A major military exercise has kicked off in Latvia. The Sabre Strike war games involve 4,700 troops and 800 military vehicles. Russia sees NATO's military build-up in the vicinity of its borders as a sign of hostility. Not a member of the alliance, Finland is among the participants in the unfriendly action.
Hot issue on national radar screen
While the debate has been simmering in for some time, Finland is encouraged to seriously consider full-fledged NATO membership by influential political circles and segments of social elite. The situation in Ukraine is used as a pretext for putting the issue to the fore. NATO membership could come up for debate before the 2015 parliamentary elections. The ongoing discussions may have prominent international implications…
Finland´s President Sauli Niinistö said on June 9 after a security conference at the presidential summer residence Kultaranta near Turku that Finland and Sweden have made a joint proposal on NATO partnership, which the alliance is studying. A referendum would be required to change the country´s constitutionally neutral status before a possible NATO membership could be applied. «When the NATO partners meet next autumn, the content of how partnership could be extended will probably become clear», Niinistö suggested.
It was kind of expected. Other high-standing Finish officials have recently expressed support for the pro-NATO policy. «I think it would be good to have an open debate about NATO already now, and I hope that everyone would participate in it, even those who oppose the membership», said Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen. Mr. Katainen belongs to the National Coalition Party. Of all the Finnish factions supporting the country's NATO membership, this one enjoys the biggest clout. Having gained 44 of the 200 seats in the 2011 parliamentary elections, this right-wing party became, for the first time in its history, the largest political force in the country.
Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari (1994-2000), the Finish political heavyweight who won the Nobel peace prize in 2008 over his role in the Kosovo process negotiations, strongly advocates that the country should join the alliance. The Ahtisaari plan was implemented in Kosovo. As a result the region has become a criminal enclave in Europe, the situation there is dire. With the evident failure and sad experience of his Kosovo mission behind, is Mr. Ahtisaari sure he is advocating a right thing this time?
On March 29 a handful of Finnish cultural figures, supporting Finland's NATO membership signed a petition saying «We wish to belong to a community of states ruled by law that respect freedom, democracy, and human rights – a community of nations that have committed themselves to upholding these values».
The most influential daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat is another prominent Finnish actor supporting pro-NATO agenda. It is the most influential Finnish daily and the largest subscription newspaper in the Nordic countries.
Ministry of Defence Carl Haglund has joined the choir. He believes Russia’s actions in Ukraine have brought Finland and Sweden closer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization now than they have ever been in the past. As if matching his words, last month Finland signed a memorandum of understanding with NATO, which some experts are saying could be the first step toward Finland becoming an official member of the military alliance. Under the terms of the agreement, Finland will integrate its armed forces into the NATO system of common defense. In exchange, the alliance will commit to protect Finland in the event the country is attacked. In practice it’s nothing else but informal membership with the corresponding commitments.
According to the April 26 almost two-thirds of Finnish military officers believe the country should join NATO, and even more think the Russian military threat has grown in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Of the polled officers, 66 percent favoured NATO entry, 10 percent preferred a defence alliance with Sweden and one quarter thought it would be best to remain outside any alliance. Some 2,000 of the 6,000 members of the Officers' Union were part of the survey, conducted by the union and Helsingin Sanomat. Support for NATO membership remains low among the general population, with recent polls showing only about one in five favouring entry. Despite all the information efforts the support for NATO membership increased from only 20 percent in 2013 to 22 percent in 2014.
The remarks and facts mentioned above testify to the fact that there are powerful factions within the Finnish establishment chomping at the bit to make Finland a full-fledged NATO member. Timo Soini, Chairman of the Parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee, stated that while not a member of a military alliance, Finland was no longer militarily non-aligned.
Second thoughts are best
Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border with Russia – more than the other 27 EU members combined.
The country sells about 10 percent of all exported goods in Russia, its biggest trade partner. More than 80 percent of Finland’s imports from its eastern neighbor are energy products, including 100 percent of natural gas used in Finland, according to information provided by the customs office.
Few people really believe Russia could launch an intervention against Finland. On April 9, for example, a Washington Post reporter named Adam Taylor published an article entitled «No, Russia Isn’t About to Invade Finland and Sweden».
