Finland, its neighbors Norway and Estonia, as well as other frontline states, have a common interest to ensure that there will be credible collective deterrence against Russian future aggression in Europe and to be heard within the (soon to be ) 32-member organization.
It is no accident that two prime ministers from the eastern flank, Sanna Marin of Finland and Kaja Kallas of Estonia, have emerged as straight-talking and unapologetic leaders of the democratic coalition supporting Ukraine, and delivering sobering broadsides against Russia.
“The way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine,” Finland’s leader said in October after President Biden had mused on building an off-ramp for Vladimir Putin. “There is war in Ukraine because Russia started it, not because Ukraine is defending itself,” Kallas said last month. “Russia’s goals haven’t changed, it wants to continue its war of aggression. This means we all need to do more. Give many more weapons to Ukraine, faster.”
This confidently assertive tone from the two women may irk Europe’s traditional continental leaders in France and Germany but is a necessary counterbalance to the old European alliance, which has dominated much of the continent’s discussion on how to manage the Russian regime.
Prime Ministers Marin and Kallas represent a generation of European politicians unencumbered by continental post-Cold War thinking about economic or energy interdependence and shielding European states from Russia’s aggression. Their personal relationship also symbolizes the state of bilateral relations, which are as close as ever. This was not always the case.
During the early years following the Cold War, the Finnish political elite displayed less understanding of Estonia’s more rhetorically hawkish stance towards Russia. President Tarja Halonen infamously accused the Baltic states of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder towards Russia in 2008, and again in 2012. This, and the frequent meetings between Finnish and Russian presidents, functioning relations at the border, and political rhetoric laced with phrases about cooperation and interdependence led some Estonian politicians to argue that despite their long border with Russia, Finns did not understand the threat posed by Russia.
But while Finnish public statements were closer in tone to those emanating from Berlin or Paris, Finland maintained a robust national defense and a resilient and diverse energy system precisely for national security reasons. Russia — like the Soviet Union before it — was seen as the only potential existential threat to Finnish security, even if this was not formally stated.
Russia’s actions in the early months of 2022 were to profoundly change both Finnish political rhetoric and its sense of how security was best achieved, and as a result, Finland sought NATO membership.
The application that was handed in May 2022, was backed by a great majority of the Finnish public, whose views on alliance hardened just as quickly — support reached 76%, compared to 26% a year earlier. Meanwhile, EU sanctions against Russia are backed by 96% of Finns, and the country is among the handful of EU countries that have banned travel with tourist visas for Russians.
In his new year speech of 2023, President Sauli Niinistö talked about good and evil — the West and Russia — in black-and-white terms that sounded almost Estonian in their directness. The Finnish Defence Forces ended the decades-long practice of referring to the potential adversary as A2Yellow (A2Keltainen), and simply clarified that deterring and defending against Russian aggression — in the future with allies — was its primary mission. So what explains Finland’s sudden change of political course and rhetoric – apart from Russia’s war of aggression?
In order to understand the swift — and seemingly enduring — change in the outlook of the Finnish public and leadership on NATO membership, one needs to understand the essence of the country’s strategic culture.
Its core is what Finns often refer to as “small-state realism”: a pragmatic, non-ideologized way of looking at world politics. Former President Mauno Koivisto’s response when asked about Finland’s national idea, responded: “To survive.” For a small state bordering an unpredictable giant, national security questions always came first. So, when Finland hosted the Helsinki Security Conference in 1975 or the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki in 2018, it was not from idealism but from pragmatism: it hoped that easing great power tensions would reflect positively on a small frontline states’ room to maneuver, and ultimately its security.
This security-driven pragmatism and the ultimate concern for survival as a sovereign country is something that Finland shares with other frontline nations, such as the Baltic states and Poland. It also sets it apart from the logic of the key European players like France and Germany – even if Finland’s Russia policy once looked superficially similar to those of Germany and France, the underlying logic has always been fundamentally different.
Finland’s ongoing security policy culture change will need to marry its historical small-state realism with a collective frontline state sensibility, both as an EU and NATO member. Its nuanced and realistic assessment of Russia’s logic will aid in bridging various perspectives in the two blocs.
For example, when Russia’s leaders have clearly expressed that they consider neighboring countries’ sovereignty to be second class, that it should be qualified by Russian needs, and that Russia is ready to invade a country to back this belief, Finland can make it clear to Germany and France that advocating a dialogue on the European security order, and possibly making compromises to appease Russia, would be detrimental to Finland, and the entirety of the eastern flank of NATO and the EU.
Finland must ensure, together with other frontline states, that NATO and the EU continue to build capacity to address Russian aggression in military, economic, energy, and political spheres.
This position is not the ideological stance of a hawk, but the pragmatic position of a country that understands the huge costs of war: there can be no lasting peace on the continent until there is credible Western deterrence to keep Russia at bay.
Sinikukka Saari is a Research Director for Great Power Politics and Foresight at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Her key research interests include Russian foreign and security policy, the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, and Finnish foreign policy.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak is a Lead Researcher heading up the Center on US Politics and Power at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. His work focuses on international security issues, with a geographic focus on Nordic and transatlantic security, and US foreign and defense policy.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.