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Finland’s Hard Road to NATO

Eoin Micheál McNamara (Finnish Institute of International Affairs)

Finland’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) on April 4 2023 marked a historic shift that has strengthened security in Northern Europe. Helsinki will now fully contribute to collective defence and deterrence under NATO’s Article 5. This finally secures a position for Finland as “never again alone” (in Finnish: Ei koskaan enää yksin) within Europe’s security system. This aspiration is long etched in Finnish military history, arising first from the sentiments of Finnish General Adolf Ehrnrooth after the Winter War against Soviet invasion from November 1939 until March 1940. Until 2023, Finland’s quest for strong defence alliances had been barren for over a century of politically successful but often turbulent independence. Finland declared its independence on December 6 1917, breaking free from the Tsarist Russian Empire in turmoil from the Bolshevik Revolution. Finland had been governed as an autonomous Grand Duchy for over a century previous. Before this, Finland had changed hands from the Swedish to the Russia Empire after the Finnish War (part of the wider Napoleonic Wars) from 1808 to 1809. Swedish cultural and linguistic influence has had a long and strong influence on Finnish society.

Upheaval and war

Under Tsarist rule, the governing elite of the Grand Duchy of Finland was dominated by a Swedish-speaking minority. Awakening for nationalist separatism built throughout the nineteenth century, most notably with the Fennoman Movement pressuring for the Finnish language to gain equal status with Swedish in affairs of administration and governance. Autonomy enabled the Grand Duchy to be the first political entity to implement universal suffrage in 1906. Soon after, the newly independent Finland quickly prospered, but it also experienced violent upheaval. A military struggle for domestic control played out during the Finnish Civil War from January until May 1918. The country was factionalised between the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic or Red Finland supported by the Bolsheviks and the anti-communist White Finnish forces led by General Carl Gustav Mannerheim. White Finland prevailed and Finnish leaders consolidated a democratic republic during the 1920s and 1930s, but geopolitical turmoil soon lay in store.

By 1939, tensions leading to WWII were escalating. Nazi German leader Adolf Hitler and Soviet counterpart Josef Stalin agreed a non-aggression treaty. Negotiated by their respective foreign ministers, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact contained secret protocols allocating Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence. Hitler could annex western Poland without Soviet objections, while Stalin had a free hand with eastern Poland, the Baltic states and Finland. Helsinki refused Moscow’s diktat to allow Soviet access to bases and military assets on Finnish territory. Soviet forces then invaded in November 1939. The Finnish fightback in the Winter War that followed is historically recorded as an asymmetric David versus Goliath struggle where, under Mannerheim’s talismanic military leadership, Finland upset the odds with effective military tactics. The outcome has been described as a “hollow” Soviet victory. Finland inflicted unexpected pain on Moscow, but not quite enough to avoid ceding some territory. Eastern regions in Karelia were lost along with territory at Finland’s border with the Soviet Union further north. Finnish populations residing in these regions had to be evacuated and resettled.

Geopolitics remained unkind thereafter. The Soviet threat still loomed. Wider great power politics in WWII forced Finland, the Baltic states and Poland “between anvil and hammer”, presenting many grim choices. Finland cooperated with Nazi Germany when Hitler betrayed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941, waging the Continuation War between 1941 and 1944 that aimed to take back territory lost after the Winter War. Finnish military objectives were overly expansionist when some offensives into Soviet territory extended beyond lands previously lost. The Soviet military recovered against invading forces and Finland switched sides. Helsinki signed the Moscow Armistice with the Soviet Union and the UK in 1944. With Soviet support, the Finnish military expelled the last German units from its territory during the Lapland War from September 1944 until April 1945. WWII had essentially comprised three different wars for Finland, but, by 1945, the independence that its people had sacrificed so much for hung by a thread.

From Finlandisation to EU membership

The post-WWII Paris Peace Treaties convened by the Allied powers and signed in 1947 assigned liability to Finland to pay reparations to the Soviet Union and imposed restrictions on Finnish military strength. The Finnish-Soviet Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (FCAT) was signed in 1948. Finland could retain its independence if it ensured its territory could not be used by external powers to attack the Soviet Union. This FCAT set the tone for Finland’s Cold War neutrality; a policy otherwise known as the Paasikivi-Kekkonen Doctrine (after two immediately successive post-WWII Finnish presidents) and more colloquially as “Finlandisation”. Finland escaped the Sovietisation and occupation suffered by the neighbouring Baltic states until 1991. It was free to develop as a liberal democracy, but it steered clear from Western military alliances like NATO and economic blocs like the fledgling European Economic Community (EEC), later the European Union (EU).

