The Bear Next Door

Finland's Quest to Join Nato

One winter the world’s largest country made an unprovoked attack on a neighbouring country.  Countries around the world were shocked and appalled.  Promises of assistance and artillery flooded in.  But not one promise of aid was kept.  The invaded country fought alone.

It was November 30, 1939.  Finland.  The Winter War had begun.

Finland repelled Soviet attacks for more than two months and inflicted substantial losses on the invaders.  However, when the Winter War concluded three and half months later with the Moscow Peace Treaty in March 1940,  Finland was forced to give up about 10% of its lands to the Soviet Union.  Over 400,000 Finns (about 12% of the country’s population at the time) were displaced.

A second conflict with the Soviet Union, the Continuation War of 1941-1944, resulted in Finland having to pay massive war reparations to the Soviet Union (while not regaining any of the lost territory of the Winter War.)

In the decades since, Finland has had a stable yet precarious relationship with the Soviet Union, and its successor, Russia.  Finland shares a 1344-kilometre border with Russia, and there is much commercial trade between the two countries.  The Russian city of St Petersburg has over 5.5 million people (the same number in all of Finland), making it—only 400 kilometres from the Finnish capital of Helsinki—an important commercial market for Finland.

When Russia launched an unprovoked attack on neighbouring Ukraine in February 2022, Finland, like many other western countries, severed trading relations with Russia and its industries.

Finland may seem a remote place to many Canadians—a country on the northeast fringes of Europe, whose inhabitants speak an inscrutable language and take weekly saunas.  The home of Angry Birds, Nokia, and Fiskars, Moomins and Marimekko.  The provider of 5% of NHL players.  The official home of Santa Claus (in Rovaniemi, a town at the arctic circle’s edge.)

At least 140,000 Canadians are of Finnish descent, including 15,000 in Thunder Bay (ON) alone.  Northern Ontario claims a large proportion of Finnish-Canadians, as many Finns came to Canada to work in lumber and mining industries in the early 1900s.  Significant numbers of Finns migrated to western provinces, including Alberta, to farm or work on the railroad.  In the United States, many of the 650,000 Americans of Finnish descent are concentrated in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and northern Minnesota.

I have visited Finland several times, and Finland’s forests have a striking resemblance to those of Northern Ontario.  Finland feels familiar, comfortable.  I don’t speak the Finnish language, but, nowadays, most of Finland’s younger generations speak English.  My husband has relatives in Finland, and we also have many friends there.  We are keenly concerned about their wellbeing and security.

On February 16, the Centre for European Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa hosted a EU Policy talk entitled “Finland’s Choice to Apply for NATO Membership.”  During this event, His Excellency Roy Eriksson, Finland’s ambassador to Canada, summarized what led up to Finland’s decision to apply for NATO membership.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Finland’s own sense of vulnerability blossomed again.   Eriksson was succinct:  “the war was a shock”.

Worldwide reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine paralleled reaction to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland in 1939.  “There was an instant outpouring of solidarity with Ukrainians,” Eriksson observed.  In this instance, however, promises of aid and artillery were honoured.

Finns had previously been ambivalent about joining NATO.  But weeks after the invasion of Ukraine, a poll showed some 62% of Finns supported NATO membership (before the invasion, fewer than 30% supported NATO membership, although a considerable number were neutral on the question.  Polls in 2023 show support now around 76%.)

Finland’s coalition government launched a thorough and protracted discussion of the matter in parliament.  It was important for all sides to have their say, Eriksson says, rather than rush into a decision that could be viewed as hasty or lacking due consideration.

On April 13, 2022, a policy paper was presented in Finland’s parliament.  Among other elements, the paper pointed out, while there was no imminent threat against Finland, Russia’s actions had violated the sovereignty of Ukraine and had violated international law.

On May 15, 2022, after a short debate, Finland’s parliament voted overwhelmingly (188 to 8) to apply for NATO membership.  Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö, signed the proposal two days later and, on May 18, the application was handed to NATO.  The official application was made jointly with Sweden’s.

NATO’s Summit at Madrid accepted both Finland’s and Sweden’s applications on June 29, 2022.  Since then, 28 NATO member states have ratified Finland’s application (Canada was the first to do so.)  Only two member states—Türkiye and Hungary—have yet to ratify the application.

In his talk February 16, Eriksson outlined what Finland brings to the NATO table:  Finland would be a net contributor to NATO.  The country has strong armed forces, and more artillery than any other country in Europe.  There are currently 280,000 troops, and a further 900,000 trained reservists.  Finland is in the process of acquiring sixty-four F-35 fighter jets.  Finland is also a world leader in cyber defense technologies.

Additionally, Eriksson noted, 83% of Finnish respondents to a 2022 poll indicated they are ready to defend their country, even if the outcome is uncertain.

Eriksson also pointed to Finland’s existing close and active partnership with NATO.  Finland has participated in NATO-led missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Finland formerly had a policy of neutrality, arising from a 1948 agreement with the Soviet Union, the Treaty of Friendship.  When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, so too did Finland’s treaties with it.  Since then, Finland has maintained a “NATO option” mindset and joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994.

Ratifications from Türkiye and Hungary are expected to be concluded by this spring.  Eriksson acknowledges recent developments have slowed the process in Türkiye.  This February’s devastating earthquake has naturally focused concerns on relief and recovery efforts.  (Finland, Eriksson notes, acted immediately to send relief supplies and resources to Türkiye following the earthquake.)

Tensions between Türkiye and Sweden have also risen following recent incidents in Sweden, one of which involved the burning of the Quran.  Eriksson noted such an act would be illegal in Finland, where all religious symbols are protected by law.

Finland has increasingly oriented to its European neighbours.  In 1961, Finland joined the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and in 1973 it joined the European Economic Community (EEC).  Finland became a member of the European Union (EU) in 1995; in 2002 the Euro became Finland’s official currency.

Eriksson drew an analogy between Finland’s quest for NATO membership and the simple purchase of house insurance.  The time to seek insurance, Eriksson observed, is when there is no emergency.  If you wait until your house is on fire, insurance will be very difficult to acquire.

With a successful quest for membership in NATO, Finland hopes to avoid any potential repeat of its abandonment by the world in 1939—when the Bear broke down Finland’s door, and Finland fought alone.