Russian Collateral Damage: Finland and Sweden’s Accession to NATO

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Finland and Sweden’s expected accession to NATO is the most significant collateral damage incurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine yet.

Finland’s move to join NATO earlier this year may have come suddenly for much of the world, but Finns had been debating accession for years. In 2016, the country’s foreign ministry commissioned a report on the potential effects of NATO membership (I was one of that report’s four authors). One of the three key takeaways of this report has proved false: the question of the NATO accession has not been put to a referendum. There was no need to give voters a say, since recent events had made accession widely popular among Finns.

The other two takeaways, however, correctly predicted that Finland would join NATO at the same time as Sweden, and that the main threat to the country’s security—its unstable, unpredictable, and nuclear-armed neighbor Russia—was here to stay. Now Finland will face that threat with the rest of the alliance rather than alone.

Since the Soviet collapse, Finns had calculated that EU membership would keep them safe, unlike the Swedes, who saw the EU as a mere trading partner. When, in 2004, Finland’s national security strategy first acknowledged the prospect of NATO accession, many dismissed the idea as divorced from reality.

Finland’s so-called NATO option, however, turned out to be more than just a slogan, becoming a testament to Finns’ characteristic pragmatism. For while the Swedes’ long-held refusal to join the alliance had to do with their national identity, for Finns, neutrality was never more than a necessity, an act of survival.

Until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finns felt it sufficient to work closely with NATO, integrate militarily with Sweden, and cooperate with the United States and the UK. It seemed obvious that accession would cause a rupture with Russia, which Finns sought to avoid under any circumstances.

In the end, it was Russia that opted for a rupture, and not just with Finland but with all of Europe and the West. In a twist the Kremlin clearly did not expect, Finland and Sweden’s debates on NATO membership were transformed by the war and the accompanying bellicose rhetoric from Russia’s leaders, particularly President Vladimir Putin.

Finns were reminded of the events of 1939, when the Soviet Union denied their country’s right to exist and attacked it in the Winter War. More than eighty years later, Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine did far more to sway opinion in Finland and Sweden than its questioning of their right to join NATO.

To be sure, Finland had already started preparing for a potential confrontation with its neighbor to the east. During the Cold War, referring to the Soviet-Finnish agreement of friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance, the Norwegian political scientist Arne Olav Brundtland described Finland’s defense strategy as “protection from assistance.”

Thanks to continuous efforts to increase Finland’s defense potential, the country today has the strongest military in northern Europe. Finns are still required to complete military service, a system that remains popular and the armed forces’ main source of recruits for the officer corps. The army also has a large pool of reservists, who train regularly.

Finland’s long-standing military traditions are another factor. Unlike Sweden or Germany, the country has never pivoted from territorial defense to expeditionary warfare, the advisability of which the Finnish military has always considered in relation to whether it would help to protect the homeland. 

The Finnish army’s artillery units are the largest in Europe: a legacy of World War II and a nod to the Stalinist maxim that artillery is “the god of war.” Finnish military engineers are first-class specialists in traps, mining, obstacles, and defensive equipment. As for aviation, once the Finnish air force replaces its F-18 fleet with sixty-four F-35s, the combined air power of the northern European states—also incorporating Norway and Denmark’s F-35s and Sweden’s Saab JAS 39 Gripen—will more than rival the Russian air force’s assets in the north.

Every arm of the Finnish military has missile capabilities, from the air force’s JASSM air-to-surface cruise missiles, which are exclusive to Finland and Australia, to the navy’s Israeli-made Gabriel V low-altitude anti-ship missiles, and the army’s track-mounted GMLRS systems, which are better suited to Finnish terrain than, say, the wheel-mounted HIMARS.

Since invading Ukraine, Russia has made no shortage of blunders. Yet its greatest have been underestimating Ukraine’s will and ability to fight and the collective West’s willingness to support Ukrainians, including by supplying them with lethal weapons.

Seen in this light, the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO is less a direct threat to Russia and more collateral damage. After all, Sweden received informal security guarantees from the United States as early as the 1950s, Finland has long cooperated with the alliance, and both countries’ militaries adhere to NATO standards. Little will change for northern Europe militarily, save that Norway will now find it easier to defend the northern province of Finnmark.

Strategically speaking, for Russia, the coast off Murmansk where nuclear strike forces are stationed will continue to take precedence over the Baltic Sea, notwithstanding the latter’s importance to the transport routes linking St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad. Hence, in part, the tendency of the Russian media—particularly pro-Kremlin talk shows—to downplay the news of Finland and Sweden’s upcoming entry into NATO. Even the newly hawkish former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, while on a visit to the Russian north at the end of July, chose not to raise a fuss about the matter, instead repeating the Kremlin’s boilerplate warning that “Finland and Sweden’s decision to join NATO is a serious mistake to which Russia will give a symmetrical response.”

Still, a glance at a map is sufficient to understand that in the longer term, the accession of two northern states to the alliance will carry serious political and psychological consequences for Moscow, though what precise form those consequences will take is not yet clear.

Russia’s long border with Finland runs for 1,300 kilometers, a corridor of wooded and sparsely populated land from Murmansk to St. Petersburg. How Moscow plans to defend it remains to be seen. At the moment, the units guarding it are being rapidly redeployed to fight—and in many cases, to die—in Ukraine.

The once-daunting Russian army’s grievous losses in Ukraine have revealed its true state. With Ukrainians unwilling to surrender and Putin unwilling to retreat, the war is set to be resolved on the battlefield. It will shape Russia’s fate above all else. After all, the real czars are victors, while the vanquished are mere pretenders.