Putin’s war backfires as Finland aims to join NATO

It will be immortalized in history as The Big Backfire. 

The decision by the leaders of Finland, which has one of the world’s best-equipped and most advanced militaries, to back NATO membership reflects a grave strategic blunder by Russian President Vladimir Putin that will redefine the security balance in Europe regardless of the final outcome of his ill-conceived war in Ukraine. 

“It’s a colossal loss for Putin — colossal,” said former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, who had advocated for his country to join the alliance since Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008.  

Not only does Finland share a 1,300-kilometer land border with Russia, but it brings strong battle-ready defense and security capabilities in every domain — on land, at sea, in the air, and in cyberspace. 

As a NATO partner nation, Finland’s forces and weapons systems are already interoperable with the U.S. and other Western powers, unlike Ukraine which had relied heavily on Soviet-made equipment and material.

Together with Sweden, whose leaders are also expected to back NATO membership in the coming days, Finland asserts naval power in the Baltic Sea and, as an expert in cold-weather warfare, can project strength in the Arctic north — an area of mounting strategic importance as climate change opens new waterways. 

While Finland’s move was hailed in Western capitals, it was quickly denounced in Moscow, where the Foreign Ministry threatened “military-technical” retaliation.

Some Russian officials have previously warned that Finland and Sweden joining NATO would prompt the Kremlin to deploy additional nuclear weapons in the Baltic region. 

Predictably, there was no acknowledgment from Moscow that Russia’s own actions had led to the announcement on Thursday by Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in late February on pretexts that included a raft of bitter grievances against the U.S.-led alliance and its eastward expansion. 

In his speech recognizing the breakaway areas of Donestk and Luhansk and justifying his war, the Russian autocrat mentioned NATO 40 times, griping acidly about its alleged militarization of Ukraine. 

“The United States and NATO have started an impudent development of Ukrainian territory as a theater of potential military operations,” Putin said in one of his litany of complaints. “Their regular joint exercises are obviously anti-Russian.”

Putin directed particular venom at the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO and accused the U.S. of falsely promising that the alliance would never expand east of Germany. (The U.S. denies ever giving such an assurance.) 

“Ukraine joining NATO is a direct threat to Russia’s security,” Putin said, adding: “Today, one glance at the map is enough to see to what extent Western countries have kept their promise to refrain from NATO’s eastward expansion. They just cheated.” 

Putin’s war, including his failed attempt to seize Kyiv and topple President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s democratically elected government, may have at least temporarily precluded Ukraine’s own bid to join NATO. But the Russian leader has now succeeded in ending more than seven decades of Finnish non-alignment and reversing longstanding Finnish public opinion against joining the alliance. 

Polls now show upward of 70 percent of the country in support of joining NATO — an outcome that can be traced back directly to Putin’s decision to go to war.  

“This is Putin’s enlargement,” Stubb said in an interview. “The Finnish public would not have changed their opinion had Putin not invaded Ukraine.” He added, “This is a situation where the Finnish public took a decision that it is time to join NATO on the 24th of February. And they basically drove the political process.” 

There was no such momentum when Stubb, then Finland’s foreign minister, pushed for reconsidering NATO membership in response to the Georgia war in 2008. 

But Kai Sauer, the Finnish under-secretary of state for foreign and security policy, said that national sentiment — and defense policy — began shifting in 2014 following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. 

“The events in Crimea, they led to an enhanced and intensified security and defense cooperation with our partners,” Sauer said in an interview. “And now we have 2022, Russian assault on Ukraine, violation of a sovereign state, brutalities beyond imagination. So it’s really no wonder that we are reconsidering our options.” 

And even though Russian forces are now tied up with their war in Ukraine, the Finnish public is thinking long-term.

There is a sense that “Russia may not be a threat this generation, but it might be the next generation,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, leading researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “And so you cannot actually let your guard down.”

Welcome addition

NATO leaders are expected to heartily welcome the membership bids of Finland and Sweden at a summit in Madrid in June, which will be followed by the required ratification process by the parliaments in all 30 allied countries. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who was in isolation on Thursday after testing positive for coronavirus, quickly issued a statement embracing the announcement by Finland’s political leadership.  

