On fire, pt 5. The Finnish NATO debate (Eld och lågor, del 5 | Liekeissä, osa 5)

The Finnish NATO debate, enflamed by the Ukraine crisis, continues. My stance on NATO is neither for nor against at this time, but I’d like to remind my readers that our credible defence, at the current and probable future levels of funding, has an expiry date somewhere in the next five years. The defence forces reform, mostly structural and designed only to adjust spending and costs to fit current budgeting, doesn’t address this issue. In five years we’ll be looking at a defence reform.

In this fifth part, trying my English pen, I will focus on some of the very contradictory argumentation heard from NATO opponents. If I were to form my opinion on NATO based solely on the standard of the discussion — and if had I all the power in Finland — I would’ve begun an intenisified dialogue screaming yes! a long time ago.


I’ve taken five key opponent arguments from several sources and paraphrased them. I present them with my commentary below each one.

1. Nato will not protect us (ie. send forces) in case we’re attacked.

Commentary: While it is often argumented, both from an objectively legal and a zealous opponent perspective, that the article is vague, I don’t share this view. Article V is ironclad. The strength in the article lies in the fact that it explicitly includes the use of armed force in defence of other members. I submit my opinion that the Treaty on European Union article 42(7) carries equal weight. This article, however, relies heavily on NATO structures as is states: Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.

2. Finnish soldiers will be sent to Asia, Africa and other NATO battlefields to fight modern wars of conquest.

Commentary: If one argues that NATO members wouldn’t send forces to assist another member (cf. 1), then it’s equally or even more unreasonable to propose they would send forces to assist non-members. Mr Spock would say: Illogical.

Photo from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in Helsinki 1969.
Finland’s foreign minister Ahti Karjalainen (left) toasts chief U.S. negotiator Gerard C. Smith, (center) and chief Soviet negotiator Vladimir S. Semonov (right) at the opening ceremony in Helsinki on November 17, 1969.

3. Our close and special relation with Russia would be notably damaged if we became NATO members. Finland needs to remain outside conflicts and be a bridge building nation.

Commentary: This is the key argument of the opponents. As a neighbour with a 800-mile border (1300 km) with Russia and a long history in both peace and war it is true that Finland enjoys a very special relationship with Russia, though this is also a matter of debate. Finland was a peacekeeping superpower measured in peacekeepers per capita until the early 90s. For the last 20 years our peacekeeping manpower doesn’t support any claim of greatness. Our role as a bridge builder is equally historical. Nonetheless, our reputation of being a bridge builder nation has some merit. Take for instance the SALT I talks of 1969 in Helsinki, the Helsinki Accords of 1975 (OSCE) and other successful foreign policy developments and initiatives. Then again, Helsinki as a venue has benefits that aren’t political, but rather technical in the sense of superpower leaders’ flights (ie. spherical navigation). The latest achievement of some significance is president Martti Ahtisaari’s role in finalising the Kosovo settlement. In the last 15 years there have been great individual accomplishments by Finns representing different organizations, but long gone are the bridge building days. Finland hasn’t been neutral for the last 20 years. In fact, claims of Finnish neutrality made by others have been pointedly rejected by our political leaders.

Russia has benefited from the Finno-Russian post Cold War relationship both politically and economically. While in short term Russia could sever that relationship, such decisions would mean long term losses of income, decline of trade, and above all, political influence in European decision-making. In my opinion, a NATO membership would increase Finland’s influence and enhance Finno-Russian relations as Finland would be part of one more powerful Western forum. We would have Russia’s ear and we would be one of the few members truly knowing and considering Russia in all decisions. It follows that Russian political and diplomatic efforts directed at us would increase in scope. As a NATO member we wouldn’t face Russian generals warning us, rather than a set of softer methods designed to keep Russia’s interests in mind at all times. Bilateral realtions could actually flourish as we gain more weight to throw around in the international political arena.

4. NATO won’t have an impact on our defence; a sovereign nation must stand on its own feet and take care of its own defence.

5. NATO would station air forces, TBMD units and in case of a crisis, nuclear weapons, on Finnish soil.

Commentary: The arguments 4 and 5 are not contradictory per se and neither are they mutually exclusive. Firstly on 5: Each sovereign nation has the right to decide to what extent, if at all, foreign units use its soil. Norway is a good example of a NATO member that shows great consideration for its neighbor when conducting military activities. Norway and Sweden both have hade a lot greater bilateral military cooperation with Russia than Finland. This cooperation is now suspended in re Ukraine, of course.

Secondly, on 4. This is a decision we will have to make with the other member states. Not all NATO countries maintain full capabilities in all services. Notoriously, the Baltic states are ”infantry and schools only”, to put it bluntly. They rely on NATO to bring the air and maritime power. Finland is no ”biggie” on maritime or air power either. The cost of the F-18 Hornet replacement, assuming that 60 will be acquired, will land somewhere between 7 and 12 billion USD (5-9 bn EUR). This is an unplanned and unfinanced cost that equals three to five annual defence budgets. This is one reason why Finland is active in Nordic Defene Cooperation. NATO offers options in the evolving concept of smart defence.

The only thing more costly than maintaining a pluralistic Nordic welfare society based on social liberalism is maintaining a capable, credible and independent defence. Cold will is an important factor here, but it’s more about economy and money. The date of expiry draws near.


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