The Line in the Sand: Finland and the Unpredictable Neighbor

René Nyberg – 8th September 2016

Carnegie Europe

The ongoing war in Ukraine and Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea have changed Europe. Increased Russian military activity is also felt in the Baltic Sea area, although the heightened tension there is a political and military corollary to the conflict in Ukraine, not something emanating from the region itself. In this sense, it is a sideshow—even with the proximity to Russia’s northern capital, Saint Petersburg.

Yet the war in Ukraine has triggered an intense security policy debate in Finland and Sweden, which are both close nonmember partners of NATO. It is specifically the possibility of NATO membership that is discussed with such intensity in Finland and Sweden, an intensity unlike anything seen since the Cold War. Maintaining this possibility is a crucial means for these Nordic states to manage relations with their large Eastern neighbor.

Russia has fourteen contiguous neighbors and the longest land border in the world. Russia’s frontiers with Finland and Norway are the most stable and well managed. Indeed, the Finnish- Russian border regime had functioned flawlessly since the late 1950s. That is, until fall 2015, when to the great surprise of Norway and Finland, Russia suddenly allowed third-country nationals without proper visas to cross over.

Not only did this breach of confidence call into question long-established border regimes and exacerbate Europe’s refugee crisis, it also seemed to be a hybrid tool to convey a message of Russian power. This was the finding of an independent expert report entitled “The Effects of Finland’s Possible NATO Membership,” which was commissioned by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and in which I participated. Writing in April 2016, we noted: “The unexpected and unprovoked breach of the border regime . . . is an example of Russia’s propensity to create a problem, then leverage it and offer to manage it without necessarily solving it.”

The effect of this Russian move was devastating, as surprise turned to anger. But the border mess was eventually sorted, and it now seems unlikely that Russia will use this particular messaging approach again.

Aside from border issues, both Finland and Norway have a broad bilateral agenda with Russia, while Sweden has only limited contacts with Moscow beyond diplomatic relations. The fundamental differences between Finland and Sweden may be illustrated by the two I’s of ideology and identity. Regarding ideology, the Finnish creed is pragmatism, the antithesis of ideology. By contrast, the Swedish view of the world remains strongly influenced by former prime minister Olof Palme’s legacy and social democratic philosophy. Identity for Finns is based on survival, while Swedes see neutrality as very much a part of their national identity.

The geographic locations of Finland and Sweden partly explain the differences in the tone and substance of the two countries’ ongoing debates about NATO. The Swedish debate sounds more alarmist and is dominated by activists. Anna-Lena Laurén, the Moscow correspondent for a leading Swedish daily, put it this way: “The Swedes are more worked up than worried about the development in Russia, [while] the Finns are more worried than worked up.”

The positions of both the Swedish and the Finnish governments are robust and unequivocal. The conclusion of our report was clear on this, noting that an uncoordinated move by either nation with respect to NATO would negatively affect the security of the other.

A decision by Helsinki to join the alliance would represent a sea change that would transform Finland’s security policy in general and its relationship with Russia in particular. A small country such as Finland has good reason to be careful when considering choices of grand strategy. Our report included a caveat, however, which corresponds to the Finnish government’s view: “The possibility to apply for membership remains a tool to master the geopolitical dilemma posed by an unpredictable neighbor.”

In any case, any policy of neutrality is a thing of the past. As an EU member, Finland is not neutral, it is just not militarily allied. Indeed, what started with joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace in 1994 has become an integral part of Finland’s security policy. The Finnish armed forces today are fully compatible with NATO. There is no blueprint for accession, but the stated policy remains not to forsake the possibility of applying for membership.

Simultaneously, Finland and Sweden, which form a common strategic space, have deepened defense cooperation in an unprecedented way. Much like Sweden, Finland has concluded a bilateral cooperation agreement with the UK and is negotiating a similar accord with the United States. These agreements are technical, but their significance cannot be denied as military maneuvers with NATO and U.S. forces demonstrate.

For Russia, however, Finland’s NATO membership would be a line in the sand. A line that if crossed would trigger a Russian response and induce a severe crisis or even a break in relations with Moscow. In early July 2016, when a Finnish correspondent asked Vladimir Putin in a press conference why Russia was pushing Finland and Sweden into NATO, the Russian president stated that Moscow would reposition its troops if Helsinki joined the alliance. Putin’s curt reply closed this cycle of the NATO debate. It confirmed the existence of a redline but specifically failed to mention Finland’s cooperation with NATO, ever-closer cooperation with Sweden, or transatlantic linkages.

Finland is not defenseless, and the country never gave up territorial defense or abandoned conscription. In a speech at the end of August, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö summarized the importance of national defense as a key source of Finland’s national security: “We have learned to think that a credible defence creates a threshold and deterrent for intruders. It is equally important that, if a serious crisis should break out, a credible Finnish defence provides also strong incentives for partnership.”

Survival and avoiding occupation are perhaps Finland’s biggest achievements. Certainly, finding a modus vivendi with a former enemy is what makes the Finnish story so compelling. In parallel, Finland’s unflagging resolve in integrating with Western structures has been a cornerstone of its economic success. Close cooperation with NATO is the logical continuation of this effort. The possibility of applying for NATO membership remains a tool for managing the unpredictable neighbor.

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Written by René Nyberg