Just four months ago, the idea of Finland joining Nato this year would have seemed far-fetched. Now, the prospect of Russia’s once-neutral neighbour applying to become a member of the western military alliance seems all but inevitable.
Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, another non-Nato member that shares a border with Russia, has disrupted decades of security thinking in Helsinki, and for the first time led to a majority of Finns supporting Nato membership.
“All of a sudden, it seems the Finnish population have decided: there is only one option. It’s a radical change, a huge shift in momentum,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, leading researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
Carefully neutral throughout the cold war, Finland believes it chose sides when it joined the EU in 1995. But it also thought its security was best served outside a military alliance in order to foster good relations with Russia, with which it shares a 1,340km border. Heavy defence spending was meant to deter any Russian thoughts of invasion.
It had long been expected that Sweden, the other non-Nato Nordic country, would lead the way in the debate about future Nato membership and that Finnish politicians would have to work hard to convince the public of any benefits. But the opposite has happened: according to the latest poll, 62 per cent of Finns are in favour of joining.
Finland’s government is now preparing a white paper on the country’s security, including potential Nato membership, to be released this month. A parliamentary debate will follow, with some MPs pushing for a decision to be taken before a Nato summit in Madrid at the end of June.
One senior Finnish official said he had long wondered what it would take to shift his country’s Nato stance. Neither Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, nor its 2014 annexation of Crimea changed public opinion in Finland, and support for Nato membership remained at about 20 per cent.
“A major conventional war in the middle of Europe by an aggressive Russia did it. The Finnish political elite have always thought Finland is best served by having a working, rational relationship with Russia . . . But seeing how Russia behaves now has changed people’s minds and means we can’t have a rational relationship,” he said.
Tytti Tuppurainen, Finland’s EU minister, said it was of “paramount importance” that the majority of Finns wanted to join Nato. “It is a call to us decision makers to swiftly analyse the situation and make decisions. We are ready for that.”
The conflict in Ukraine has shown what can happen to countries not covered by Nato’s collective defence pledge. But in Finland it has also revived memories of its 1939-40 winter war against the Soviet Union in which Finnish forces, largely alone, resisted a far larger army but lost territory in the process.
“We should never have to be alone again . . . In order to improve our security and guarantee our independence, we should join Nato. We still have a powerful and aggressive neighbour,” said Petteri Orpo, leader of the main opposition National Coalition party, a longtime supporter of membership.
But the position of the two largest government parties, the Social Democrats of prime minister Sanna Marin and the Centre party, will be crucial. Both have previously been divided over Nato. Marin said on Saturday that a decision on whether to join Nato should be taken “this spring”.
There are also concerns in Helsinki about Finland’s potential vulnerability in the period between voting to join Nato and actually becoming a member. “How long would it be and what would Finland’s security look like during that timeframe?” asked Orpo.
Last month Sauli Niinisto, Finland’s president, discussed Nato membership with the alliance’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, who has previously said any application would be processed quickly. But it would still take several months to be ratified by all 30 members and some Finnish officials worry that a Nato country could push for a delay for fear of provoking Russia.
Niinisto declined to comment when questioned by the Financial Times on whether he had asked US president Joe Biden for security guarantees when visiting Washington in March.
There is also debate over whether a Finnish application to Nato might be seen as a provocation to Russia rather than simply a response to Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.
The senior official said: “Applying for membership carries awful risks for Finland, and for Nato. We have a very unpredictable, aggressive neighbour . . . I have always said that joining military alliances is something you do in quiet times, so that you do not import any instability into the organisation you join.”
Others argue that Finland, with its well-trained army and high level of preparedness, would be useful for Nato both in its defence of the Baltic states and the Arctic.
Foreign minister Pekka Haavisto said the whole European security order had been destabilised by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. “So many principles were broken, so many agreements violated. Everybody’s interests are to try to make decisions so they are not provoking anything or destabilising things. But, at the same time, you have to make your own decisions to improve security.”
The timing of a potential Nato bid by Finland is far from decided. Orpo worries that a drawn-out process would become more complicated if Sweden’s elections in September and US midterms in November muddied the waters.
Those advocating a swift request point to the lack of a real alternative. Niinisto said the point would be to further deepen ties with the US and Sweden. But Orpo and others said that Nato membership would mark the final step in Finland’s process of fully joining the west.
“For me, Nato membership is not just about the pro and cons, it’s a bigger question of our identity,” said Orpo. “We are a western country and have been a member of the EU for 25 years. In this sense, our place is in Nato as well.”