Finland Joining NATO Multiplies Russia’s Baltic Problems

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 61

(Source: NATO)

Executive Summary:

  • Finland’s accession to NATO one year ago marked a significant fracture in Russian-Finnish relations, which have declined precipitously as Finland pledges consistent support to Ukraine.
  • Helsinki and Kyiv signed a recent defense agreement that includes long-term military and financial assistance to build on the over 20 aid packages Finland has already provided Ukraine.
  • NATO’s expansion further into the Nordic-Baltic region presents substantial strategic costs for Russia that Moscow will have to grapple with long after Putin.

On April 4, 2023, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) celebrated its 74th anniversary with Finland’s formal accession to the alliance as its 31st member, having been in “Partnership for Peace” since 1994 (NATO, April 4, 2023). Unlike some of its more cautious alliance colleagues, Finland has decisively declared its support for Ukraine, which for more than two years has been relentlessly battered by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. On April 3, a year after joining NATO, Finnish President Alexander Stubb signed a military cooperation agreement with Ukraine in Kyiv, valid for ten years. The agreement reasserts Finland’s condemnation of Russia’s aggression and outlines Helsinki’s commitments to Ukraine, including “multiple packages of substantial defense materiél and various training activities undertaken since the start of Russia’s full-scale war ” (President of Ukraine, April 3). Underlining the agreement’s implications, Stubb remarked at a press conference in Kyiv, “We are not giving this military support only for Ukraine to defend itself. We are giving this military support for Ukraine to win this war” (President of Finland, April 3).

Finish-Russian political animosity along their shared border is not new. Finland’s relations with Russia have been fraught for over two centuries. After Sweden lost the Finnish War with Russia in 1809, Finland became a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire.  Following the collapse of the empire in 1917 and the rise of the Soviet Union, Finland fought two conflicts with the Soviet state: the “Winter War” (1939–40) and what the Finns call the “Continuation War” as part of Helsinki’s support for Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 before signing an armistice in September 1944. From then until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Finland pursued a cautious détente policy with its eastern neighbor, labeled “Finlandization” during the Cold War. Elements of that policy continued to influence Finnish foreign policy until Putin launched his “special military operation” (SVO) against Ukraine. The Kremlin’s invasion prompted a surge in Finnish public support for joining NATO, with 80 percent in favor (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 23, 2022; BBC, April 4, 2023).

Finland’s new NATO membership and agreement with Ukraine go beyond military affairs. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Finland will provide long-term military and financial assistance; deepen cooperation with Ukraine on political, financial, and humanitarian matters; help Kyiv rebuild the energy sector and strengthen the protection of its border and critical infrastructure; and treat wounded Ukrainian military personnel (Novii golos, April 3). The April 3 agreement is not legally binding but a political commitment similar to those that Ukraine already has with seven other countries.  

Finland is also committing substantial fiscal assistance to Ukraine. According to Finland’s former ambassador to NATO, Finnish aid to Ukraine per capita is among the highest in NATO (Atlantik-Brücke, April 12). Finland has contributed over $2.66 billion (2.5 billion euros) to support Ukraine via 22 aid packages and remains the ninth-largest contributor in aid as a percentage of its national gross domestic product (GDP). Alongside the new defense pact, Helsinki announced its 23rd aid package to Kyiv worth $204.4 million (188 million euros) and includes air defense equipment and heavy weaponry (Evropeis’ka pravda, April 3). The security agreement stipulates, “With Finland’s 30 million euro ($32.6 million) contribution to the Czech initiative of Joint Procurement of Artillery Ammunition to Ukraine, Finland’s support to Ukraine in 2024 already exceeds 400 million euros ($434.8 million) and will increase with at least two further packages over the course of the year” (President of Ukraine, April 3). In stark contrast to Washington’s cautious approach, a day after signing the pact with Ukraine, Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen stated on the sidelines of a NATO foreign ministers meeting that Finland regarded Ukrainian strikes on Russian oil refineries and military targets as “legally justified” (The Moscow Times, April 4).

After Finland became NATO’s 31st member, it doubled the length of the alliance’s borders with Russia, opening a new 830-mile (1,340-kilometer) border from Karelia to the Arctic. Perhaps, most unsettling for Putin, St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, is only 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the Russo-Finnish border. Finland’s strategic position has been pivotal in helping Ukraine put additional pressure on Putin’s Kremlin.

Putin initially expressed confusion for Finland joining NATO, as Moscow had “simply ideal” relations with Helsinki. He posited, “Why did they do this? Based, in my opinion, on purely political considerations, they probably really wanted to be members of a Western club under some kind of umbrella. Why do they need this? Frankly speaking, I do not understand. This is an absolutely senseless step from the point of view of ensuring their own national interests. … We did not have troops there, now we will” (Komsomol’skaia Pravda, March 12). Helsinki responded with strength. Five days after signing the security agreement with Kyiv, Stubb tersely observed the “cold truth” that peace in Ukraine can only be achieved on the battlefield (Novii golos, April 8). Putin’s war has degraded Russian military deployments to a degree that, six months after it began, the Russian government had already transferred troops previously stationed near the Finnish border in Karelia to Ukraine (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 26, 2022;; The Financial Times, August 14, 2023).

Among Putin’s greatest strategic blunders in his SVO against Ukraine was an apparent belief that his bellicose rhetoric would intimidate potential NATO members from joining the alliance, much less from assisting Ukraine. Finland is part of a formal military alliance for the first time, and St. Petersburg is now in close proximity to two NATO countries, Estonia and Finland. Ukraine will have access to both Finland and Sweden’s military expertise and advanced armaments as the Baltic Sea region has essentially become a “NATO lake.” The alliance’s expansion into the Nordic-Baltic region Russia will produce substantial strategic costs that the Russian General Staff will have to grapple with long after Putin’s fight against Ukraine concludes.