Apr 7, 2022 - World

Finland's NATO application could be imminent

Photo illustration of Finland's flag and NATO soldiers.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Armend Nimani/AFP via Getty Images

Public support and political momentum for Finland joining NATO has reached an all-time high as a result of the war in Ukraine, raising the very real possibility that the alliance's borders with Russia could extend by more than 830 miles in a matter of months.

Why it matters: Russia's invasion of Ukraine has forced a reckoning in European capitals over defense spending and security policy. If Finland joins NATO, it would represent the biggest transformation of Europe's security architecture in years.

State of play: The Finnish government is expected to submit a report to parliament on the changed security environment by the end of this month, kicking off a debate and eventually a recommendation on applying for NATO membership.

  • 60% of Finns now support joining NATO, according to a survey conducted last month — a 34-point jump from last fall, and the highest level since polling on the issue began in 1998.
  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said this week he expects "all 30 allies to welcome" both Sweden and Finland to the alliance if the Nordic neighbors decide to apply, suggesting the process for membership would move rapidly.

What they're saying: "I think Finns at the moment are driven by what I call rational fear," former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb told Axios in an interview.

  • "You have to balance between realism and idealism. Realism is that you have a strong standing military as we have, and idealism is to try to cooperate with a big neighbor," Stubb said.
  • "There has been this bona fide attempt to forge a functioning relationship with Russia, and now that people see that that is impossible — especially under [President Vladimir] Putin — they've changed their opinion."

Driving the news: Stubb told Axios he believes the government could decide to apply to NATO as soon as May — a stunning timeline given where public opinion was only a few months ago.

  • "I'm not saying it'll happen on Russian Victory Day (May 9), but it's coming pretty soon," Stubb quipped.
  • Some Finnish lawmakers are pushing for an application before the NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June.

The big picture: Finland maintains a formidable military with 280,000 troops and 900,000 reservists, and has been deepening its cooperation with NATO for years.

  • Incorporating Finland into NATO would bring important capabilities and "strategic depth" to the "particularly exposed" Baltic region, says Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund's Brussels office.
  • "Finland is a tough nut to crack. It would be and has been in the past, and Russians of course remember that," Lesser added, referring to the 1939-1940 Winter War in which invading Soviet troops suffered heavy casualties.

Between the lines: Russia's invasion of Ukraine has underscored for non-aligned countries like Sweden and Finland that having close ties to NATO is a long way from having Article Five protection, as Kyiv's pleas for a no-fly zone have gone unanswered.

  • "You can't be complacent about NATO's support outside of Article Five, no matter how big a stake Europe and the United States might have in your own security," Lesser told Axios.
  • "I think the sentiment for most Finns is that we never want to be left alone again, as we were during World War Two," added Stubb.

What to watch: Applying to NATO raises the risk that Russia could take aggressive action against Finland in the period after the decision is made and before membership is actually granted.

  • Stubb dismissed the Kremlin's threats as mostly saber-rattling, but cautioned that there will "obviously" be hybrid threats, such as cyberattacks or information warfare.
  • Still, he insisted: "We've lived next to Russia throughout our existence. We know how to deal with Russia."
Go deeper