When Russian President Vladimir Putin began his ill-advised “special military operation” (SVO) against Ukraine in February 2022, one of his prime motivations was to prevent the former Soviet state from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Since then, NATO members, led by the United States, have provided massive armament aid to Ukraine. Even worse for Putin, Sweden and Finland have abandoned long-standing policies of neutrality to join the alliance. Finland’s formal entry on April 4 as NATO’s 31st member has opened up a new 830-mile (1,340 km) frontier for Russia to guard, which will expend increasingly scarce military resources needed for its Ukrainian campaign.
Three months before the SVO began, spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova made it clear at a Christmas Eve 2021 news conference that Russia’s demand to halt NATO expansion also applied to Finland and Sweden. Zakharova said, “It is quite clear that the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO… would lead to serious military and political consequences that would require appropriate countermeasures from Russia.” However, she did not offer specifics about the consequences (Is.fi, December 27, 2021). Zakharova also stressed that “ruling out NATO expansion and preventing the deployment of weapons systems that threaten Russia’s security near Russia’s borders would be the main issues Russia would want to discuss with both the United States and NATO in the near future.” Zakharova concluded, “We believe that the policy traditionally pursued by Finland and Sweden not to belong to military alliances is an important guarantee of stability in Northern Europe.”(Is.fi, December 26, 2021).
For NATO, Finland’s ratification marks one of the swiftest accessions in the alliance’s history, achieving membership in less than a year since the two Nordic countries applied in May 2022. Membership in NATO upends Sweden’s traditional neutrality, dating back to 1807. Two years later, Sweden ceded Finland to the Russian Empire, where it became a Grand Duchy before achieving independence in 1918 in the wake of the Russian Revolution. The next 73 years of Soviet–Finnish relations were fraught. The two countries fought a brief but brutal conflict in 1939–1940 called the “Winter War.” After Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, Finland briefly participated in Operation Barbarossa, temporarily reoccupying the Karelian Isthmus in the “Continuation War,” but signing a peace treaty with the Soviet Union in 1944. There followed a period of tense neutrality, where Helsinki took Soviet interests into account; this was derided in the West as “Finlandization,” which lasted until the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Finland’s commitment to NATO has not yet been made public, but analysts estimate that NATO has stipulated that Finland will provide a ground force of approximately 4,000 soldiers (Is.fi, October 5).
Beyond the combat capabilities of the Finnish military, what concerns Russia is possible deployments into Finland by other NATO members. The Russian embassy in Helsinki has informed its government that negotiations between the United States and Finland on a defense agreement that would allow American military bases are expected to be completed by the end of the year (Iz.ru, September 25).
The question remains open whether such bases will be permanent or not. The most likely scenario is one analogous to US defense arrangements with Norway. While the US military does not have permanent bases in Norway, it enjoys increased access to certain military facilities, deploying contingents and equipment there on a rotational basis.
Finland and the United States started debating a new Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) earlier this year. By the end of August 2023, the parties held three rounds of negotiations, according to the Finnish authorities. The website of Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs states, “The United States is one of the most important allies of Finland, and the government’s goal, according to the program, is to complete negotiations on the agreement. The agreement will strengthen Finland’s security and contribute to the fulfilment of Finland’s obligations as a NATO member” (Um.fi, August 25).
Following initial discussions after Finland’s acceptance into NATO, Finnish Foreign Ministry representative Mikael Antell, who participated in the negotiations, said that the DCA, among other things, will allow the deployment of troops, their stay in the country, and the preliminary storage of military equipment.
Finland began constructing a border fence along its frontier with Russia in conjunction with its NATO membership. This came after the Finnish Border Guard proposed the construction of 80–160 miles (130–260 km) of fencing on some sections of the border, with a total length of more than 808 miles (1300 km) (Novayagazeta.eu, April 3). The first section of the fence was completed in September (Zona.media, September 14).
Just two weeks after Finland joined the alliance, enthusiasm for NATO membership led Kauhava’s City Board to vote unanimously to offer to host a NATO base. Mayor Vesa Rantala told journalists that Kauhava is Finland’s only military airport with a central location in the Baltic countries, the Baltic Sea, and all the Nordic countries. He noted, “When we considered the further use of our airport, we realized that we have the longest runway in the area and a very strong will to defend the country” (Yle.fi, April 19).
Increased Scandinavian NATO membership dovetails into the United States and European Union’s ultimate goal since the beginning of the SVO: the maximum containment of Russia without engaging in a confrontation through a show of force. Far from intimating further European NATO expansion eastwards, Putin’s aggressive operations against Ukraine have produced the very effect he thought that his SVO would prevent.
After Finland and Sweden join NATO, the Baltic Sea will become the alliance’s de facto “inland sea.” Fredrik Lindén, commander of Sweden’s First Submarine Flotilla, observed, “With five submarines, we can close the Baltic Sea. We cover the areas of interest with our radars and weapons” (The Moscow Times, July 4). For Putin, an avowed student of history, his obtuseness of Russia’s earlier relations with Scandinavia is extraordinary, as the Ukrainian quagmire increasingly proves the Russian military is becoming a “paper bear.”