Russian-Finish relations have seen an unexpected setback as Finnish politicians discuss bringing their country into the NATO military alliance. Russia Direct discussed with experts about the possibility of Finland joining NATO, Moscow’s reaction, and the implications for global security.


Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and his Finnish counterpart Erkki Tuomioja. Photo: RIA Novosti

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Finland was met with consternation by the West amidst the ongoing Ukraine crisis and Finland’s alleged aspirations to join NATO. Shortly before Lavrov’s visit, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal envoy Sergei Markov said in an interview to Finnish newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet that “Finland is one of the most russiphobian countries in Europe, together with Sweden and the Baltic states.”

“Anti-Semitism started World War II, Russophobia could start the third,” he warned after Finish President Sauli Niinistö’s statement about a referendum to change the country´s constitutionally neutral status before a possible NATO membership could be applied. “Russia recommends Finland not join NATO. That military alliance has lost its aim and goal and is therefore looking for new tasks. If Finland joins NATO it would weaken the security in Europe, not strengthen it.”

Finland and Sweden are currently members of NATO’s affiliate program known as the Partnership for Peace. President Niinistö said after a security conference at the presidential summer residence near Turku on Sunday that Finland and Sweden have made a joint proposal on NATO collaboration.

According to Lavrov´s spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich, Finland's position on the Ukraine crisis has brought about a decline in the Russian-Finnish relations that saw previously no significant tensions. Meanwhile, Lavrov himself claims that Finland feels secure and is not going to move closer to NATO because “what happened in Ukraine is impossible in Finland,” as quoted by ITAR-TASS, a news agency.

“’Does Northern Europe need this? How Russia will react?’ - President Niinistö asked these questions with the subtext. He knows that the answer is negative: Nobody needs this,” Lavrov said. “Niinistö also said certain Finnish politicians claimed that one could not feel secure when Russia was too aggressive. These are worthless arguments. Serious people know about it.”

In the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, some analysts spoke of the “finlandization” of Ukraine. Now expert seem to discuss the reverse: the “ukrainization” of Finland, with its alleged aspirations to get into NATO. Can Finland really join NATO? What are the implications of such a move for the world at large?

Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus at Department of Political Science and the Harriman Institute of Columbia University

Although Finland's incoming prime minister, Alexander Stubb, has said he would like to see Finland enter NATO, he has also underscored that this will require a broad debate within Finland. And President Sauli Niinistö has said that before such a decision can be taken a referendum would have to be held in Finland.

That said both Finland and Sweden have submitted proposals to NATO for ways to upgrade their existing Partnership for Peace arrangements with NATO.

This, Russian leaders should recognize, is the direct result of Russian actions in the Ukrainian crisis, and in particular the annexation of Crimea. It is worth noting that, during the original Cold War, nothing the Soviet Union did prompted either Finland or Sweden to move closer to NATO.

It is not clear that Russian leaders, when they took their decision on Crimea, weighed the larger consequences that would follow – both these developments in Finland and Sweden as well as NATO's now almost certain decisions to strengthen its military presence directly on Russian borders.

The dynamic underway in Central Europe dramatically displays the degree to which we are rolling back the gains made during the earlier post-Cold War period. Russia may claim that NATO's decisions to increase exercises and the frequency in the rotation of forces in NATO's new member states is a violation of NATO's 1997 assurances that it would not create permanent bases or deploy nuclear weapons in these states, but NATO members insist that Russia, in its Ukrainian policy, has already obviated the 1997 understanding.

Such as the course of events as Russia and Europe/United States sink deeper into a new Russia-West Cold War.

Stanislav Tkachenko, Associate Professor of the International Relations Department of St. Petersburg State University and a visiting professor at Bologna University in Italy

Discussion regarding Finland’s membership in NATO has started since the late 1980s and every time both experts and politicians agreed about negative implications of such move. There is a consensus in this country that the NATO membership will bring many new problems to Finland while failing to resolve the current ones. 

