Could Putin's Russia Push Neutral Finland into NATO's Arms?

By Sander, Gordon F. | The Christian Science Monitor, October 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

Could Putin's Russia Push Neutral Finland into NATO's Arms?


Sander, Gordon F., The Christian Science Monitor


Seven months ago, when Russia seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, Finns seemed relatively unconcerned. The world's northernmost country shares some 800 miles of border with its huge neighbor, but just a quarter of Finns said they felt threatened by Moscow. And a similar number told pollsters their country should consider joining NATO in interest of self-defense.

Since then, Russia's behavior has become more provocative, and not just in eastern Ukraine. During one week in August, Russian military aircraft conducted three unauthorized overflights of Finnish airspace. The Finnish public reacted accordingly. A poll last month by Finnish daily Aamulehti showed that 43 percent of those polled perceived Russia as a danger, an increase of nearly 20 percent from March.

But support for Finland joining NATO remained almost unchanged: a mere two percent higher, the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation (YLE) found. Why hasn't Finnish wariness translated into stronger support for NATO membership? And what, if anything, would persuade Finns to join the defense pact?

Defense Minister Carl Haglund says that the foundation for the Finnish public's aversion to NATO membership stems from its complicated, and oft-misunderstood relationship with Russia. "This [reluctance] goes back to [our] history," he says, "especially the end of the Second World War and the cold war."

"Put it this way," says Pekka Ervasti, political editor of YLE. "Finnish neutrality dies hard."

'Finlandization'The 1948 treaty which Finland signed with the USSR - which defeated Finland in two wars during World War II - codified its enforced rapprochement with the Kremlin. Finland agreed not to join or assist NATO, which was established the following year. The treaty laid the basis for the peaceable - and mutually beneficial - relationship between Finland and the USSR which followed, along with half a century of Finnish military non- alignment. "Active neutrality," Helsinki called it.

Critics had another term for it: "Finlandization" - the process by which a democracy such as Finland avoided provoking Moscow, in return for independence and trading privileges. It's a policy that served Finns well for decades, and many are reluctant to abandon it.

A dose of anti-Americanism is also at play, adds Ervasti. "People feel that NATO is run by Americans and they fear that the US will drag us into foreign wars, like Iraq. Others worry that nuclear weapons will be stationed here."

Then there's the bottom line for business. "I'm not sure whether joining NATO is such a great idea in the long run," says Ami Hasan, head of Hasan & Partners, a leading Helsinki ad agency. "Russia with its 150 million people is a huge potential trading partner for Finland and we have 1,300 kilometers of shared border. I doubt that Russia would be thrilled to share it with NATO."

Governmental dividesDespite the generally warm relationship between the two countries in recent years, Russian officials have explicitly warned Finland against joining NATO. In June 2012, Russian Chief of Staff Nikolai Makarov, sounding much like the Soviet bear of yore, said that cooperation between NATO and Finland, which joined NATO's Partnership for Peace "affiliate" program in 1994, threatened Russia's security.

The debate was rekindled in September, when Finland signed a new agreement with NATO that allows it and Finland to hold joint exercises on Finnish soil and permits assistance from NATO members in situations such as "disasters, disruptions, and threats to security. …

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