Traditionally unallied states Finland and Sweden have regularly visited the possibility of becoming NATO members, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Still, up until last year, neither have viewed it as a pressing issue and worthy of the risk of provoking Russia, which Finland shares around 1300 kilometres of border with. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 commenced a series of historical events, when both states deemed it imperative for their national security to apply for NATO memberships. Now after almost a year since the applications were submitted, the journey that Finland and Sweden started together has reached a significant milestone as Finland was admitted to NATO on the 4th of April, 2023. This historical turn has prompted several considerations not only for the change of power dynamics for European security but also for the Finnish national identity that has long revolved around its position as a Western but unallied mediator.
While Finland’s NATO accession is certainly momentous, it is less surprising under the current circumstances. Along with many other European states, Finland has been specifically keen on maintaining Europe’s support for Ukraine a priority, knowing all too well what Ukrainians are experiencing. Indeed, in November of 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland unprovoked, which turned into what is now known as the Winter War. The story goes that a nation still divided by the bloody civil war of 1918 had to put aside its internal differences to fight the intruder in an attempt to maintain its independence. While Finland ultimately lost and had to agree to territorial concessions, its ability to hold onto independence and counter the attack severely outnumbered is often referred to as the ‘miracle of Winter War’. In 1941 Finland allied with Nazi Germany to win back lost territories from the Soviet Union, which it failed to do, rendering Finno-Russian relations fragile for decades. These historical, traumatic events have defined Finnish national identity, and up until last year fostering good rapport with Russia has been seen as a guarantee of safety (along with upholding a considerable reserve army).
But how does NATO accession affect Finland’s national identity? The experiences of the Winter War have been constantly raised in the national discourse, and, in some ways, the rapidly growing public support for NATO membership reflects Finns’ ability to come together in difficult times. This is especially prevalent in the shift of opinion that Finland’s left-leaning coalition government exhibited, as before the war the majority of the government opposed the possibility of Finland joining NATO. Despite this change, the role of mediation and peace for Finland still stands, and many politicians feel that the best way to continue this mission is from inside the alliance. Perhaps this peace-minded framing of the accession is indicative of the contours of Finland’s renewed identity.
Only time will tell how Finland’s NATO status shapes its national defence arrangements. As mentioned earlier, Finland has a conscription army, with its reserve amassing 870 000 trained troops. In light of the Ukraine war, Finland is unlikely to give up this system irrespective of NATO membership, as the current government has already increased defence spending considerably and defence willingness runs high. Furthermore, the parliamentary elections held the weekend before Finland’s official NATO accession resulted in the right-wing National Coalition Party’s victory, which has highlighted the urgency of investing in national defence. Needless to say, Finland is anticipating some kind of reaction from Russia, who has constantly labelled the Finnish accession a mistake. But, at the very least, Finland is now protected under NATO’s Article 5, allowing us to breathe a small sigh of relief.
Image: Pexels, Tapio Haaja