In a nutshell, there are some reasons why Finland won’t become a NATO member, neither today,  nor in the near future.

First, there is Finland’s unique experience of collaborating with Russia and the desire to save good relations with our country both in the EU framework and in a wider context of Russia-West relations. Finland likes its image as “an expert on Russia,” which they firmly create and support in the EU. And there is no reason to deny this role.

Second, the Soviet Union / Russia proved its readiness to respect Finland’s sovereignty and understanding that in case of large-scale military conflict in the EU, NATO will not be able to guarantee the protection of Finland. Previously, such policy was called “finlandization.” Yet now Finns are not inclined to use this term. They believe that Russia doesn’t restrict the sovereignty of the country in domestic and foreign affairs.  

Third, there is an agreement between Finland and Sweden on joint measures in providing military security. It means that Finland can join NATO only together with Sweden. But Sweden hasn’t expressed any desire to change neutrality (that has been bringing a lot of benefits to it during two centuries) over this risky move: the accession to NATO.   

Fourth, Finnish business is oriented generally on maintaining mutually beneficial relations with Russia, especially, in the periods, when the EU economy is in stagnation (like now).  

It’s also worth mentioning that pro-NATO forces are always stepping up during different periods of increasing tensions between Russia and the West (such the South Ossetia conflict and the current Ukrainian crisis). Yet after a short period of such activity, these forces are calming down without significant implications for Finland’s foreign policy.  

Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings Senior Fellow at Center on the United States and Europe

The new Finnish Prime Minister, Alexander Stubb, supports Finland joining NATO. Nothing is likely to happen quickly as polls suggest that the Finnish population does not yet share this view (NATO will not take in a country unless its people support joining).

But we may now see a serious debate in Finland about NATO and how membership would contribute to Finnish security – sparked in large part by concern about Moscow’s policy in the aftermath of Russia’s armed seizure of Crimea and its continuing efforts to destabilize Ukraine.  Any serious debate in Finland will affect, and will be affected by, attitudes toward NATO membership in neighboring Sweden.

If Finland (or Sweden) chose to seek NATO membership, it would appear to be well qualified to meet the Alliance’s standards for membership. Adding Finland and/or Sweden would strengthen NATO in the Baltic region but would undoubtedly provoke a very negative reaction from Moscow.

Michael Slobodchikoff, professor in the Political Science Department at Troy University

Finland has every right to join NATO, and is an ideal candidate from NATO's perspective. Finland has no territorial disagreements (contrary to Ukraine and Georgia), and is a wealthy country that can help provide stability to NATO. 

To join NATO, Finland will have to first change its constitution to remove the constitutional requirement for neutrality. This can be done through a constitutional referendum. However, the real question is not can Finland join NATO, but should it join NATO. This question is much harder to answer.

Finland has little to gain from joining NATO, and much to lose. During the Cold War, Finland valued its neutrality. It prospered by being able to trade with both the Soviet Union and the United States. President Urho Kekkonen was a wise leader who was able to not only prevent Finland from becoming a vassal state of the Soviet Union, but he was also able to lead Europe in foreign policy which led to a much more peaceful Europe.  

One of those foreign policy initiatives was the Nordic nuclear-free zone proposal, which did not allow the Nordic states to have nuclear weapons. The main idea of this proposal was to prevent the Nordic states from becoming a nuclear war zone between the United States and the Soviet Union.

One of Urho Kekkonen's greatest accomplishments was convening the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This conference led to the Helsinki Accords and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. His actions led to a much more stable and peaceful Europe. His leadership was one that was based on the tenet of neutrality.

If Finland chooses to join NATO, Finland will turn its back on its accomplishments as the negotiator of peace in Europe. Rather than being the calm voice that can bring the parties together to resolve disputes, Finland will lose its gravitas and become just another member of NATO without much of a voice and stature. Finland would be better served by working to resolve the current dispute over Ukraine and maintaining its guiding principle of neutrality.