The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led some European leaders to consider offering concessions to Vladimir Putin in order to stop the fighting. Specifically, French president Emmanuel Macron has suggested guaranteeing Ukrainian neutrality in exchange for Russia halting its war. Such a scenario might be dubbed Finlandization, a term that dates back to Finland’s Cold War pledge to remain neutral between NATO and the Warsaw Pact and cooperate with Russia in order to retain its sovereignty.
In light of Russia’s renewed aggression in Ukraine and Finland’s long history of subjugation to Russia, now is the time for Finland to break with its past of forced neutrality and join NATO to secure an even more prosperous future.
Finland became a neutral buffer state during the Cold War, accepting massive Soviet influence in its domestic politics to ensure its survival after experiencing two Soviet invasions in 1939 and 1941.
Finland’s mass self-censorship toward the Soviet Union, its official neutrality in Cold War geopolitics, and its passivity in letting the Soviet Union infiltrate its civil society allowed it to preserve its independence, but at a significant cost. Understandably, today, the term Finlandization is akin to a slur to Finns.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, Finland has gradually inched towards the West, joining the European Union in 1995 and signing several cooperation agreements with NATO. Today, many younger Finns see the idea that Russia would determine anything in their own lives as a remnant of a bygone era, and a majority of Finns support joining NATO outright.
The Finland of today is a far cry from the cowed buffer state of the Cold War. Finland is one of the few European countries that mandates conscription in order to field a strong military. According to the constitution, every citizen is obligated to contribute to national defense, and every male between the ages of eighteen and sixty is liable for military service. As a result, the Finnish military trains 21,000 conscripts annually and keeps a large reserve force of 900,000. Defense spending has also continued to increase since 2014, and purchases of new aircraft have highlighted the close cooperation between business, political, civic, and media leaders in Finland’s National Defense Courses. Rules that ensure pharmaceutical companies have three to ten months' worth of imported drug supplies on hand and six months' worth of fuel and grain ensure that Finland has the resources to hold off an aggressor. Finally, Finland has taken steps to protect against Russian hybrid threats such as border violations, influence campaigns, and cyber attacks.
These advancements have been necessary measures to help shore up Finland’s sovereignty and security. Finland’s 1,300-kilometer border with Russia is Europe’s second-largest shared border with Russia, and Finland’s 280,000-strong military is still dwarfed by Russia’s. Finland knows the costs of war with its much larger neighbor, as the Winter War and the Continuation War resulted in 25,000 and 75,000 casualties, respectively.
This is precisely why Finland wants to join NATO. As Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto pointed out, Russia is “ready to take higher risks than earlier.” Indeed, the atrocities inflicted on Ukrainian civilians at Bucha and Mariupol give even more weight to Haavisto’s belief that Russia’s capability of “concentrating more than 100,000 soldiers in one spot in the country against one country … is a scary scenario.”
The benefits of NATO membership include military expertise, support, and technology. More importantly, however, is the deterrence value that the alliance’s collective defense guarantee provides. Article V of the NATO charter declares that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all members. This deterrence factor is why Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, has been at the epicenter of the only large-scale conflict on the European continent since the end of World War II. NATO membership ensures internal and external peace for its members by deterring conflict. It’s the reason the Cold War never became “hot.”
Ultimately, the decision to apply for NATO membership should be made by the Finnish people and their elected representatives. However, should Finland join NATO, it would bring considerable experience defending against and preparing for Russian aggression, as well as a highly regarded peacekeeping reputation. Finland can only join NATO with a unanimous vote from all current members, so Finland’s recent efforts to meet with several NATO countries are promising. Finland’s long-standing partnership with NATO and its strong democratic system would also put it on the fast track to membership.
Finland regularly tops the rankings in overall happiness, prosperity, press freedom, and human well-being. In order to protect a society that regularly wins high marks for its adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights, Finland makes efficient use of its defense forces and infrastructure, making it a shining example of the ideal NATO member state.
In the end, those who oppose Finland’s NATO membership must understand that the country’s ascension to the alliance will be based on the Finns' belief that joining NATO will be the best way to protect their sovereignty.
Finland no longer needs Cold War realpolitik to preserve its place in the world. It is time for Finlandization to be a point of reference for how far the country has come instead of a buzzword for geopolitical hostage-taking.
Roy Mathews is a Contributor for Young Voices. He graduated from Bates College and has completed fellowships at AEI and the Cato Institute. He has previously been published in The National Interest, RealClearWorld, and RealClearEnergy.