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Explained| How Finland's NATO Accession Will Impact Contemporary Geopolitics

The Turkish Parliament cast the decisive vote to enable Finland's entry into NATO, which will effectively double the alliance's border with Russia.

Russia Ukraine Crisis
| Written By
sagar kar

Image: AP

After years of remaining nonaligned, Finland has been granted final approval to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, marking a significant shift in the power dynamics between the West and Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. According to a report from the New York Times, the Turkish Parliament cast the decisive vote to enable Finland's entry into NATO, which will effectively double the alliance's border with Russia.

For Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, this marks a strategic and diplomatic loss, as he had previously expressed his determination to block NATO's expansion toward the east. In fact, Putin's rationale for the invasion of Ukraine was blocking NATO's eastward expansion. The fact that NATO is now expanding towards the east, again despite Putin's invasion of Ukraine, suggests that Ukraine's invasion did not have the desired effect. 

A look at the Finland and Russia dynamic

The roots of this relationship can be traced back to the 18th century when Russia conquered Finland and incorporated it into the Russian Empire. This period was marked by the imposition of the Russian language and culture, as well as efforts to suppress Finnish nationalism. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Finland declared its independence and established itself as a democratic republic.

During World War II, Finland was forced to fight two wars against the Soviet Union. In the Winter War of 1939-40, Finland successfully resisted a Soviet invasion but was forced to cede territory to the Soviet Union in the resulting peace treaty. In the Continuation War of 1941-44, Finland fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, only to be defeated and forced to cede even more territory to the Soviet Union.

In the post-war period, Finland pursued a policy of neutrality and non-alignment, seeking to balance its relations with both the West and the Soviet Union. This policy allowed Finland to maintain its independence and avoid becoming a pawn in the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, it also left Finland vulnerable to pressure from the Soviet Union, which maintained a significant military presence in the region.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Finland began to pursue closer relations with the West. In 1995, Finland joined the European Union, and in 1999, it became a member of the Partnership for Peace program of NATO. However, Finland had remained outside of NATO, in part due to concerns about provoking Russia. That changed when Russia decided to invade Ukraine, a move that convinced Finland that for its safety and security, it must become a part of NATO. 

A look at the implications

The decision by Finland to join NATO represents a significant shift in the balance of power between Russia and the West, with potential implications for regional security and stability. The addition of Finland to NATO's borders is likely to be seen as a significant escalation in tensions between NATO and Russia. This is because Finland's decision to join the alliance brings NATO's border with Russia significantly closer to Moscow, increasing the perceived threat to Russia's national security.

Furthermore, the addition of Finland to NATO's ranks may have implications for the stability of the Arctic region. Finland shares a long border with Russia in the Arctic, and its membership in NATO may lead to a militarization of the region, potentially heightening tensions and increasing the risk of conflict. This is a concern that has been raised by some scholars of security studies, who argue that the Arctic is becoming an increasingly important theater of geopolitical competition, with Russia, the United States, and other powers jostling for influence and control.

Another potential implication of Finland's decision to join NATO is the effect it may have on the broader strategic balance in Europe. Some scholars argue that the expansion of NATO's borders closer to Russia may embolden Moscow to adopt a more assertive and confrontational foreign policy, potentially leading to a new round of arms races and military buildups. This is a concern that has been raised by scholars such as John J. Mearsheimer, who argue that the expansion of NATO represents a major strategic threat to Russia and that Moscow will respond accordingly.

Moscow will not be convinced that normal relations with the West is simply not an option it has. As a result, Moscow will ally more closely with China. The relationship between China and Russia, contrary to the perception of most people, has a lot of friction and the convergence between the long-term interests of both nations isn't as high as the leaders of the nations would like to portray. However, due to Moscow's heightened sense of vulnerability now, it will be forced to deepen ties with China, which in the grand strategic context, is a loss for the West as well. 

A look at the domestic situation in Finland

It is important to set aside the macro for a minute and look at the ground situation in Finland as well, which seldom gets attention, thanks to the good PR the current prime minister gets in the foreign press. The way people outside Finland see her and the way Finns see her is akin to two peaks with a wide valley in the midst. 

Despite her adept handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and Finland's efforts to join NATO, Prime Minister Sanna Marin is facing a tough battle against two right-wing challengers in Sunday's parliamentary elections. While she is lauded as a superstar on the international stage, domestically, Marin is seen as a polarising figure, according to Hanna Wass, vice-dean of the University of Helsinki, who spoke with the Financial Times. 

Sanna Marin's polarising image within Finland can be attributed more to the ongoing political debate over austerity versus growth, public finances, and government debt, rather than controversial videos of her partying at the prime minister's residence. According to Tytti Tuppurainen, an ally of Marin and the EU minister, the elections in Finland have a distinct Finnish feature, as people are focused on discussing government debt, given the years of crisis.

Marin has positioned her Social Democrats further to the left, offering voters a clear ideological choice, which is atypical for recent Nordic history where the main parties have differed mainly on details and not philosophy. She aims to prioritise investment in growth and attributes the rise in debt levels to the pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine. On the other hand, Marin's right-wing opponents, the mainstream conservative National Coalition party, and the populist anti-immigration Finns plan to reduce Finland's debt-to-GDP level from 73% to 60% by cutting spending.

People in Finland are not talking about NATO membership, which is what many may assume. They are instead talking about bread-and-butter economic issues. It is also worth flagging that the current PM was opposed to NATO membership until the polls indicated that people were in favour of it, after which she did a volte-face.

Speaking of polls, according to the latest opinion poll, the Social Democrats led by Marin were ranked third, with the National Coalition and the Finns slightly ahead within the statistical margin of error, scoring between 18.7 and 19.8 percent. However, only the Finns party showed an increase in their support compared to the previous poll. Be that as it may, a look at the domestic situation in Finland leads to the following conclusion - although the Finns are divided over many issues, they all seem to be certain about one thing i.e. NATO membership. It is the one issue on which there is a broad consensus, which is unlikely to go away, irrespective of which party wins the election in Finland. This is bad news for Russia. No matter how hard people in Kremlin try to spin it. 

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