Finland is preparing for a potentially historic “before midsummer” decision on whether to apply to join NATO as a deterrent to Russian aggression.
The Nordic nation of 5.5 million has traditionally been militarily non-aligned, in part to avoid provocation from its eastern neighbor, with whom it shares a 1,300-kilometer border.
But Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine doubled public support for NATO membership from 30 to 60 percent, according to a series of polls.
“Never underestimate the Finns’ ability to make quick decisions when the world is changing,” former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb told AFP.
Stubb, himself a longtime NATO supporter, now believes Finland’s application to join is “a foregone conclusion” as Finns reevaluate their relationship with their neighbor.
A government-mandated national security review will be presented to parliament, the Eduskunta, next week to help Finnish MPs form their own opinion before it is voted on.
“We will hold very careful talks, but will not take any more time than necessary,” Prime Minister Sanna Marin said at a press conference on Friday.
“I think we’ll end the discussion before midsummer,” she added.
“My guess is that the application will be made sometime in May,” in time for the NATO summit in Madrid in June, Stubb said.
Finland declared independence in 1917 after 150 years of Russian rule, only for its vastly outnumbered army to repel a Soviet invasion attempt during World War II that inflicted heavy casualties on the Red Army.
Hostilities ended in a peace agreement in which Finland ceded several border areas to the Soviet Union.
Finnish leaders agreed to remain neutral during the Cold War in exchange for guarantees from Moscow that it would not invade.
The country’s enforced neutrality to appease its stronger neighbor coined the term “Finlandization”.
Finland has remained outside the transatlantic military alliance and, despite some post-Cold War cuts, has focused on maintaining well-funded defense and preparedness capabilities.
“We are capable of mobilizing 280,000 to 300,000 men and women in a matter of days,” Stubb said, adding that 900,000 reserves could also be called.
Last week, the Finnish government agreed to a 40 percent increase in defense spending by 2026 to further strengthen the country’s position.
“We have come a long way when it comes to our security policy and it has worked so far,” said Center Party MP Joonas Kontta.
Like most of his parliamentary colleagues, the 32-year-old used to think that NATO membership was “something we don’t need at the moment.”
But Russia’s invasion has “changed something in Europe in ways that can’t be undone,” he told AFP, and Kontta recently revealed he believes it’s time to make a move to join the alliance to strive.
A number of MPs have also recently announced similar changes of opinion on Finland’s “NATO issue” – although many others are keeping their positions to themselves and awaiting more detailed discussions.
Only six of Finland’s 200 MPs openly opposed NATO in a recent poll conducted by public broadcaster Yle, including Markus Mustajarvi of the Left Alliance party
Finland and Sweden’s nonalignment “has brought stability to all of northern Europe,” the Lapland MP told AFP.
Mustajarvi questions whether the mutual defense obligation in NATO’s Article 5 would provide real protection in the event of an attack.
Instead, he cites Finland’s own defense capabilities, which are “so strong that they would force Russia to consider the price it would pay for an attack.”
Although Mustajarvi has received “all sorts of feedback” from the public and his fellow MPs on his stance, he insists that he “has thought this through to the end and so far sees no reason to change my position”.
Since the Russian attack, the Finnish leadership has held a series of intensive talks to seek the views of other NATO countries on a possible bid for membership.
Along with neighboring Sweden, Finland has received public assurances from Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that the alliance’s door will remain open, as well as statements of support from numerous members including the US, Britain, Germany, France and Turkey.
But an attempt to join NATO would likely be viewed as a provocation by the Kremlin, for which the expansion of the US-led alliance at its borders was a top security concern.
Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto has warned that Russia’s response could be “on the brazen side”, including airspace, territorial violations and hybrid attacks.
The Kremlin has pledged to “redress the situation” if Finland joins NATO.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Pekka Haavisto has conceded that Russia could seek to destabilize an accession bid during the “grey zone” between an application and its ratification by all 30 NATO countries, which could take four months to a year.
“Finland has always tried to stay out of the gray area,” Stubb said, but he believes Finland has the resilience to withstand potential Russian aggression or hybrid attacks.