The Ukraine war is already going to have an unwanted effect on Russia. Two traditionally neutral countries, Sweden and Finland are about to apply to join NATO. The latter’s government announced on Thursday that it was recommending accession “without delay”, but it still needs to be discussed in Parliament.
In case of Finland is especially serious for the Kremlin, since both countries share more than 1,300 kilometers of land border. Moscow’s threats to Helsinki have failed, and the country is about to make a radical change in the foreign policy it has pursued since World War II.
Finland and Russia, a difficult common history
The history of Finland is intertwined with that of Russia. In 1809, the Russian Empire seized the territory from Sweden, and from the end of the 19th century it tried to Russify it, without success. In 1917, with the Russian Revolution, Finland gained independence.but still fought two wars against the USSR (1939-40 and 1941-44, the latter aligned with Nazi Germany) that resulted in significant territorial losses, including the eastern province of Karelia.
In 1948, the foundations for a lasting peace were laid with an agreement in which both undertook not to belong to any organization that posed a mutual threat. This placed Finland in a particular situation (the so-called “Finlandization”) that allowed its own development during the Cold War, although with a great political and economic dependence on the Soviet Union.
“There were friendly relations, even cultural, but conditioned or asymmetric“
“There were friendly relationsincluding cultural but conditioned or asymmetric“, he explains to RTVE.es from Helsinki Alan Granadino“María Zambrano” researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid, and currently linked to the University of Tampere.
“Finland could not have an absolutely independent foreign policy – he continues – but were able to maintain parliamentary democracy, economic development based on capitalist lineswith a growing integration with the West, and, something very important, develop the nordic cooperation“. In 1961, Finland joined the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), to which the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, among others, also belonged.
The disappearance of the USSR (1991) ended that dependency. Finland joined the European Union in 1995. Since 2014, it increased its cooperation with NATO and in 2015 it went from neutrality to consider itself a “non-aligned nation”.
“Neutrality has worked quite well, until now it has prevented a Russian attack,” says Granadino. “One of the key issues was the Russia’s confidence that Finland would maintain its neutrality, which Finland earned by scrupulously fulfilling what was agreed. I think that in the possible access to NATO it is trying to be transparent as well. He wants to emphasize the fact that Finland does not want to be an aggressor state, but rather seeks greater security.”
An armed neutrality: the largest reserve army in Europe
But staying on the sidelines of military coalitions for 70 years does not mean forgetting that you have both a conventional and an atomic military power as your neighbor. The Finns have always been prepared to defend themselves.
The Foreign Minister, Pekka Haavisto, on Thursday encrypted the “strength” of his Armed Forces in 280,000 soldiers mobilized. Compulsory military service allows them to have the Army of reservists largest in Europe in proportion to the population (900,000, for a population of 5.5 million), also with training. For comparison, Spain, with a population of more than 47 million, has an estimated total strength of 215,000 soldiers (120,000 active and 15,000 in reserve), according to figures from Global Firepower.
The capacity of its air and sea forces is much smaller. For example, it currently only has about 55 fighters.
The military spending was 1.5% of GDP in 2020, according to the World Bank. In April, the government of Sanna Marin agreed increase budget by 70%with more than 2,000 million euros. Along with the renewal of its fighters (it will replace the F-18 with F-35, both of American manufacture), the total military spending will exceed 2% of GDPthe percentage that NATO recommends to its member countries.
Finland already collaborates with the Alliancewith which it exchanges intelligence and with which it regularly participates in military exercises, the last ones in March and April in Norway (Cold Response 2022 exercises).
The country also has a network of 54,000 bomb sheltersboth public and private, with capacity for 4.4 million peopleand that in peacetime they are used as sports centers, parking lots or metro stations, according to the Ministry of the Interior.
“Finland has always maintained an active army, quite powerful, because it knows the risk involved“
“Finland has always maintained an active army, quite powerful, because it knows the risk involvedbut the policy of neutrality was the one that suited him the most”, confirms, in statements to RNE, Joel Diaz Rodriguezjurist specialized in International Relations and collaborator of the Institute of Strategic Studies (IEEE).
