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Putin’s Finland nightmare – and what he might do about it

What NATO’s new Nordic bastion will mean for Europe’s security.


For decades, Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, has sought to balance friendly relations with Moscow with its close ties to Europe. This included avoiding membership in the NATO alliance and forgoing the mutual defense guarantee that comes along with it. During the Cold War, “Finlandization” became a term for how a country can maintain its independence by making major security concessions to a much more powerful neighbor.

All that changed with the invasion of Ukraine. On May 12, Finland’s president and prime minister officially announced that they are in favor of joining NATO, a remarkable turn for a country where the government and most of the public were opposed to membership just a few months ago. The membership process is now likely to move rapidly, and neighboring Sweden is expected to follow suit in just a few days.

The Kremlin has already threatened Finland with “retaliatory steps” if it moves ahead with its membership bid, to which Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö said: “My response would be that you caused this. Look at the mirror.”

To discuss Finland’s remarkable pivot, how it came about, and what it means for the country and for Europe’s security, Grid spoke with Mikael Wigell, research director at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, whose work focuses on geoeconomics, great-power competition and hybrid threats. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: So now that the president and prime minister have voiced their support, what happens next? What still needs to happen for this to become official?

Mikael Wigell: Now there will be a discussion in parliament, starting on Sunday, perhaps continuing into Monday, where parliament will take a final stance on whether Finland will seek membership, whether we will file the application. I expect there to be overwhelming support for the application. So, I think Finland will actually file its membership application late on Monday or Tuesday. It will be a very rapid process now. And I expect Sweden to be in sync. Sweden will do the same.

G: And then what is the process on NATO’s side for accepting new members?

MW: NATO has given very strong signals as an organization that the membership application will be dealt with extremely fast. And it can be dealt with extremely fast because Finland and Sweden both measure up to NATO criteria for membership. There is a great deal of interoperability already between NATO and Sweden and Finland, because we’ve been training together and holding joint exercises for a long time. We’ve been very involved in NATO planning already for many years. What will take much longer is the ratification process. All 30 NATO member states will need to ratify the membership application. That could take up to four, five or six months. Hopefully, not much more than that.

G: Obviously, this crisis with Russia is moving very quickly though. Will there be any kind of mutual defense guarantees extended to Finland while this ratification process is happening in the coming months?

MW: I think we will see very strong political statements from the U.S. government that Sweden and Finland are sort of non-touchable territory during this process. [This week,] Britain actually signed a very strong statement to come to Finland’s help in case of any Russian aggression or any crisis in the Baltic Sea area. And there have been very strong statements already from NATO and some NATO member countries that Finland and Sweden are considered very strong partners already at this point. I think we will see more of those sorts of statements coming out from France and Germany as well as we go along.

G: Russia has already threatened retaliation for Finland’s membership application. What form do you expect that retaliation to take?

MW: Up to 85 percent of Russia’s current military capabilities are bound to Ukraine at this moment. Most of the military bases that are close to Finland are more or less empty. So, we don’t really expect Russia to be in a position in the near future to carry out any military operations against Finland. And of course, Russia knows that Finland’s national defense is very, very strong, one of the strongest in Europe. Finland has a reserve army that can be optimized very quickly with close to 300,000 people, and a very strong air force. So we don’t expect any sort of conventional military threats against Finland.

But from the perspective of Russia, it has said that it will retaliate, and it will need to react somehow. It’s not credible as a great power if it doesn’t react.

What we expect are what we call hybrid threats and hybrid operations. That could be cyberattacks where the Russians would try to attack our critical infrastructure, say, the electricity network. There might be also some so-called gray zone operations, where Russia, for instance, fabricates a crisis in the Baltic Sea area and uses it as a pretext to close off parts of the Baltic Sea. This would be very problematic for Finland because 85 percent of our international trade goes via the Baltic Sea area. So, something along those lines where Russia really is able to do a lot of harm to the Finnish economy. We might see that going forward in the autumn or next winter, because the economy is in for a bit of a harder time.

That sort of operation could go together with a disinformation campaign targeting Finland, which could be used by Russia as a way to drive a wedge through Finnish society or to create mistrust in Finnish authorities.

I think we feel extremely well-prepared for these sorts of attacks. We’ve been preparing for them at least since 2014, but of course, we have a whole long, long history of bordering Russia. So, these sorts of active measures are nothing new to Finland. We lived with them during the whole of the Cold War as well. There’s a long-standing tradition in Finland to prepare for these sorts of things coming out of Russia. I don’t expect these to change, in any way, the Finnish appetite for joining NATO, but they can of course inflict severe harm.