“Finland is one of NATO’s closest partners, a mature democracy, a member of the European Union, and an important contributor to Euro-Atlantic security,” Stoltenberg said. “I agree with President Niinistö and Prime Minister Marin that NATO membership would strengthen both NATO and Finland’s security. Finnish membership would demonstrate that NATO’s door is open, and that Finland decides its own future.”

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto made clear that his country’s strategic shift was a direct result of Russia’s illegal war.

“It’s important to say that the war started by Russia jeopardizes the security and stability of the whole of Europe, and Russia’s act of aggression is a blatant violation of international law, the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe],” Haavisto told the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday.

“Unpredictable behavior of Russia is an imminent issue,” Haavisto said. “Russia is more prepared to carry out operations that are also high-risk operations for Russia itself, and will result in high casualties for Russia as well. Secondly, Russia has the ability and readiness to put pressure on its neighbors through rapid force deployments and by bringing more than 100,000 troops to the border without mobilization of the civil population in the country.” 

In his testimony, Haavisto also cited “widespread loose talk in Russia about the use of unconventional weapons, such as nuclear and chemical weapons,” “war crimes” in Ukraine, and Russia’s violation of United Nations regulations and other international rules. All of this, he said, contributed to Finland’s reevaluation of its security arrangements. 

“Finland is a regional security provider and it would further strengthen NATO as a future ally,” Haavisto said, noting that its armed forces are 280,000-strong, with trained reserves of another 900,000 and that the country has a fleet of U.S.-made F-18 fighter jets, which will be replaced with 64 F-35 fighters that were recently ordered.

Reverse for Russia

For Russia, Finland’s accession to NATO presents an array of challenges, particularly in cyberspace, which is now a crucial domain of any military conflict, and in the Arctic, where the Kremlin believes it has enormous strategic interests and has sought to assert dominance, particularly given potential new shipping routes. 

In terms of technology expertise, both Finland and Sweden bring a lot to NATO’s table.

“If you look at the … three big 5G providers worldwide, you have a Chinese company, a Swedish company and the Finnish company,” Sauer, the under-secretary, said. “So should we join NATO, you have two of these high-tech providers also members of NATO.” 

Also, Sauer said, “because of our geographical position we have a high skill-set in the Arctic affairs — technically and also politically. And I think as the Arctic, or the High North in NATO jargon, becomes more and more important, it is good to have countries like Finland and Sweden contributing to the common Arctic strategy as well.” 

For NATO, Finland and Sweden offer the prospect of rare new members who instantly bring added value, in military capabilities — being able to offer allies as much protection as they receive — but also quite literally, in terms of military spending. 

In an interview, Jamie Shea, a former deputy assistant secretary-general of NATO, called Finland and Sweden “super partners of NATO.” 

“They’ve been participating in virtually every NATO exercise,” Shea, now a senior fellow at the Friends of Europe think tank, said. “They’ve been involved in NATO’s operations in Afghanistan, in the Balkans. Sweden was involved in NATO’s air campaign against Libya back in 2011. They’ve had [diplomatic] missions to NATO with ambassadors. They’ve had big liaison offices. They’ve sent people to the military planning staff.”

Indeed, many senior Finnish officials have long described their country as “unaligned but not neutral” — noting that as a member of the European Union, Finland is committed to the EU treaties, which include a mutual protection clause. 

In recent years, the newer NATO members have tended to be small, more vulnerable nations in Eastern Europe and the Balkans that could not do much to help the larger powers like the U.S., U.K., France or Canada. 

“The integration of Finland and Sweden, which has been a kind of creeping integration going on for several years already, is going to be the easiest,” Shea said. “And much, much easier than integrating countries like North Macedonia or Montenegro, or, you know, Albania — the countries that joined NATO recently where that degree of sort of socialization and of interoperability hasn’t been going on, certainly not for as long.” 

Stubb, the former prime minister, said that rather than reducing NATO’s presence on Russia’s borders, Putin’s legacy will now be to have vastly increased the alliance’s footprint. 

“The exact opposite, the reverse, happened from what he wanted,” Stubb said. “NATO will now be joined by two new states, number 31 and 32, who are more NATO-compatible than any acceding NATO member states have ever been before.” 

Stubb said he believed the Finnish people had reacted with characteristic rationality to the new threat posed by Putin’s aggression.

“Finns react to these kinds of situations,” he said, adding: “I’m just proud of my countrymen that we’ve been able to do this move so quickly. And this is the way Finns are, you know. We don’t look back.”