The decision by Finland to apply for membership in NATO stems from obvious and unarguable security concerns engendered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, this decision is so predictable from the Realist perspective on international relations that it will surely be used in future textbooks.
The absence of public debate on this momentous move is worrisome, however, particularly with respect to the nuclear dimension. Finland, along with Sweden, are long-time members of the European Union, but until now have declined to join NATO. Why? The answer is the same as the one to the question as to why NATO and the US have declined to intervene in Ukraine directly: the fear of antagonising a large nuclear power, namely Russia.
This problem will not go away even if Finland does indeed join NATO. In fact, it is important to consider how the implications of NATO membership will affect Finnish security in a nuclear world. Finland’s 1340 km border with Russia means that overnight NATO will find itself with a new and by far the longest land border between East and West. In requesting NATO ascension, the nation seeks rapid admittance, without negotiating or securing preliminary agreements about how the logistics of border security would be handled, or which weapons systems could be based in Finland. Prime Minister Marin has stated that NATO has no interest ‘to put nuclear weapons or bases in Finland,’ but there can be no guarantee that Brussels and Washington agree – or that, even if they do, they will not later change their mind. Finland, in other words, could find itself in the nuclear front lines in a geopolitical conflict with its large neighbour. How could this affect Finnish security?
Answers may lie in Russia’s evolving nuclear posture and declaratory policy. Russia’s stated strategic doctrines of 2010, 2014, and 2020 emphasize the deployment of nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes to defend itself and its allies, and in the event of an existential threat to state sovereignty. Some of these threats could be non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction, or a threat to nuclear capabilities. Questions remain regarding the recourse to nuclear weapons in the case of conventional arms failure. US strategists have referred to this as escalation to deescalate, a policy of shocking adversaries to back off military aims in fear of further escalation.
Russia perceives that its security concerns result from NATO expansion. We can debate whether these concerns are justified or not, but there can be little doubt that this is how Moscow thinks. Why? First, NATO’s territorial expansion after the Cold War placed strategic bases with US missile defense in close proximity to Russia in Poland, Romania, and in offshore locations. Second, given the US bid for full spectrum military dominance in all threat theatres and its ongoing attempts to overcome Russia’s retaliatory second-strike capability, Moscow is confronted with real strategic vulnerability. With Finland’s ascension, US missile defense systems could be even closer to the Russian homeland, intensifying Russian fears of profound strategic vulnerability. This is a dangerous step to take against a powerful nuclear state.
Whereas the USSR and subsequently the Russian Federation maintained a No First Use deterrent posture until 1993, the US has since at least the 1980s pursued a nuclear war fighting posture dedicated to coercive bargaining, escalation dominance, and flexible response. It developed limited nuclear options in the late 1960s. Given its Cold War lack of conventional war fighting capability in Europe, it relied on an extended deterrence policy to defend allies by threatening nuclear attack in the case of a conventional invasion of NATO countries. The US views the threat of nuclear attack as a bargaining tool, and maintains the credibility of its threats by posing risks of escalation incorporating elements of chance. Presently it embraces a posture of “calculated ambiguity” with no red lines to maintain its total freedom in conflict situations.
Thus, whether Finns acknowledge the geopolitical consequences of joining NATO or not, their country moves from being a non-aligned non-nuclear-weapons state to one wherein a non-democratic military alliance will determine how their border security operates, and what weapons systems are deployed in their state. How does the Ukraine conflict end now that diplomatic solutions recede and western military ambitions grow? It could be a protracted conflict that does not spill much beyond those borders, nor escalate into bigger arenas. However, with extensive economic sanctions on Russia and agricultural setbacks in Ukraine, the war is already challenging European financial prosperity and global supply chains. While western nations are certain of Russia’s moral transgression, many nations either supported Russia (including China) or abstained in recent UN voting. Many of these states may be guessing that siding with Russia and China is hedge against US and western dominance.
We do not question for one second why Finland, looking at what is happening in Ukraine, sees membership in NATO as the best means of ensuring its security. Nor do we justify Russia’s brutal and incompetent invasion in any way. But geography matters. Finland’s lengthy border with Russia puts it on the front line in future nuclear showdowns between East and West. This would be one thing if the US had adopted a defensive, No-First-Use deterrent policy; instead, its pursuit of nuclear supremacy creates genuine fear in Moscow and increases the possibility of war. A promised benefit of Finland and Sweden joining NATO was that the Nordic countries could exert influence on the alliance’s overall policies. However, with its overnight ascension, one wonders whether Finland has ceded this chance for influence already.
By S.M. Amadae, University of Helsinki, and Campbell Craig, Cardiff University
This is a "Viewpoint" opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of The Helsinki Times. This column is not fact checked and HT is not be responsible for any possible inaccurate or incorrect statement in this article.