As a US-American with a strong connection to Europe, I do not shy away from my support of NATO. Regardless of one’s political opinion or qualms with the organization—of which I also have many—there is no doubt that the alliance has played a major role in preserving over 60 years of unquestionable independence and stability for its member states. Despite this, however, I find myself unable to immediately throw my support behind the, albeit low, prospect of Finnish membership into the alliance. This has because recent actions on behalf of the Russian government in prospective NATO member states leads me to believe that membership may actually generate more of a security risk for the nation—one in which NATO may not wish to become heavily involved.
Finland’s postwar political history has been dominated by its neutrality in the overarching global competition between the United States and Russia. But despite this tradition of neutrality, many in today’s Finnish political elite are beginning to change their position in favor of NATO membership as a result of increased Russian aggression on borders with its neighbors in addition to Moscow’s efforts to coopt ethnic Russian populations within neighboring states to create social instability. The basis for this resurgence of support for NATO membership centers on the idea that joining the alliance will make Finland more secure, arguing that guaranteed US-American support will serve as a deterrent to Russian aggression. However, recent events have shown that such moves toward NATO membership in states bordering Russia actual increases the risk of Russian coercion as Moscow aims to maintain a buffer between it and NATO—a scenario which has already played out in Georgia and Ukraine where opening NATO talks resulted in Russian interference to make them too unstable for membership. Therefore, the preferred method for preventing such an event for Finland, as the nation western democracy sharing the longest border with Russia, would be to continue its neutrality in terms of NATO membership.
Maintaining a buffer between Russia and greater NATO is essential for signaling Western benign intent and reducing Russian aggression. During the Cold War, the neutral states of Finland, Sweden, and Austria and the Warsaw Pact Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe served as a buffer between Russia and the NATO states of Western Europe. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratization of Eastern Europe, however, NATO expanded its border until meeting Russian territory in the Baltics, dissolving a large buffer between Russia and the US-led military alliance. Not surprisingly, the government in Moscow perceived this move as a threat to their national security. As a result, Russia has been aggressive in their campaign to maintain a buffer between themselves and NATO. A basic review of history shows that this is not an abnormal move. For example, the United States reacted similarly to Soviet efforts to strengthen the military defense of their ally Cuba off the Florida coast resulting in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Moves on behalf of the Russian government to destabilize Georgia and Ukraine after these states began the process of moving toward NATO membership are universally known and have thus far allowed the Russian Federation to maintain a buffer for a third of its border in Europe.
Finland wields the single longest border between Russia and a Western European democracy, and its current state of neutrality means that it serves as a buffer between Russia and the NATO alliance. But were the Finnish government to opt for NATO membership, as much as a quarter of the Russian border in Europe would become a Russia-NATO border—a greater perceived threat than Georgian or Ukrainian membership. Some scholars have gone as far as to suggest such a move would equate to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Russians. While Finland remains a neutral state, the Russian Federation has not engaged in coercive acts on its border similar to those in Georgia or Ukraine, nor has it actively aimed to create social disorder in Finland by coopting its ethnic Russian population. Were that neutrality to shift toward aligning with NATO and a quarter of Russia’s buffer disappear, it can be assumed that Moscow would make moves to destabilize Finland as it historically has done in the past.
If we have learned anything from the events in Georgia and Ukraine, it is that NATO does not immediately respond to a crisis with Russia as it does not want to engage in a militarized conflict with an unstable, nuclear Russia. Therefore, the status quo of neutrality is the best option for Finland. This position of neutrality will maintain the NATO-Russia buffer and reduce Russian desire to destabilize the nation.