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From Neutrality to NATO: Finland’s Historic Shift and the Evolving Security Landscape

In May 2022, Finland and Sweden endeavored to join NATO concurrently. This event heralds one of the most momentous shifts in Europe’s security paradigm in decades, catalyzing a heightened state of confrontation between Russia and NATO. Among the five Nordic nations, the remaining triumvirate aligned with NATO post-World War II, whereas Finland and Sweden assumed roles as neutral entities. Although both countries espouse neutrality, their rationales for NATO membership and their perspectives on accession vary. A 2016 research dossier from the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs underscored that, “unlike Sweden, which clandestinely benefits from military alliances with the United States, Finland maintains a circumspect stance toward the Western pact (NATO).”

In January 2022, Finnish Prime Minister Marin indicated in an interview that while Finland wouldn’t discount the possibility of NATO membership, it remained improbable during her tenure. Essentially, prior to the parliamentary elections in April 2023, she prognosticated that Finland would adhere to its historical foreign and security policies. Indeed, preceding the 2022 Ukrainian crisis, most Finnish politicians exhibited a negative disposition towards NATO accession, a sentiment that persisted even after the crisis. However, following the escalation of the Ukrainian imbroglio in February 2022, Finland’s stance underwent a substantial metamorphosis. On May 15 of the same year, Finland formally submitted its application for NATO membership. The subsequent day, the Finnish Parliament ratified the government’s decision with an overwhelming majority of 188 votes in favor and 8 against. On May 18, Finland officially lodged its application with NATO. On April 4, 2023, Finland consummated its accession to NATO, becoming the alliance’s 31st member state.

The inaugural segment of the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ 2016 evaluation report, titled “The Ramifications of Finland’s Prospective NATO Membership,” posited that “each nation’s policy prerogatives are not solely influenced by geography and geopolitics but are equally shaped by historical antecedents and collective experiences.” Hence, in scrutinizing Finland’s historic pivot towards NATO, one cannot disregard the nation’s historical backdrop, the genesis of its neutrality, and the trajectory of its relations with Russia/the Soviet Union.

The Battlefield of Rus and Svea

Finland has perennially served as a crucible of contention between Russia and Sweden throughout history. Whether Sweden expanded eastward or Russia coveted westward, the vicissitudes of war invariably embroiled Finland. Finland was assimilated into Sweden in the latter half of the 12th century, eventually formalizing its status in the mid-14th century. Throughout this epoch, Finnish religiosity, culture, mores, and traditions were profoundly influenced by Sweden. In the early 19th century, Russia vied with Sweden for dominion over Finland, offering unprecedented autonomy in exchange for strategic protection of St. Petersburg. Following the Russo-Swedish War in 1809, Finland metamorphosed into a Russian Grand Duchy. Commencing from 1809, Finland commenced the implementation of internal autonomy. During this phase, Finland preserved the Nordic administrative framework established during Swedish hegemony while concurrently fostering indigenous development, gradually formulating its own constitution, administrative apparatus, customs, frontiers, industries, and financial systems. In the mid-19th century, the Industrial Revolution permeated Finland via Denmark, catalyzing rapid industrialization and engendering closer economic ties with Western nations such as Germany. By the late 19th century, unrestricted free trade was realized. Notably, during Swedish rule, exclusive fluency in Swedish was a requisite for the Finnish “upper echelon,” thus impeding the progression of Finnish linguistic and cultural identity. Conversely, during the nascent years of the Grand Duchy, Russia refrained from curbing Finnish linguistic development, instead actively fostering its proliferation. This initiative aimed to diminish the primacy of Swedish by fortifying the usage of Finnish, thereby attenuating Sweden’s influence over Finland while concurrently garnering the allegiance of the Finnish populace. Finnish, belonging to the Finno-Uralic language family and devoid of affiliations with the Indo-European language family, stood in stark contrast to Swedish, a member of the Germanic language family, and Russian, a member of the Slavic language family within the Indo-European domain. A confluence of geopolitical shifts and sundry factors precipitated the rapid advancement of the Finnish language. Subsequently, Finland ratified the Language Act in 1863, and Czar Alexander II sanctioned Finnish as the official language. In the latter half of the 19th century, Finnish national literature experienced exponential growth. It wasn’t until this juncture that Finland began to embrace a burgeoning “Finnish consciousness,” thereby espousing allegiance to a nascent political entity christened “Finland.”

The cauldron of revolution simmered in Russia in 1917, precipitating a seismic wave of upheaval. Seizing the turmoil, Finland declared independence on December 6 of the same year. Arvidsson, a pivotal advocate of Finnish national consciousness and the independence movement, articulated, “We are neither Swedish nor Russian; let us forge our destiny as Finns.”

The choice of neutral status

In World War II, Finland played a very unique role. It was involved in the Soviet-Finnish War and the Soviet-German War, fighting against the Soviet Union twice and Germany once. After the Finnish-Soviet War from 1939 to 1940, Finland was forced to sign a Finnish-Soviet peace treaty with the Soviet Union that ceded territory to the latter, and about 430,000 people (about 12% of the total population) needed to relocate to other parts of Finland. From 1941 to 1944, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and Finland participated in the war against the Soviet Union. However, in the end, Finland ceded more land and had to bear more than 300 million US dollars in war reparations. As the battlefield situation changed, Finland fought against Germany in 1945 and expelled 200,000 German troops stationed in northern Finland.