G: Was there any sort of political momentum toward membership in NATO in Finland before the invasion? Is there a chance this could have happened anyway, or is it really just because of Ukraine?

MW: Finland has, for a long time, upheld what we call the “NATO option” — that we reserve the right to choose for ourselves whether to join NATO or not. There has always been this ambiguous stance whether we would do so or not. That has been a very deliberate strategic policy.

When it comes to Finnish public opinion, that has been quite low — around 25 percent to 30 percent in favor of NATO membership. That shifted extremely heavily and rapidly following the Russian attack on Ukraine. Now, public support is around 75 to 80 percent in favor.

What does that tell us? A very important part of Finnish security policy has traditionally been to uphold functioning relations with Russia, and that’s for very pragmatic reasons. We have a very long border with Russia, so it’s been seen as important for Finnish foreign and security policy to uphold friendly relations.

After the 24th of February, it became clear to everybody that that will not be possible anymore. Russia effectively became a pariah state. And because of that, it will be impossible for Finland to uphold functioning relations with Russia. Russia will be isolated, and therefore there’s no point anymore in trying to stay militarily nonaligned.

So, we have a bit of a security deficit in the sense that relations with Russia will become more intense and Russia doesn’t adhere to international law. So we need to get security from somewhere else now, and the easiest place to get that security upgrade is from NATO.

G: Prime Minister Sanna Marin comes from a party that’s traditionally been opposed to NATO membership, and as recently as January, she said that membership was unlikely. Is it surprising at all to you that this is happening under this government?

MW: It’s true that the Social Democrats have traditionally been against NATO membership. They have been very much the party that has argued for upholding friendly relations with Russia and wanting to see Finland as a bit of a bridge between East and West. But there has also been a faction within the party that have been in favor of NATO membership. So, it’s not such a big change for Finnish Social Democrats in comparison to, for instance, the Swedish Social Democrats. For Sweden, this is much more of an identity question. It’s much more difficult for Sweden’s Social Democrats to make this change because it’s so ingrained in their core national identity to be neutral and militarily nonaligned. In Finland, it has been a much more pragmatic stance.

G: How important is it for Finland that Sweden is coming along as well? Does it make this shift easier that the two countries are doing it together?

MW: It’s extremely important. Finland and Sweden have cooperated so closely in our defense for so long already. So it really makes it much more easier in every way to be stacked together. Finland and Sweden are coordinating extremely closely all the time in this application process. It makes so much more sense from a defense planning point of view to have this sort of “Nordic Bastion” within NATO to plan our defense and to share information and intelligence. This will also tie up a lot of Russian forces in the north, because Russia will need to perhaps upgrade some of their military bases on the other side of the Finnish border. So if this Nordic Bastion is really strong, it will also freeze certain resources or certain threats to the south of Europe.

G: I know Finland has a somewhat unique defense culture both in terms of still having military conscription, and maintaining large reserves, and putting a big emphasis on training civilians for various emergency scenarios. Are there things other NATO members could learn from Finland?

MW: Finland very much relies on sort of a total defense concept where there is a large emphasis on societal security and on civil defense. There is a whole of society approach when it comes to defense, and I think that’s the way to go in these coming times. NATO members will need to pay more attention to nonmilitary aspects or not-strictly-military aspects of defense, because we live in a world where there are more of these hybrid threats, these gray zone threats, and effective defense against them can’t only be military. There needs to more of a whole of society approach defending against them. That comes naturally for Finland, as well as Sweden, which also has this long tradition of total defense, so I think there’s a lot that NATO can take from us in that respect.

G: When it comes to Ukraine itself, a lot of people have brought up the Finland model or the idea of “Finlandization” as a possibility for how a future Ukraine could be neutral in the non-NATO sense, while still having some security and ties to Europe. Do you think Finland could be a workable model for a postwar Ukraine?

MW: First of all, Finland has not been “neutral” for a long time. We joined the EU in 1995. And we have very deep defense cooperation with a lot of Western actors: with Sweden and Norway, strong bilateral relations with the U.S., EU defense cooperation. So we’ve been militarily nonaligned, sort of, but really not even that. We’ve been quite integrated into the Western alliances already for some time.

But it’s true, of course, that Finland had this Finlandization model during the Cold War, which we really don’t feel worked that well for us. It came with very strong restrictions on our own sovereignty, on our own autonomy, on our ability to act independently. So that’s not something that we would recommend for anybody else. The Finlandization model was put on us out of necessity. We don’t want Ukraine to be in such a weak position that it will have to Finlandize. It’s not a model that we would wish for any democratic society.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

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