Ever since Sweden and Finland declared their intent to join NATO, the two have been treated as a package — former neutrals whose decision to enter the alliance runs counter to their strategic culture and will likely remake the security environment from the European High North down to the Baltic Sea.
The impact of these decisions cannot be overstated. They have already remapped the region, linking Norway to the Baltic States, and reframing the debate over whether Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia can be defended in an all-out conflict. The question is no longer “whether”, but “how.”
Once they are full members of the alliance, Sweden, and especially Finland, will transform NATO, offering modern military capabilities from day one. This is not lost on NATO: 23 of the alliance members, including the United States, have already ratified their membership; six will do so soon. Turkey, which initially raised objections, has yet to start the ratification process, though it has agreed to their accession.
While in some respects it makes sense to view Sweden and Finland’s application to join NATO as a package deal, there are significant differences between the two in terms of their history, their strategic cultures, and how they see themselves in relation to Russia.
Sweden’s experience with Russia is steeped in its own imperial history, including competition with Russia to dominate the region; meanwhile, Finland’s experience is one of struggling against Russia for its very existence as a state, its sovereignty, and continued independence. In this respect, Finland has more in common with the three Baltic States, Poland, and other Eastern Flank countries. Unlike Sweden, all have experienced Soviet Russia’s brutality in the 20th century and paid a lasting price for it.
Finland has always been serious about military power, with its comprehensive approach to security and defense at the center of its strategic and operational planning. With a population of only 5.5 million and a common border with Russia that spans some 830 miles, the country fields a relatively small professional army of soldiers and trainers (around 23,000 personnel), but it has learned well the lessons of its century of independence, especially when it comes to perfecting the art of self-reliance. Today Finland has one of the largest reserves of trained military personnel in Europe. This tradition of self-reliance means that in a crisis Finland could raise a 280,000 military force, and if need be, call up almost a million trained reservists, which it could equip and field at speed.
So why did Finland depart from its traditional strategic culture of self-reliance? In a nutshell, the Finns know Russia, and NATO’s failure to deter Putin’s militarism through the NATO partner-nation formula has made it abundantly clear that security lies only in full NATO membership and the Article V guarantee.
Despite half a century of neutrality during the Cold War, and three decades of official nonalignment on defense thereafter, just weeks after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the government announced that it would be applying for full NATO membership. Before Putin’s invasion, only 23% of Finns supported joining the alliance; today this number stands at 75%. The vote in the Finnish parliament on the motion to join NATO was 188 for, with eight against.
Russia has always been a central preoccupation for the Finns. This is in part a result of the nation’s experience in the 1939-40 Winter War when it fought a brave campaign to defend itself, but in the end, lost territory to the Soviet Union. Yet equally important to the Finns has been the experience of the Cold War.
The country’s “neutrality” formula was more restricted than Sweden’s, for example. Swedish neutrality was based on a sovereign choice, whereas Finland’s was based on necessity (and its commitments under the 1948 treaty with Russia.)
It should serve as a serious warning of how grave the security situation in Europe has become that Finland has shed its last vestiges of neutrality and begun to rearm. In a deal worth $9.4bn, Finland will buy 64 F-35 aircraft from the US to replace its fleet of F-18s, which are set to be phased out by 2025. The Finnish navy will further increase its capabilities to operate in the Baltic Sea. In sum, while Finland is not looking to provoke its powerful neighbor, it is prepared to defend itself. This is reflected in national polling, which shows that the overwhelming majority in the country, as high as 82%, are ready to fight Russia.
The Finns know all too well what a revanchist Russia is capable of, and what it costs to resist the Kremlin’s depredations. In that sense, it is not just their military capabilities that will strengthen NATO. It is first and foremost their determination to stand up and fight, should it come to that. Once in NATO, Finland’s voice will amplify other Eastern Flank countries, from the Baltic States to Poland and Romania.
This kind of resolve is a new “soft power,” and perhaps academics and policy analysts ought to talk about it more in this rapidly changing world.
Chels Michta is a Nonresident Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Chels is a former CEPA Title VIII Fellow and is currently a military intelligence officer serving in the US Army.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Department of Defense, or the US government.