In February 1947, Finland, as a defeated country, signed the Paris Peace Treaty with the Soviet Union and other countries. The Treaty of Paris stipulated the post-war disposition of Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Finland. In April 1948, Finland signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union. Under the treaty, Finland had the right to remain outside of great power conflicts. Also under pressure from the Soviet Union, Finland had to abandon Marshall Plan funding. Unlike Sweden, which actively chose neutrality, Finland’s status as a neutral country after World War II was actually a passive move.

In 1953, Stalin died. Finland joined the United Nations and the Nordic Council in 1955. During this period, Finland used its own economic and industrial structure to ensure favorable trade relations for the Soviet Union on the one hand. On the other hand, under this premise, Finland actively joins the European free market. In 1961 Finland became an associate member of the European Free Trade Association. In 1973, Finland signed a free trade agreement on industrial products with the European Economic Community, marking the confirmation of its free market status. In 1990, when Sweden announced its intention to join the European Community, Finland followed suit in its own special way. Afterwards, taking advantage of the political upheaval caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and after several months of in-depth discussions, the Finnish Parliament passed the decision to apply to join the European Community in March 1992. This decision also means that it abandons its traditional policy of neutrality. Finally, in 1995 Finland and Sweden became members of the European Union.

In addition to seeking identity through active participation in the free market, Finland takes every opportunity to improve its defense capabilities. The continuing military tradition and all-military service have allowed Finland to maintain a certain reserve of military power. Since 1956, Finland has been continuously participating in United Nations peacekeeping operations. The main purpose is to enable the military to conduct military practice and accumulate relevant experience. In addition, Finland also sends military officers to other countries for exchange and learning. Starting in the 1950s, Finnish officers were trained in military academies in France, Britain, Sweden, the United States and the Soviet Union.

In fact, it can be seen from Finland’s foreign policy choices after World War II that Finland has been using various opportunities to express its Western economic and cultural identity on the premise of ensuring that its own security is not threatened. Finland also maintains a close partnership with Sweden, including policy alignment and personal relations with the political leadership, which is linked to historical factors.
Why did foreign policy make a 180-degree turn?

Since 1996, the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has commissioned a third-party organization to conduct surveys on domestic public opinion on foreign and security policies every year. In more than 20 years of surveys, there has been no real change in Finnish public opinion on the NATO issue, with support for joining NATO hovering between 18% and 30%. And once the relevant news events pass, the poll numbers will fall back. But in a June 2022 Helsinki Sanomat poll, support for Finland’s membership in NATO rose to 79%.

Let’s look at the government level. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was heated discussion in Finland about the possibility of joining NATO. In 2004, a working group composed of Finnish parties conducted a study on the impact of NATO membership and concluded that Finland retains the opportunity to join, but this is not currently necessary. In 2007, due to the needs of the current situation, the Finnish Ministry of Defense commissioned a working group to conduct an in-depth and comprehensive assessment of Russia’s stability. According to the working group’s report, Russia’s threat to Finland on the border has not fundamentally changed. After these two investigations, Finland’s domestic discussion on joining NATO gradually cooled down. In 2014, the Ukrainian crisis broke out. From 2016 to 2018, in addition to the annual foreign and security policy opinion polls, Finland conducted relevant special surveys on the potential impact of NATO member states and the strengthening of mutual defense in Northern Europe. The survey results show that although they all believe that applying to join NATO is unnecessary, they also believe that it is necessary to pay close attention to possible changes in the security situation. In 2022, the Finnish government conducted several comprehensive analyzes of the situation. Finland’s different political parties have an unprecedented positive attitude towards joining NATO.

The most important reason for Finland’s 180-degree turn in foreign policy is that the comprehensive escalation of the Ukrainian crisis in 2022 aroused Finland’s independent national consciousness and the collective memory of the war. Due to historical reasons, Finland has a strong desire for independence and security. There are two other factors that cannot be ignored, namely the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic and the widespread attention and spread of the Ukraine crisis on social media, which has unprecedentedly promoted the Finnish people’s strong demands for national independence and their own security.

On the other hand, both the Finnish government’s research report and the expert working group’s assessment report believe that Russia is an “unpredictable neighbor.” The general public impression of Russians is not positive. Although different voices about Russia also appeared in the Finnish media, once public opinion formed a wave in the early stage, such different voices or discussions became insignificant. Therefore, most Finnish people believe that only joining NATO can ensure their independence and security.

On February 11, 2024, Finland’s political situation underwent another important change. Stubb, a candidate from the center-right National United Party, was elected President of Finland. In the eyes of the outside world, Stubb has both academic literacy and practical experience in international politics, and his relevant background is also very international. Whether he can promote regional peace and ensure Finland’s security and development through dialogue and cooperation that he advocates is worthy of attention. NATO’s wanton expansion cannot bring “absolute security.” How to deal with thorny issues such as nuclear weapons and live peacefully with Russia will also test the Finnish government’s governance wisdom.

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