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Finland’s cautious relationship with NATO

Finland’s neutrality has been a given for a long time. But Russian aggression, as seen in the annexation of Crimea and the Ukraine crisis, has brought the unthinkable into the realm of the possible.

Finland has been comfortable with its neutral status for decades. This northeastern European country with its 1,300-km-long (932-mile-long) border to Russia maintained a Western social system throughout the entire Cold War, as well as its sovereignty and close economic ties with Russia. Moscow had no problem with Finland's entry into the EU in 1995. The Finns have never wanted to risk the advantages of their position by unnecessarily provoking Russia. NATO membership would have been such a provocation, though - and it still would be today.

But the Ukraine crisis and Russia's annexation of Crimea have put a stop to the respect with which Finland has traditionally approached its relations with Russia. The Finnish ministers of defense and foreign affairs, as well as those of the other Nordic countries, have described Russia's latest military activity as “problematic.” Nordic countries - in particular the two neutral states of Finland and Sweden - want more air and naval surveillance, as well as closer cooperation among intelligence services in order to protect themselves against a possible Russian threat.

Solidarity for members only

Russian MiG-29 fighter Photo: RIA Nowosti/Anton Denisov

Russian warplanes often cause concern by violating Finnish air space.

But while NATO members Denmark, Norway, and Iceland can count on support from other NATO members in an emergency - including the powerful United States - Sweden and Finland would be left to fend for themselves. Now, political and military leaders in Finland say that has to change. A year ago, almost two-thirds of Finnish officers were in support of NATO membership.

Many politicians feel the same way, but unlike military personnel, they have to take public opinion into account – especially in the run-up to Sunday's parliamentary election. One should "not rule out NATO membership," said conservative Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, one of the country's biggest supporters of joining the alliance. Stubb knows, however, that most Finns would rather remain neutral - a full 57 percent, according to the latest polls from February. That number has not changed much since polls conducted in August 2014.

Proud of their independence

Nils Torvalds is a liberal Finnish member of the European parliament, and author of a book on Russia. In an interview with DW, he said that public opinion in his country was tied to a deep sense of pride: "We were the only ones who fought against Russia in World War II and remained independent. We were never occupied. Everyone else was occupied to some degree, including Germany," he said, adding that this pride was closely connected with Finland's neutrality.

But the situation has changed.

"If Russia continues its recent aggressive agenda over the next four years, it will drive us towards NATO membership," said Torvalds. But he doesn't even believe that Russia is a threat to Finland. Rather, the move would come out of concern for the whole of Europe.

"Even if we don't foresee a danger to ourselves, we understand that there is growing uncertainty over the future direction of Russian foreign policy," he said.

Sanctions hurting Finland, too

An abandoned Soviet tank in the Karelia region of Finland ullstein bild

The Finns are proud of the way they have defended their independence

Finland has been cooperating with NATO since 1994 within the framework of the Partnership for Peace agreement, and has participated in NATO-led missions, for example, in Afghanistan. But membership would be something different. Even though the issue isn't officially on the political agenda, the Russian government has deemed even considering membership as grounds for "particular concern."

Stubb declared this to be little more than “saber rattling” and said he won't be daunted. "No other country has the right to veto a decision by Finland," he said in an interview on Finnish radio.

But Finland is already feeling the conflict with Russia on a non-military level, and without NATO membership. Due to its strong trade ties with Russia, Finland has particularly been affected by the EU's sanctions against Moscow.

Despite this, Stubb thinks sanctions were the right way to go. If the polls are correct, though, he will lose the election - not just because of his position on the issues of NATO membership and sanctions, although it will certainly play a part.

Up in the air

His challenger, Juha Sipilä of the Center Party, is against closer ties with NATO. He favors a bilateral agreement with Moscow, which he says would also play a part in solving Finland's economic problems. MEP Nils Torvalds doesn't believe that NATO membership would have much of an effect on trade with Russia. Russia would likely strongly protest, "but in the long term, we would return to normal relations," he said.

Given popular resistance, the question of joining NATO will not be an issue anytime soon. But Torvalds says that everything is up in the air at the moment. "Because of Russia's behavior, nothing is stable in European security policy at the moment," he said. In a few years, he thinks Finland might be prepared to say goodbye to neutrality - something that would in no way alter the Finnish people's pride in their country's history.