Finland prepares for historic NATO decision

Finland is preparing for a potentially historic “before midsummer” decision on whether to join NATO as a deterrent to Russian aggression.

The Nordic nation of 5.5 million people has traditionally been militarily non-aligned, in part to avoid provoking its eastern neighbor with which it shares a 1,300-kilometer (830-mile) border.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 has doubled public support for NATO accession from 30 percent to 60 percent, according to a series of polls.

“Never underestimate the ability of Finns to make quick decisions when the world changes,” former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb told AFP.

Stubb, a longtime NATO lawyer, now believes Finland’s application for membership is “a foregone conclusion” as Finns reevaluate their relationship with their neighbour.

Next week, a government-commissioned national security survey will be handed over to parliament, the Eduskunta, to help Finnish MPs make a decision before it is put to a vote.

“We will have very careful discussions, but not take more time than necessary,” Prime Minister Sanna Marin said at a news conference on Friday.

“I think we will end the discussion before midsummer,” she added.

“My guess is that the application will be submitted sometime in May,” in time for the NATO summit in Madrid in June, Stubb said.

Finland declared independence in 1917 after 150 years of Russian rule, only because the outnumbered army repelled an attempted Soviet invasion during World War II, inflicting heavy casualties on the Red Army.

The hostilities ended in a peace agreement in which Finland ceded several border areas to the Soviet Union.

Finnish leaders agreed to remain neutral during the Cold War in exchange for assurances from Moscow that it would not invade.

The country’s forced neutrality to appease its stronger neighbor coined the term “Finlandization.”

Finland has remained outside the transatlantic military alliance and, despite some post-Cold War budget cuts, has focused on maintaining well-funded defense and preparedness capabilities.

“We are able to mobilize 280,000 to 300,000 men and women within days,” Stubb said, adding that 900,000 reserves can also be called up.

Last week, the Finnish government approved a 40 percent increase in defense spending by 2026 to further bolster the country’s position.

“We’ve come a long way when it comes to our security policies, and they’ve worked so far,” said Center Party MP Joonas Kontta.

Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has acknowledged that Russia could try to destabilize a NATO membership offer during the “grey zone” between an application and its ratification by all 30 member states Photo: AFP / JOHN THYS

Like the majority of his parliamentary colleagues, the 32-year-old thought NATO membership was “something we don’t need right now”.

But the Russian invasion “changed something in Europe in a way that cannot be changed back,” he told AFP, and Kontta recently announced that he now believes it is time to join the alliance.

A number of MPs have recently announced similar changes regarding Finland’s “NATO issue”, although many more are keeping their positions to themselves pending more detailed discussions.

Only six out of 200 Finnish MPs expressed openly anti-NATO stances in a recent poll by public broadcaster Yle, including Markus Mustajarvi of the Left Alliance party

Finland and Sweden’s non-alignment “has brought stability to all of northern Europe,” the Lapland MP told AFP.

Mustajarvi questions whether NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense commitment would provide real protection in the event of an attack.

Instead, he cites Finland’s own defense capabilities, which are “so strong they would force Russia to think about the price it would pay for attacking”.

Despite receiving “all sorts of feedback” from the public and his fellow MPs about his position, Mustajarvi insists he “has thought about this and so far I see no reason to change my position”.

Since Russia’s attack, the Finnish leadership has held an intensive series of talks to gauge the views of other NATO states on a possible membership offer.

Along with neighboring Sweden, Finland has received public commitments from Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that the door of the alliance will remain open, as well as expressions of support from numerous members, including the US, UK, Germany, France and Turkey.

But an attempt to join NATO would likely be seen as a provocation by the Kremlin, for whom expanding the US-led alliance to its borders was a major security concern.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has warned that Russia’s response could be “brash”, including airspace, territorial violations and hybrid attacks.

The Kremlin has promised to “rebalance the situation” in the event that Finland joins NATO.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has acknowledged that Russia could try to destabilize a membership bid during the “grey zone” between an application and its ratification by all 30 NATO states, which could take four months to a year.

“Finland has always tried to stay away from the gray zone,” Stubb said, but he believes Finland has the resilience to withstand potential Russian aggression or hybrid attacks.

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