Within tight constraints, Helsinki was somewhat able to reinvent its international identity, becoming a fully-fledged Nordic country through stronger cooperation with Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden while consolidating a domestic social model based on solidarity and equality. Some domestic influences of “Finlandisation” were regressive, most notably public and media self-censorship refraining from criticising Soviet politics. Finland’s forced isolation from Western institutions unravelled from the late 1980s onwards as the Soviet system buckled. In 1990, Finland unilaterally rejected the military restrictions imposed in 1947. In 1992, the FCAT was replaced with the much less restrictive Treaty on the Foundations of Relations between Finland and Russia. Cold War neutrality is remembered ruefully by many Finns as an imposed obstacle or a pragmatic burden. Finland joined the EU in 1995 and welcomed Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) agreements such as the Charter of Paris in 1990 and later the European Security Charter in 1999 that affirmed every OSCE member state as “free to choose or change its security arrangements”

The road to NATO

Finns have confidence in their national defence and wider “comprehensive security” systems. Finland’s active military personnel in peacetime stand at approximately 22,000. Unlike neighbouring Sweden, which abolished conscription from 2010 until 2017, Finland’s defence has been consistently reinforced by a strong conscript and reserve base allowing the Finnish Defence Forces (FDF) to rapidly mobilise 280,000 military personnel in wartime. When full mobilisation is complete, the FDF swells to 900,000 personnel. Finland can man and equip one of the strongest artillery defences in Europe. This is designed to challenge Russian incursions with heavy firepower like those Moscow now attempts in Ukraine. For a small Finnish population of 5.5 million, President Sauli Niinistö highlighted the scale of this defence system in May 2017, explaining that “Once we [Finland] mobilise our whole reserve, we have five thousand more men under arms than Germany [population 83 million] can put up”.

Despite a formidable sovereign posture, Finland has strengthened defence cooperation with other Western states throughout the post-Cold War era. Helsinki understood neutrality during the Cold War as having political and economic as well as military components. “Neutrality” was therefore discarded for “military non-alignment” when Finland joined the EU in 1995. “Non-alignment” was sometimes later dropped for “no membership in military alliances” in 2007. Explaining this evolution in 2022, Niinistö outlined that “Finlandisation” was replaced by a post-Cold War decision to remain outside NATO through Finland’s “own will” to assist in stabilising Northern Europe. NATO enlargement for the neighbouring Baltic states and the wider Central and Eastern Europe region after 2004 was largely perceived as positive by Finnish leaders. Rather than collective defence guarantees, Helsinki prioritised defence cooperation designed to mutually enhance capacity with different states and organisations: with Sweden, with the US, wider Nordic cooperation, within the EU and with NATO.

Stronger transatlantic cooperation was signalled early in the 1990s when Finland procured 62 F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft from a US manufacturer to fully Westernise its air force. Announced in December 2021, the US manufactured F-35 fighter jet won the Finnish Ministry of Defence’s procurement competition based on its capabilities, but the $9.4 billion order for 64 F-35s to replace the aging Hornets after 2025 also reinforces Finland’s transatlantic link. When Russia increased its military build-up in preparation for an escalated invasion of Ukraine in late 2021, it issued an ultimatum to NATO to refuse new members and retreat to its 1997 borders as blackmail to reduce tensions. This caused deep concern in Finland and Sweden: both perceived it as Russia’s attempt to monumentally change European security principles and deny sovereignty over security arrangements. The shift in Finnish and Swedish public opinion to support NATO membership was quickly accelerated by Russia’s brutal military operations in Ukraine. Despite Finland’s strong defence system, atrocities committed by Russia in Irpin, Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine saw the Finnish public realise stronger deterrence through NATO membership as vital to prevent a Russian military encroachment in the first instance.

Supporting Ukraine

In Finland, the president leads foreign policy in cooperation with the parliamentary government led by the prime minister. When Antti Rinne’s Social Democrat-led coalition government formed after the June 2019 Parliamentary Election collapsed, Sanna Marin was elected Prime Minister in December 2019. Having a previous political emphasis on social cohesion issues, some might have doubted Marin’s foreign and security policy credentials at first. However, in close cooperation with Niinistö, she successfully led Finland through ground-breaking strategic change over a pressured and short timeframe. Marin was able to find support within a broad governing coalition for Finland’s ambitious F-35 procurement before a dramatic reversal in Finnish public opinion brought high-stakes NATO accession negotiations. Finland’s application was submitted in May 2022 and membership was impressively achieved less than a year later. Marin was resolute in support of Ukraine. Helsinki broke with past precedents to support Kyiv with military equipment.

These achievements outweigh Marin’s few security policy mistakes. Controversies ensued when she was not clear enough to rule out possible stationing of NATO nuclear weapons in Finland in October 2022 and by her indication that Helsinki might possibly donate some of its Hornet jets to Ukraine in March 2023. Both statements were corrected by Niinistö. Despite security being a dominant theme in Finnish politics over recent years, Finland is a society that takes its security seriously but is far from a militaristic one. This was highlighted by the April 2023 Parliamentary Elections. Consensus on national defence and support for Ukraine between Finland’s main parties saw the differentiating debates take place over social issues. Finland has the same cost of living crisis as most other EU countries. Marin’s Social Democratic Party was overtaken by the centre-right National Coalition Party and the far-right Finns Party. Finland’s national debt and public spending were central concerns for the electorate that ultimately favoured conservative parties promising fiscal restraint over the left’s plans to retain more social investment. Petteri Orpo of the National Coalition Party is set to replace Marin as the next prime minister, although inter-party coalition talks are still ongoing. The irony for Marin was that foreign and security policy, an area she was inexperienced in but soon excelled at when in power, ultimately had much less political payoff than the domestic social emphasis that had forged her earlier political rise.


Eoin Micheál McNamara is a research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki. This research has been funded by the Reignite Multilateralism via Technology (REMIT) project, funded from the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101094228. 


The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.