Embracing the empire: What does NATO accession mean for the once famously neutral Finland?
This week, Finland officially became the 31st member state of NATO. Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto finalized the process by handing over the accession documentation to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
The move may further aggravate tensions between Russia and the West. Analysts in Moscow argue that Helsinki has undermined its own security in a misguided effort to strengthen it.
A short and winding road
Finland has joined the US-led bloc before Sweden, which is something few experts had anticipated. Stockholm is still struggling to gain Turkish approval for its candidature, due to a dispute. Both states applied for membership in May 2022, citing the threat posed by “an aggressive neighbor” after Russia attacked Ukraine.
NATO did not accept them off the bat, however, despite acknowledging their readiness, because of tensions over the support of Kurdish organizations and questions regarding the extradition of individuals charged with terrorism and participation in the 2016 coup attempt in Türkiye.
Hungary also tried to slow down the process. Prime Minister Viktor Orban cited his parliament’s concerns over the move being potentially damaging to NATO-Russia relations.
For Finland the process eventually took a year. On March 30, the Turkish parliament ratified Helsinki’s accession protocol, and Budapest did the same on March 27.
What NATO gets
As a new NATO member state, Finland is bringing to the table a mix of advanced Western weapons and last-century Soviet hardware. A big part of the country’s artillery force is comprised of Soviet-made weaponry such as the M46 and 2A36 Giatsint-B field guns and the D30 and 2S1 Gvozdika howitzers. Half of Finland’s grouping of IFVs consists of Swedish CV-9030s, and another half of Soviet BMP-2s.
Helsinki’s Armed Forces also boast the home-made Patria APC, a modular-design vehicle that can act as a light tank with a large-caliber main gun, or carry a remote-controlled gun and rocket combat module. Poland imports them under the name of Rosomak. A total of 900 different versions of Patria APCs have been built since 2001. Also, in 2012, Croatia’s Defense Ministry exported 40 to 50 Patria AMV vehicles built under license by national company Duro Dakovic Special Vehicle. In total, Zagreb has purchased 126 Patria AMVs, with six of them built in Finland.
Finland’s Air Force mostly consists of foreign-made aircraft. According to Inside Over, it has 64 American-built F/A-18 Hornet fighters fitted with electronics and control systems mostly made domestically. The fleets service life is expected to expire by 2030, so the country is already looking for upgrades. The current fighters are expected to be replaced with a similar number of fifth-gen F-35A multirole aircraft in a procurement deal already announced.
Finland’s army operates some 215 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) of different types, nine of which are the MQ-9 Reapers, Inside Over says.
Mostly focused on coastal operations, the Finnish Navy is trained and armed to protect the country’s territorial waters in the Baltic Sea and quickly strike enemy vessels, to defend transport routes and straits, and to conduct reconnaissance missions, says Sergey Andreyev, an expert with the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs. The Finnish Navy has 17 minesweepers of different types and eight high-speed missile boats: four of Hamina-class and four of Rauma-class.
Finland operates German Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks along with some pre-owned Leopard 2A6 tanks purchased from the Netherlands in 2015.
The Finnish Defense Forces have about 21,500 men and women on active duty. The country can also count on some 900,000 reservists who have completed military service.
However, experts polled by RT believe that NATO’s primary gain in admitting Finland is to expand the bloc’s influence and get closer to Russia’s borders.
“Like any bureaucratic organization, the alliance in this case benefits through expanding its reach and influence. In addition, it is a way of limiting Russia’s influence,” says Director of the Institute of Strategic Assessments Sergey Oznobishchev.
“NATO is trying to keep expanding, seeing Russia as its main adversary. It is getting as close as possible, setting up its infrastructure in the real vicinity of Russia, which is important for NATO and certainly dangerous for Russia,” says Vladimir Bruter, an expert at the International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies.
The head of the Analytical Department at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis (IPWA), Alexander Khramchikhin, takes a different view. According to him, “NATO does not benefit from Finland’s membership. Quite the opposite, it only increases the liabilities for the alliance.”
What it means for Russia
Finland’s accession to NATO will only increase tensions on the global scene, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has warned. He described the expansion of the bloc as an encroachment on Russia’s security and national interests.
“That is how we see this development. It forces us to take countermeasures to ensure [Russia’s] security, both tactically and strategically,” Peskov explained.
He pointed out, however, that Russia’s issue with Finland is ‘fundamentally different'’ to the conflict with Kiev and that, unlike Ukraine, the Nordic nation has never been “anti-Russian” or had any disputes with Moscow.
Nevertheless, in response to Finland joining NATO, Moscow has already vowed to boost its defense capabilities in Russia’s western and northwestern regions. It is not yet clear, however, in what specific form.
