Russian threat revives Nato membership debate in Finland

PM Sanna Marin says public opinion is changing as petition prompts parliamentary debate

Finnish and Swedish defence ministers with Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, centre, when he visited the region last year. EPA

The invasion of Ukraine has reignited the debate over Nato membership in non-aligned Finland as nations bordering Russia face potential threats from the Kremlin.

A petition calling for Finnish membership of the alliance passed the threshold to force a debate in parliament, while one opinion poll hinted at a surge in support for joining Nato.

Prime Minister Sanna Marin said public opinion was changing and that the debate was “in full swing and will certainly intensify”, but stopped short of backing the proposal herself.

While supporters of Nato membership say it would guarantee Finland’s security against Russia, others fear it could drag the country into any military confrontation and upend its delicate relations with Moscow.

Finland shares a 1,340-kilometre border and a troubled history with Russia and has generally sought stability in its relationship with Moscow, preferring to co-operate with Nato in drills and some operations rather than joining the alliance.

But it has sided with Ukraine in the current crisis and announced last week that it was sending 2,500 assault rifles, 1,500 anti-tank weapons and other equipment to Ukraine.

It comes with Sweden’s policy of neutrality similarly up in the air after it likewise shipped weapons to Ukraine, and Baltic countries — Nato members — shoring up their defences against their Russian neighbour.

Nato describes Sweden and Finland as its closest partners. Both countries take part in alliance exercises and contributed troops to Nato operations in Afghanistan.

Russia has threatened “serious political military and political repercussions” if Finland and Sweden were to join the alliance, echoing its concern about Nato expanding into Ukraine or Georgia.

Although neither country has yet said it wants to join Nato, both have bristled at the idea of Russia removing the option from the table.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto brushed off the Russian threat and said: “We’ve heard this before.”

“Should Finland be Nato’s external border, it rather means that Russia would certainly take that into account in its own defence planning,” he said.

Finland last year ordered $11 billion worth of F-35 fighters from US warplane manufacturer Lockheed Martin. President Sauli Niinisto told his counterpart Joe Biden that he appreciated the door to Nato being kept open.

The Finnish government also praises Nato for guaranteeing the stability of the nearby Baltic states, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. The former Soviet republics have been members of both the transatlantic military alliance and the EU since 2004.

US President Joe Biden said last week that the “full force of American power” would be used to “defend every inch of Nato territory” if it came under attack.

Lithuania’s foreign minister meanwhile urged Britain and other Nato governments to alter the alliance’s air policing role from deterrence to defence as Russia stepped up its attack on Ukraine.

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin says public opinion on Nato membership is changing. Reuters

“That means that we need anti-air, anti-rocket [defences],” said Gabrielius Landsbergis. “We need all the credibility to defend the territory as Nato would defend any other territory in its alliance.”

But Nato has made clear in Ukraine that non-members are not covered by the alliance’s Article 5 security guarantee and cannot expect the US and its allies to send combat troops in their defence.

Bringing Finland under the Article 5 umbrella would “significantly improve the credibility of Finland’s defence”, said the authors of the Nato petition, which called for a referendum on the issue.

The opposition National Coalition Party supports Nato membership but accepts that any accession would have to have broad support.

Ms Marin's ruling Social Democrats are more cautious. One of its MPs, Kimmo Kiljunen said it was an open question whether Finland would be safer or more vulnerable in the alliance.

“At its worst, we would be in the forefront, the target of the first attack of the Great War, and the first to be sacrificed on a chessboard,” he said.

Whatever happens to the current regime in the Kremlin, “what is left is the people and country of Russia, which is a permanent neighbour of Finland,” he said. “We need to get along with each other.”

Updated: March 02, 2022, 11:26 AM