Spring sunshine has turned to rain in Helsinki but, while the weather is unsettled, the national will to join NATO is not. Opinion polls show over three quarters of Finns now support joining NATO, up from a little over a half before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All of the parties of Finland’s governing coalition, including the Left Alliance, are now lined up behind the decision to apply for NATO membership, expected imminently. A flying visit from British PM Boris Johnson to Helsinki this week will likely affirm security guarantees for Finland and neighbouring Sweden in the interregnum between application and membership, when NATO’s Article 5 commitment to mutual defence will kick in.
The debate in Finland about NATO membership has been less fraught than in Sweden, where non-alignment has been a core tenet of foreign policy for over 200 years. Sweden’s social democrats have long prized their commitment to neutrality, nuclear disarmament and mediation in international conflict. Joining NATO requires ideological change for Swedish social democracy, and not just instrumental repositioning. But Putin has accelerated this process of Swedish rethinking in recent years, from the annexation of Crimea in 2014, to repeated violations of Swedish airspace, threatening maritime manoeuvres, and latterly the invasion of Ukraine. Swedes and Finns alike have watched the bloody and brutal war in Ukraine with horror, and they appear undaunted by Russia’s threats to strengthen its nuclear capabilities in the Baltic should they join NATO. Both countries have increased military spending in the last decade and cooperation with NATO is already extensive, including participation in the recent Cold Response military exercises in Northern Norway. Each brings significant military and capabilities to NATO and will enhance the alliance’s ability to defend the Baltic states, in particular. For its part, Finland has been preparing its military for potential NATO membership since the end of the Cold War, and as its former PM, Alexander Stubb argues, ‘applicants do not get more NATO compatible than this’.
NATO enlargement to include Sweden and Finland will also mean that seven of the eight Arctic states are NATO members, giving the alliance territorial contiguity across the European Arctic. Climate change is transforming the geo-politics of the Arctic, as ice melt and permafrost thaw both open up new great power competition for maritime trade and resource extraction, while simultaneously destabilising existing infrastructures and threatening existing Arctic communities. Geo-political rivalries draw in, not just the US, Russia, Canada and the Northern European Arctic states, but China too, as it searches for new sources of energy supply and a ‘Polar Silk Road’. Each of the main actors is seeking to strengthen its military capabilities and bases in the Arctic. As one observer has recently noted: ‘The conflict in the Arctic Circle mirrors many of the dynamics present in the South China sea conflict, in which a competition over access to strategic positions and trade routes has expanded into a more overt conflict’.
Swedish and Finnish policymakers have already factored in Russia’s response to their potential applications to join NATO, and the chances of escalation or spillover from Ukraine from these actions appear currently slim. But climate change and its impact on the Arctic mean that the future of geo-political tension with Russia is just as likely to lie in the High North, as in the Baltic south.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.