“If other NATO members deploy their forces and equipment on Finnish territory, we will take additional steps to ensure Russia’s security,” Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko warned the day before Helsinki’s accession to the alliance.
Work is already being done to that end. For example, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced earlier this year that a new army corps will be formed on the border with Finland, in Karelia and the region around St. Petersburg, as part of the effort to bolster Russia’s armed forces in that part of the country. The corps will consist of three motorized rifle divisions and two airborne divisions of the Russian Airborne Forces.
According to military observer Colonel Mikhail Khodaryonok, Moscow will focus on strengthening ground and coastal troops in the region and expanding the presence of Russian missile troops and artillery.
“It is likely that these new formations will include brigades operating Iskander-M missile systems and heavy artillery brigades carrying nuclear ammunition,” noted Khodaryonok.
According to the expert, should things escalate to a stage where Russia has to plan combat operations in the region, Moscow will most likely consider long-range high-precision strikes on targets in Finland and Sweden, such as can be carried out by long-range aircraft carrying cruise missiles or naval forces carrying Kalibr missiles.
“Given NATO’s superiority in terms of conventional arms, Moscow would do well to consider planting nuclear land mines along the state border with the alliance’s new member states.
“Still, any defensive operation of this scale must be approved first. All military units must be formed, and their deployment planned out. Other workflows to implement include coordination, command and control chains, as well as all kinds of supply routes and military logistics. Naturally, the expenses associated with such an operation would be considerable. But in this case, national defense and security interests clearly take priority,” summarized Khodaryonok.
Why Finland wants it
Last May, Finland’s then prime minister, Sanna Marin, said in an interview with Corriere della Sera that the question of NATO deploying nuclear weapons or opening bases in Finland was not part of Helsinki’s membership negotiations with the alliance.
“Nobody will come to us to impose nuclear weapons or permanent bases on us if we don't want them. So I think that this topic is not on the agenda,” she said. According to the prime minister, NATO is not interested in stationing its forces or nuclear weapons in Finland.
Marin emphasized that Finland has invested heavily in its security as “a small country” that “has an aggressive neighbor,” but called the application for NATO membership “an act of peace” rather than war. “It’s about war never returning to Finland,” said Marin, who asserted that Helsinki “will always try to find diplomatic solutions to any problems.”
Yet, it is not peace that Helsinki is likely to secure for itself by joining NATO, but the loss of its status and sovereignty, according to military journalist Ivan Konovalov.
He told RT: “Up to now, Finland enjoyed a very special status of a neutral state on the international scene. Even back in the Cold War times, when the USSR was in a standoff with NATO, the neutral stance made Finland stand out as a player on the global scene, unlike many others. But now it’s over. It’s going to be a political death for Finland that will now become just one of the many nations doing the bidding of Washington. It will lose its political uniqueness and get assimilated by NATO.”
According to Alexander Khramchikhin, this decision is against Finland’s own interests because it will only undermine the nation’s security, even if Helsinki thinks it’s going to be the other way round. “This has been an irrational decision inspired by fear,” he believes.
The relationship between Moscow and Helsinki has taken a turn for the worse recently, and as Vladimir Bruter sees it, it’s not going to get any better.
“The only chance to build a balanced relationship is for the West to stop talking about Russia as a force to contain. Russia is either a partner or an adversary. There’s no way for the West to continue containing Russia and maintaining a good relationship with it at the same time. Russia already gave it too much time, despite putting itself at an obvious disadvantage because, as we can see, the West took advantage of this time to keep treating Russia as an economy and a political and military force to contain. I hope Moscow won’t allow that ever again,” Bruter commented.
Sergey Oznobishchev believes that although Finland’s accession to NATO is against Russia’s long-term interests, it does not pose any immediate or overwhelming threat. A lot will depend on how well Moscow and Helsinki will work on salvaging the relationship the two nations used to enjoy. According to Oznobishchev, they have a solid foundation to help them with that, i.e. “all those decades of friendship and good neighborly relationship with Helsinki.”
“Now is a good time to start working on this,” he argued. “It’s time to focus on stabilizing Russia’s relationship with Finland and Sweden while we have anything that can still be saved. So far these two nations haven’t been overly unfriendly. The matter of essence for Russia is that they don’t let their territories be used by NATO to increase its military presence and to build up military capabilities.”
According to Alexander Khramchikhin, Russia's relations with all Western countries have deteriorated so much that "the next stage can only be a direct war, which is not likely to happen."
“I think that we need to continue the endless whining about the restoration of relations with the West. It will never happen, and we need to understand this,” he said.