Youn 1961, as the Cold War was building to its peak, Finnish foreign minister and former Prime Minister Rolf Torngren tried to explain his country’s neutrality policy to the rest of the world. “To some,” he recognized, “the existence of an independent neutral state, a Western democracy, next door to the Soviet Union, maintaining its freedom in friendship with, not in defiance of, its powerful neighbor appears in itself to be a paradox.”
Fivety years later, the Finnish’s neutrality are being challenged again by their own people. A shift in public opinion has occurred in Finland, as well as in Sweden’s neighbor and longtime neutral Sweden after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet even as efforts to pursue membership gather steam, the paradox that Torngren described continues: the very process of seeking NATO’s protection may itself escalate the risk these Nordic countries face.
“For the first time, a majority of Finland’s population is indicating that they are in favor of NATO membership,” Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told TIME in a Mar. 12 Telephone interview. “And of course it has become obvious that political parties have been starting their discussions about the security situation and how it affects Finland’s position with regards to NATO. So the political process has started.”
As a borderland between East and West, Finland’s neutrality dates back to the end of World War II. It signed an agreement with Moscow in 1948 that it would not join NATO or the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. It joined NATO in 1995 after strengthening alliances with the West in the 1970s. However, its support has remained at a low 30% level since then, similar to Sweden.
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As Russian threats to Ukraine and suspicious activity around Baltic Sea (drones flying nightly over vulnerable sites around Stockholm; a Russian cargo aircraft that made an unplanned detour in southern Finland), increased, this percentage started to increase earlier in the year. With the invading of Ukraine on February 24, what was a gradual rise became an abrupt leap. Only days after the start of war, polls were conducted in all countries by newspapers. The results showed that support was at an historic 51% for Sweden and 53% for Finland.
Popular efforts have helped Finland’s public shift to a more positive view of the issue. Two separate citizens’ initiatives—one calling for a referendum on NATO, the other urging the President and other authorities to bring a proposal for accession before Parliament— have each garnered the necessary 50,000 signatures to trigger their consideration in the legislature; debate is expected to begin next week.
Matti Muukkonen is a University of Eastern Finland law professor and one of the initiators of the second initiative. He has been a long-time supporter of Finland joining NATO. However, the March 3 invasion of Ukraine had in his opinion significantly increased the urgency for accession. “Russia is ruthlessly working to create a buffer between itself and NATO,” he says. “In order to continue to enjoy fundamental and human rights in the future, Finland must make every effort to safeguard our sovereignty.”
Right, Sanna Marin (Finland’s Prime Minister) and Antti Kaikkonen, the Defense Minister, arrive at a Helsinki press conference following Ukraine’s decision to provide arms. This was held in Helsinki on February 28, 2022.
Jussi Nukari—Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty Images
It shares an 800-mile border with Russia and has a complicated past (Finland was part the Russian Empire from 1808 to 1917 and then lost territory to Russia in the Winter War 1939-40), so the country is always on the alert for the threat that its strong neighbor to the east might pose. “Russia doesn’t view things a single country at a time,” says Mika Aaltola, director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “They are using Ukraine to demonstrate their power, perhaps trying to ‘shock and awe’ a bit regionally, so that everyone in the region understands that if Russian security is not assured, no one’s security is assured.”
Maria Zakharova, Russian foreign minister spokeswoman, seemed to reiterate that message to both Nordic countries on the second day following the invasion of Ukraine. “It’s obvious,” she said at a press briefing in Moscow. “That if Finland and Sweden join NATO, which is first of all a military organization, it will entail serious military-political consequences, which would require retaliatory steps by the Russian Federation.” Her statement has since been repeated by others in Russia’s foreign ministry.
Russia appears to be acting aggressively in this region, according to signs. On the day the second citizens’ initiative was launched, Finland’s largest banks were the target of a massive DDoS attack. Some experts thought the DDoS attack was an attempt to block the initiative because Finns typically use their banking IDs online (like signing the petition). On March 16, the Russian Embassy in Finland was also present. called on Russians there to report “cases of violation of rights, discrimination and incitement of hatred against citizens of the Russian Federation and native speakers of the Russian language to the consular department of the embassy by email,” exactly the same kind of invented incidents used to justify the invasion of Ukraine. Finnish officials also fear that Belarus, Russia’s ally may want to overflow its borders with immigrants. The tactic they used last summer to allow tens to thousands of mostly Iraqi Kurdistan migrants to enter the European Union, creating a crisis.
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Muukkonen and NATO supporters have been convinced that Finland has to respond quickly to these events. This is why they and their co-authors of the initiative want Finland’s government to suggest accession instead of waiting for a referendum. They also believe the moment is safer than it appears, despite the apparent urgency. “Russia is deep in the mud of Ukraine,” he says. “It has concentrated a large part of its forces there, so it would be almost the best time to join in this situation.”
While both the Swedish and Finnish government have sent weapons shipments to Ukraine and increased cooperation with NATO, they seem to be more cautious about the possibility of joining. Although Prime Minister Sanne Marin has shown herself more open to exploring the question of membership than her Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson (who last week dismissed the prospect, arguing that Sweden’s application would “further destabilize the situation”), she nonetheless cautioned that the debate would be “thorough,” and neither she nor President Sauli Niinisto have yet expressed their opinion on what they think the outcome should be.
He emphasizes the importance of another topic for foreign minister. “At the moment, I think it’s very important that we concentrate solely on solving the war in Ukraine,” says Haavisto. “This has been our message to our partners in NATO and the European Union; that we need to concentrate on what can be the steps to stop this very unfair war against Ukraine and the Ukrainian population. As for what’s happening now in Sweden and Finland, that’s a long-term issue which requires more analysis and more discussion.”
However, current leaders of Sweden and Finland should be cautious about possible membership. The same can’t be said for former leaders. Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, argues in a Washington Post Op-Ed, “There is no way back to a past of illusionary neutrality. The choice now is between remaining in a slightly uncertain in-between or recognizing a new reality and taking the step into full membership.”
Alexander Stubb, former prime minister of Finland, welcomed the editorial with some tongue-in cheek rivalry. “Dear Carl Bildt,” he wrote on Twitter, “I think you are too conservative on FIN. The train has left the station. Now the work is underway and we are at the @NATO Headquarters. This time, Finland is showing the way.”
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