Following Finland's declaration of its intention to join NATO, Dr Mart Kuldkepp outlines the historical background of the Russo-Finnish relationship, and why Finland has chosen to take this bold step towards the West.

The Finnish President's and Prime Minister's official joint declaration of interest in joining NATO yesterday immediately prompted an angry Russian response. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary, stated in his morning briefing that Finnish entry is 'definitely' a security threat to Russia, and that it would constitute a reason for a symmetrical Russian response.

It remains to be seen what exactly the Russian response will consist of but given that Finland has just concluded a security pact with the UK to avoid any immediate surprises, it is unlikely that the response will be far-reaching. In the meantime, however, it is an occasion to reflect on the Finnish calculus behind this move.

Throughout its whole history as an independent state, Finland has regarded Russia as its main security threat. Today, when Russia is waging an unprovoked criminal war against Ukraine – in close geographical proximity to Finland – this fact of life remains entirely unchanged. However, what has changed is Finnish thinking on how best to counter this threat.

For a long time, the Finnish security policy vis-à-vis Russia could be described as a form of appeasement. This was most obviously the case during the Cold War, when Finland, which in World War II had fought against the Soviet Union, experienced a period of Finlandisation: one-sided dependence on Soviet foreign policy. This meant that Finland was unable to freely participate in international security discussions – not to speak of joining NATO – and had to adopt 'neutrality' as its official security policy.

But even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when giving up neutrality had become entirely feasible, Finland still did not fully do so. It took on security commitments through the EU and later NORDEFCO, joined NATO's Partnership for Peace programme (PfP) already in 1994, and its inner circle of 'Enhanced Opportunities Partners' in 2014. But Finland did not seek full NATO membership, because of its persistent belief that Finland's relationship with Russia was better managed in a less securitised environment, i.e., outside of NATO. Its Cold War-era experience had left Finland with a path-dependency: since the old security policy had worked before, and continued to work, there was no reason to change it.

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This was a Finnish decision. NATO, on its part, would have been welcoming. Finnish (and Swedish) membership have long been recognised as extremely helpful for NATO's defence of the Baltic states, given the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy that Russia would likely be employing to prevent reinforcements from reaching the eastern shore of the Baltic. Finnish and Swedish capabilities, territory, and territorial waters will tilt the regional military balance in NATO's favour.

But until February 2022, the security discourse in Finland remained infused with the rhetoric of peacefulness and even attempts to obfuscate the extent to which Finland was already thoroughly connected with NATO. Increasingly, this obfuscation reflected the calculus that publicly committing to NATO membership would be a form of escalation in itself, since it could push Russia into some form of action against Finland, which then would require a direct response.

Why has this calculus changed now?

Firstly, because Russia has already moved in Ukraine in a way that requires a response from all other European states. This has led many members of the public in Finland ask the entirely justified question: 'If not now, then when?' The always non-credible idea that Russia does not pose a serious threat to European security has been thoroughly debunked by Russia's own actions.

Secondly, the current Russian threat is of the 'right size' to strengthen Finnish resolve. It is not an overwhelming threat, like the USSR used to be, which would instead trigger an appeasement dynamic. But neither is it a threat that is weak enough for the domestic sceptics of NATO membership to dismiss it as non-credible. It is a challenge, but a challenge to be resisted and overcome.

Furthermore, in event of a broader war in the region, Finnish and Swedish non-membership would likely turn out to be a liability, because it has left them without explicit security guarantees. The increasingly loud Russian threats that the two Nordics will face 'consequences' for the decision to seek NATO accession only prove that Russia sees the status quo as being in its security interests. But these Russian threats are not very credible: its army is bogged down in Ukraine, and it has few other instruments to punish sovereign states defending their legitimate security interests. We can therefore look forward to Finland (and Sweden) lodging their NATO membership applications very soon, swiftly followed by ratification and accession.

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