Nikolai Makarov, Finland, Russia, and NATO

Finland is not a NATO member. Behind the official reasons (credible and independent national defense, “non-alignment in times of war”, control of the Parliament on external engagements of the Finnish army), there are at least two things that matter here: the reluctance of the population towards accession, and Russia’s attitude.

In various opinion polls over the last 15 years, the result has always been the same: 60-70% of those asked for their opinion were against Finland’s accession to NATO. The reasons for that are diverse, but to me the strongest thread is a general reluctance towards involvement in “Great Powers’ politics”: Cold War style “neutrality” has become to many Finns a way of life, an illusion of gentile isolation far away from the world’s rumblings. As a small country, those think, Finland would not gain guarantees but lose independence and freedom of maneuver if it would enter NATO. This, of course, is more about symbols than about substance – in all but name, Finland is already a NATO member. Finland is a member of the Partnership for Peace, has been aligning its procedures and developing cooperation with neighboring NATO members and non-NATO countries since the 1990s, participating in NATO-led operations, etc. Nonetheless, there is still a very high symbolic threshold for any Finnish politician to stand openly for NATO accession. Officially NATO membership remains an “option” for Finland, but the debate remains as it has been since 1999.

Symbolism apart, Russia is the second big issue in this NATO debate. For the opponents to a NATO candidacy, accession would break the equilibrium in the region, infuriate Russia and make relations more complex. The unspoken assumption is that Russia is, still, one of the the main traditional security issues for Finland. The Finnish army has diversified its activity as external operations, peacekeeping and multilateral cooperation became increasingly important. But if the Finns look at their territory and the possible direct threats to its security, they seem to come mostly from the East. Those threats would not be only pure military threats, but also safety related threats, crisis situations possibly developing from instability or accidents in Russia.

There is a degree of exaggeration in certain comments in Finland about this: nothing the Russian army can do at the moment is any direct threat to a country like Finland, and on the other hand it is doubtful that whatever angry reactions coming from Russia would alter economic, political, demographic relations with Finland. But there is an uneasiness, that (let’s be honest) would be best treated through an open, trustworthy, respectful Russian foreign policy. If some participants to the Finnish political and social discussion tend to over-emphasize Russia for domestic effect, or be over-worried about Russian reactions to everything, the Russian authorities seem unable to keep down an inflamed, nationalist rhetoric that does not help matters.

The last example came last Tuesday, when the commander in chief of the Russian Armed Forces, Nikolai Makarov, declared that Finland’s strengthening its relations to NATO was a national threat to Russia. This is exactly the kind of remarks that does not help matters, and come whenever there is a context. Currently the context is interesting: the coming implementation of the American anti-missile defense installation in Europe, the discussions on Nordic cooperation in monitoring Iceland’s air space, the debates on the Arctic area, the coming visit by Hillary Clinton to Finland, the common maneuvers by NATO countries in the Baltic Sea, and finally a scheduled visit by Makarov to Finland, etc. In this context, and besides Makarov’s intentions, this statement appears as an attempt to scare Finland about NATO: keep to current policy, or we will be very very angry…

This suggests a worrying tendency to periodic grandstanding tantrums, where Russia brandishes its wounded national pride and emphasizes an absolute definition of the country’s interests without any thought of compromise. Russia has national interests, and all the rights in the world to defend them. Russia is opposed to certain developments, like for example interventions or the “responsibility to protect” norm, which is fine. The US and European Countries are not angels on their own rights, they too have interests, and sometimes do mistakes. Nobody denies that. But at the moment, nothing significantly threatens Russia – or at least, nothing threatens this country that could not be dealt with by reasonable, constructive cooperation with Russia’s neighbors and other international partners (the US, the EU, the UN, even NATO). The Cold War is over, a notion that is only slowly sipping into Russia’s strategic posture. Meanwhile, the rhetoric does not help.

As for Finland, the debate has remained as politicized and low on facts as ever. NATO supporters brandish the Article 5 as the only credible military guarantee for Finland against safety and security threats, oblivious to NATO’s internal evolutions since the Cold War, and to the effects an accession might have on the regional balance. Opponents brandish neutrality, the dangers of being sucked in great powers’ conflict and rumbles from Russia. Important debates, for example about long-term, high-level Nordic defense and political cooperation, will have to wait.

EDIT: And of course, this kind of comments by prominent Russian figures is not only disruptive, it is also counter-productive. Opposition to NATO in the Finnish population is still important, but it has gradually decreased. According to a poll conducted by Ilta Sanomat recently, a possible accession is opposed today by 48 % of Finns. When I wrote an article in 2001 on Finnish foreign policy debates, it was around 60-70%. You would think there would be conclusions for the Russian leadership to draw from this data and its evolution.

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