Russia’s sabre-rattling in Ukraine has reignited the debate in Finland as to whether the Nordic country should join Nato, defying demands from Moscow that seek to limit expansion of the military alliance in Europe.
Both president Sauli Niinisto and prime minister Sanna Marin used their new year addresses to underscore that Finland retained the option of seeking Nato membership at any time.
“Let it be stated once again: Finland’s room to manoeuvre and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for Nato membership, should we ourselves so decide,” Niinisto said.
Marin added in her separate speech that every country had the right to decide its own security policy, stressing: “We have shown that we have learnt from the past. We will not let go of our room for manoeuvre.”
As Russia amasses about 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern frontier, Washington, Moscow and Nato member states are set to meet for talks in early January. US president Joe Biden is also due to speak to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has previously refused to rule out military action and has warned he has “all kinds” of options if his demands for “security guarantees” to limit Nato expansion are unmet.
Finland and neighbouring Sweden are both militarily non-aligned but have a growing co-operation with Nato as well as strong bilateral relationships with members of the alliance such as the US, Norway and UK.
There is no sense of Finland imminently about to apply for Nato membership, but Russia’s activity on the borders of Ukraine and its list of demands just before Christmas has fired up the internal debate in Helsinki to a level last seen after the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Niinisto also warned the west that it risked empowering Russia if it removed the threat of possible military action. Citing former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger on appeasing Nazi Germany, the Finnish president said: “Whenever avoidance of war has been the primary objective of a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of its most ruthless member.”
Petteri Orpo, leader of the main opposition National Coalition party, a longtime supporter of Nato membership, also said that now was the time to discuss whether Finland should apply and that he believed joining would improve both its security and that of the neighbouring region.
“Russia has recently suggested that the possible Nato membership of Finland and Sweden would force it to retaliate militarily. Such a speech is reprehensible and ultimately says more about Russia’s ultimate goals than Finland’s or Sweden’s. Finland does not pose a threat to Russia now or in any other way,” Orpo said on Thursday in a post on his party’s website.
Atte Harjanne, an active reservist and head of the parliamentary group of the Green party, a member of the ruling five-party government coalition, said the arguments for Finland joining had been “strengthened” and that the country should join immediately.
Leading politicians in all three Baltic countries believe that Finnish and Swedish membership of Nato is crucial for improving the security situation on Russia’s western border amid worries not just about Ukraine but also Belarus and its use of migrants to test Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Finland and Sweden joining Nato “could make entire northern Europe much more stable and safer,” said Marko Mihkelson, head of Estonia’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee.
Finland is one of the few European countries that did not significantly cut its military strength after the cold war as its 1,340km-long border with Russia, and memories of the bitterly fought 1939-40 winter war against the Soviet Union, ensured security matters retained a high priority.
Finland has also retained close diplomatic and commercial ties with Russia, and security experts say that Niinisto is perhaps the European leader most respected by his Russian counterpart Putin, with whom he has regular conversations.