Díaz believes that this shift in the Nordic country’s foreign and defense policy “is going to mean great support to strengthen the democratic pillar” in the Alliance. “in the military fieldit will be positive [para la OTAN] close that space, that access to the arctic“, Add.
Support for NATO membership grows among Finns
What has led Finland to now ask for full membership in the Alliance? During years income support among the population remained around 25%. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, has brought about a sea change in public opinion. Up to 76%, according to public radio and television polls YLE, support the entry today, 14% more than in March. Following the statement by the president and the prime minister this Thursday, the Finnish media encrypt the input support by 80%as he comments Allan Granadino. “If there was someone who was still not convinced, now he is more convinced,” he adds.
The Complutense researcher does not perceive fear in the daily life of the Finns, but he does perceive concern, and there are details that show it. For example, iodine pills sold out in pharmacies shortly after the invasion, for fear of a nuclear attack or accident, and in many homes they collected water.
“In the collective mentality there is a perception of risk always when talking about Russia, they have historical reasons”, explains Granadino. “The Finns have seen themselves reflected, they have seen what could happen here, among other things because the conflict in Ukraine has not been well explainedand it has been explained as an irrational act that has occurred without anyone expecting it,” he adds.
The critical voices with the entry into the Alliance have been overcome. It is the case of the Left Alliancetraditionally opposed to NATO, whose leader and Minister of Education in the coalition government, Li Andersson, has positioned itself in favor with nuances and has given its deputies freedom to vote. Or the veteran Social Democrat deputy and former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomiojawho has lamented that the political debate has been too “emotional” and has criticized “war psychosis” Of the media.
There has not even been a referendum. President Sauli Niinistö, who advocated a referendum until just a few weeks ago, now considers it unnecessary, while other Finnish politicians believe the country would be highly vulnerable to Russian disinformation campaigns.
lieutenant general Francisco Gan Pampols He has no doubts: without the war in Ukraine, the consensus in Finland and Sweden about joining the military coalition would not be understood. “Finland seeks the support of the only organization with deterrence capacity to protect itself against Russia -has underlined in an interview in La Noche en 24 Horas de TVE-. It would be foolish to deny the possibility of survival that NATO provides to the two [Suecia y Finlandia] thinking that they could get out of a conflict, if it escalated, on their own.
“Yes [Vladímir] Putin intended to divide Europe, he has led to close ranks,” says Joel Díaz. “It is going to change a position of two historically neutral countries and much more pacifist.”
This Thursday, Niinistö urged his Russian counterpart to “look in the mirror” and say to himself: “You have caused this.”
What will Russia do?
The lieutenant general recalls that, despite the intense Russian-Finnish economic exchange, with buoyant border cities, joining NATO will be perceived by Moscow as a threat to its security. “Now it will have more than a thousand kilometers of border with that organization. Finland’s accession will force Russia to militarize that border“.
Javier Gil, professor of International Relations at the University of Comillas, warns that this “deep-seated strategic change” has yet to be completed. “It remains to be seen that events do not occur that change the opinion of both countries or of NATO itself – Gil underlined on Canal 24 Horas de TVE – We have to wait for this request to be made officially, for NATO to invite and that the geopolitical context in Europe does not worsen or there are drastic changes make them rethink the situation”.
“Finland’s accession to NATO will force Russia to militarize that border“
Gil points out, for example, that some parliament of the member states could veto the entry of both countries. Russia you can also take some measure that can “escalate into a future conflict”since for the Kremlin the extension of NATO back to its border may be a “red line”.
“It depends on whether the entry is formalized and, if it occurs, how the border with Russia would be reinforced or militarized, but I do not rule out that Russia will take some kind of offensive maneuver -says the professor from the University of Comillas- Let’s see how it fits into Russia’s profoundly nationalist and bellicose rhetoric that a country, which for more than 70 years has chosen to maintain a neutralityor at least not join NATO, do it. Let’s see how the Russian giant ends up reacting“.
Alan Granadino, for his part, believes that we still have to wait for the Finnish Parliament to finalize the request for entry. The legislature could set certain conditionsWhat that there are no foreign bases or nuclear weapons on its territory (similar to the situation of Norway within the Alliance) and that independence in foreign policy be maintained, conditions that would have to be negotiated with NATO, but that could help appease Moscow.