Historically, Finland has shied away from joining NATO. Its thinking has always reflected the idea of avoiding taking sides and thus potentially provoking an attack. It hardly requires NATO membership because it is already a member of the European Union and a NATO partner. Opposition Centre Party Chair Juha Sipilä says now is not the appropriate time to be considering the NATO question.
Sipilä said the NATO question shouldn’t be discussed during times of crisis, «My own NATO position is exactly the same as that of the Centre Party. Finland does not belong to any military alliance, but we wish to maintain that option. If membership was to be considered, there would have to be a nationwide referendum arranged on the issue», he said.
Close to 60 percent of Finns are understood to oppose their country joining NATO. Could any responsible politician take a decision evidently opposed by such a large segment of population even in the conditions of information campaign to influence people’s minds?
The membership would make Finland lose independence and freedom of choice getting it involved in US-initiated military ventures. One sees that in Germany, in Britain, increasingly in France the resistance to this is beginning to mount. The deployment of Finnish troops in Afghanistan made Finland a participant in a war on the way to the membership – a price to pay. The Kosovo mission is nothing to be proud of – the NATO Kosovo policy is an iffy endeavor to put it mildly. There may be other commitments the country could have avoided. Finland would lose its traditional role as peace mediator in international conflicts – a unique niche to bolster its international standing. The member states are to devote at least 2% of annual GDP to defense. That would imply that, at a minimum, a move by Finland to join NATO would require a 33% boost to defense spending – $1.3 billion more in weapons purchases every year going forward.
And when push comes to shove, NATO may not be able or willing to defend Finland. It is more blessed to rely on one’s own efforts when it comes to security guarantees.
Most NATO member states have small professional military. In Finland, on the other hand, military defence is built on large reserves and general conscription: 75% of young men receive military training. Once NATO member, Finland will have to change the system of manning the armed forces.
The move to join the alliance will make Finland swim against the tide. The post-Cold War unipolar world order is on the way to vanish with emerging multipolarity changing the world scene. The dominance of the United States is gradually becoming a thing of the past as the role of large developing countries, such as BRICS, for instance, is growing.
Russia has legitimate concerns
Russia has its legitimate security concerns that should be understood. The distance from Helsinki to St. Petersburg is fewer than 200 miles. Russia slammed NATO for its efforts to expand further towards its borders as the major NATO military exercise was kicking off in Latvia.
«The involvement of any country in a military bloc deprives it of a certain degree of sovereignty, and some decisions are made at a different level», the Russian President said exactly two years ago while meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in June 2012. A few days before the 2012 summit Russian Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov said at an event organized by Finland's National Defence Courses Association at the University of Helsinki that cooperation between Finland and NATO threatened Russian security. «Cooperation between Finland and NATO threatens Russia's security», stressed Makarov. «Finland should not be desirous of NATO membership, rather it should preferably have tighter military cooperation with Russia», he emphasized back then.
On May 3, 2014 the Russian Foreign Ministry released its latest official opinion on the discussions of Finland and Sweden joining NATO. Accordingly, Russia considers the dialogue to be the source of negative consequences. «On the background of building up the NATO infrastructure in several countries bordering on Russia and resuming discussions of Sweden and Finland entering the military bloc, the risk of negative changes in the North and Baltic Sea Region was stressed, while this region is traditionally characterized by a low level of political and military tension», the statement says.
«An artificial attempt to continue NATO expansion to the east and any other direction, to continue moving military infrastructure closer towards the borders, including Russia's borders, is counterproductive and contradicts the obligations which NATO country members have taken upon themselves», Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on a visit to Finland on June 9 meeting his Finnish counterpart Erkki Tuomioja in Turku, south-west Finland. On the day of the visit Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that Finland was not promoting good neighbourly relations with Russia in siding with the West over the situation in Ukraine. «For our part, we believe that such moves do not accord either with the spirit of Russo-Finnish goodneighbourliness or the principles of mutual advantage», the spokesman emphasized. «Restoring the traditionally high dynamism of bilateral interaction would meet mutual long-term interests of our two states».
The NATO membership will have grave implications for Finland. A lot will change. There are many things to ponder before coming to the conclusion it is a right step in the right direction. As the polls show, the common people of the country realize it well, perhaps much better than many leading politicians and privileged segment of social elite.