other leaders within Europe and perhaps further afield who seek to export autocracy, political instability, and democratic backsliding think twice.
Ultimately, if the Finns join NATO, it will put a fine point on how Putin’s military adventurism underscores the threats posed by repressive regimes, not just for the people who live under them but for the wider cause of global peace and security. It will highlight the importance – and the possibility — of uniting strongly against such aggressions and the regimes that wage them.
NATO’s accession process is long and thorough. But when the time comes, the U.S. Congress – and the other 29 NATO members’ parliaments – should do the right thing and ratify Finland’s accession.
(The author has studied Finnish democracy and is married to Tapio Vaskio, Managing Director, of ERG Partners, a Finnish adviser in the intelligence and security sector.)