The trans-Atlantic security world is buzzing with the prospect of Finland joining NATO shortly. Unless there is a big political or military surprise, Finland and maybe Sweden will request NATO membership before the June NATO summit in Madrid.
Within the alliance, there is widespread, though not unanimous, support for Finnish inclusion. Unfortunately for Finland and maybe for the alliance, there will almost certainly be a lengthy delay between Finland’s request and full NATO membership. After all, joining NATO necessitates modifying the Washington Treaty, NATO’s foundational instrument. That will take time — at least a few weeks, if not a year or more — since the modified treaty must be ratified by all 30 alliance members.
The following is how the ratification argument is anticipated to play out:
Finland’s NATO proponents would argue that, from a military-security standpoint, Finland adds value to the alliance. Finland has a sizable, highly-trained, and competent ground force, as well as an increasingly capable air force, both of which are already NATO-interoperable. Few alliance members can claim that Finland can defend itself autonomously for days, if not weeks. Finland has decades of experience watching Russian operations along their shared 833-mile border, knowledge that might help the alliance enhance its situational awareness. Indeed, Finland’s accession to NATO may make it simpler to protect the Baltic States, since it provides NATO with alternative reinforcement route beyond the tiny Suwalki Gap linking Lithuania and Poland or sailing by the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
From the standpoint of the United States, Finland may assist assure Northern Europe’s security while allowing the US to focus more on China and Indo-Pacific security challenges. Supporters will also point to Finland’s clear political and cultural connections with NATO members, as well as Finland’s reputation as an established democracy that safeguards civil rights and adheres to the rule of law.
Skeptics may claim that Finland’s participation is fraught with danger. The addition of Finland may anger Russia, as joining NATO would quadruple the entire border between NATO and Russia. In the case of a battle with Finland, Russian supply lines would be much shorter than NATO’s. Reinforcing Finland might be challenging at best. All Finnish territory, all maritime approaches through the Baltic Sea, and significant portions of overland approaches from Norway into northern Finland or through Sweden are well within range of Russian military systems stationed near the Finnish-Russian border, in Kaliningrad, the Kola Peninsula, and the Barents Sea. Surface-to-air, anti-ship, and ground-attack missiles, some of which are nuclear-capable, are among these systems.
That is not to suggest that strengthening Finland is an insurmountable undertaking, but naysayers will point to the escalating dangers involved.
These disputes, like their outcomes, are predictable. Russia is the actual wild card in this situation.
Russia will do everything it can to emphasize the doubters’ arguments in the run-up to Finland’s request, as well as throughout treaty ratification processes in each NATO nation. Russia might target Finland and NATO countries with misinformation operations, cyberattacks, and other so-called active measures, military harassment, or even direct military action. Russian authorities have previously threatened that if Finland joins NATO, they will send nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad.
Other aggressive acts aimed at fracturing the alliance on the issue of membership are likely, according to officials in Brussels and NATO capitals. Finland is preparing for such a scenario. According to a recent Finnish government analysis, “the aspirant nation and NATO member countries are likely to be susceptible to foreign influence and pressure already during the membership discussions and transition phase.”
Before Finland decides whether to request for membership, NATO should prepare for these situations as well. Consider how alliance nations may speed their treaty ratification processes to give Russia less time to misbehave. Can early ratifiers offer Finland with bilateral security assurances before Finland becomes a full NATO member? More broadly, who would be prepared to aid Finland in a military war if it applied for membership in NATO but did not become a full member? Finally, are NATO countries prepared to fight Russian misinformation by sharing (and maybe publicizing) intelligence in order to better enlighten Western publics about Russian actions?
In Western defense circles, the money is on Finland asking to join NATO shortly. With proper planning and execution, the alliance may acquire a skilled new member while reducing regional instability and potential violence.