Politics·Analysis

Putin wanted less NATO on his border. Finland and maybe Sweden will give him more

If you talk to anyone in Western diplomatic circles — especially in the security, intelligence, defence sectors — what is about to unfold over the next few weeks in Scandinavia counts among Russia's worst nightmares.

Finland joining NATO creates 'moral hazard' for the alliance, says expert

Finland to submit application to join NATO

10 days ago
Duration 2:05
Finland's leaders have signaled plans to apply to join the NATO alliance as a result of the war in Ukraine. It's a move that would upend almost 80 years of non-alignment.

If you talk to anyone in Western diplomatic circles — especially in the security, intelligence and defence sectors — what is about to unfold over the next few weeks in Scandinavia counts among Russia's worst nightmares.

The inclusion of Finland and possibly Sweden in NATO, politically and militarily the source of all that is evil to Moscow, will stretch the alliance firmly from the Arctic Ocean all the way to the Black Sea, pressed right up against the border.

It is the kind of scenario that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to avoid. 

Back before he unleashed the horror of a full invasion of his most immediate neighbour, Putin sought to push back against NATO expansion, demanding Ukraine never be allowed to join the Western military alliance. Last December, he went further and insisted the North Atlantic allies retreat from eastern Europe back to their pre-expansion 1997 lines.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during the Victory Day military parade marking the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow on Monday. Should Sweden and Finland join NATO, Putin would be facing an enemy alliance from the Arctic Ocean all the way to the Black Sea. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo/The Associated Press)

To make his point, Putin rattled the nuclear sabre.

It is safe to say, in doing so and with everything that happened, he freaked out his other non-aligned neighbours; northern nations that have for decades prided themselves on, and built some of their political identities around, their studied neutrality.

Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, right, welcomes Canada's Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly in Helsinki on April 4. Haavisto said this week that 'Finland is a regional security provider and it would further strengthen NATO as a future ally.' (Antti Aimo-Koivisto/The Associated Press)

"The accession of Finland would strengthen the security and stability of the Baltic Sea region and north of Europe," said Pekka Haavisto, Finland's foreign minister, on Thursday. "Finland is a regional security provider and it would further strengthen NATO as a future ally."

The country is expected to apply for membership next week, setting off a security race against time. A joint statement from Finland's president and prime minister said "Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay."

'Moral hazard' for NATO

Although Finland has kept its options open for years over the possibility of joining NATO, the invasion of Ukraine set off a tectonic shift in public opinion. That was the game changer. 

"The 24th of February — that was the changing moment. That was the game changer," said Terhi Suominen, the secretary general at the Atlantic Council of Finland.

Support for joining the alliance traditionally sat around 20 per cent of the population, the events of last winter acted like a lightning bolt.

"And then dramatically, the support of NATO membership grew, and actually it is tripled right now. So, we have 76 per cent in favour of NATO membership," she said.

WATCH | Changing attitudes in Finland:

Finland’s leaders say the country should join NATO 'without delay'

10 days ago
Duration 7:59
"The non-aligned policy and before that neutral policy has served us well. But, Russia's attack on Ukraine has really profoundly changed the European security climate." Finland's Chargé d'affaires in Canada Kaisa Heikkilä on the shift in public and political will to join NATO.

Suominen said joining the alliance is an issue where both the left and right on the political spectrum agree. 

A NATO senior official, speaking on background, said the membership process will be expedited to a degree and that the alliance is trying to clear as many hurdles as possible out of the way. In the end, it could take up to the end of the year because each of NATO's 30 members must ratify the inclusion of countries in their parliaments.

It is that interim period before Finland is fully covered by NATO's one-for-all, all-for-one security guarantee that worries many experts.

Michael J. Williams, a professor of international relations at Syracuse University, calls the interim period "the moral hazard" for the alliance.

Support from NATO members 

Would the alliance go to war to protect a country — or two countries — that want to join but have not yet been accepted as full-fledged members?

"The challenge is that if they say they're joining the alliance, there's going to be a gap," Williams told CBC News recently. "The ability for the Russians to attack between when they apply and when they join is worrisome."

Swedish and Finnish tanks are seen during a military exercise, gathering around 30,000 troops from NATO members plus the two Scandanavian countries, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Evenes, Norway, on March 22. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

That concern was partly addressed Wednesday when the United Kingdom signed defensive pacts with both Finland and Sweden that pledged Britain to come to their aid in the event of an attack, and vice versa.

There is concern in both Scandinavian nations about the possibility one or more existing NATO members would hold up approval. However, an alliance official, speaking on background, said the diplomats from both Finland and Sweden have been working with the various delegations in Brussels and have received a lot of support.

It is not as if either country is unknown to NATO. Each one contributed troops to Afghanistan in a support role.

Williams said the fact that Finland publicly declared its intention means Sweden is not that far behind, even though Stockholm has publicly shown more reluctance.

Steve Saideman, who holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, says both countries have advanced militaries, civilian control of their militaries and stable democracies.

"Both of these countries not only meet those [NATO] standards, but surpass them," he said. "The challenging part is that Finland adds something that no other NATO country has ... is a very long land border with Russia, and that handling that political dynamic, and handling the window between applying for membership and becoming members is sensitive."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, and Finland's President Sauli Niinisto shake hands after signing a security assurance, in Helsinki, on Wednesday. Britain signed a similar agreement with Sweden. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

If Sweden chooses to join, Williams said he believes it could have more political soul-searching to do than Finland. Stockholm has declared itself neutral since the early 19th century and maintained that position even through the existential conflicts of the last century.

"They were neutral in the Second World War," said Williams. "So we're talking about a very long, deeply embedded culture of non-alignment."

Both Williams and Saideman say the two Scandinavian countries bring considerable conventional combat power to the alliance.

Suominen said her country takes defence very seriously given it was invaded by the former Soviet Union in the early 1940s.

What both countries gain from joining NATO, aside from the security of the alliance's Article 5 self-defence clause, is access to advanced cyber and hybrid warfare defence, Saideman said.

The question of how Russia will respond is being hotly debated, now that Finland has signalled a clear direction.

Russia slammed Finland on Thursday, claiming it would "be forced" to retaliate if the long-neutral country joined the alliance.

Saideman said Russia can ill-afford to pick a fight with another neighbouring country.

"They have all that they can handle having a war with Ukraine," Saideman said. "It's not like they can engage in really large-scale aggression against Finland or Sweden because they just don't have the capability right now. They can't even attack the country next door successfully."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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