Faced with its Russian neighbour, Finland’s neutrality put to the test by the war in Ukraine

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Faced with its Russian neighbour, Finland's neutrality put to the test by the war in Ukraine

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Unthinkable twenty years ago, Finland’s membership in NATO is becoming an increasingly credible scenario. An upheaval in the foreign policy of this Nordic country which has long carefully avoided confrontation with its Russian neighbor.

This is a historic shift in Finnish public opinion. According to a poll published this week, 62% of the population say they are in favor of joining NATO. Two weeks ago, another survey had for the first time given an absolute majority (53%) to this membership of the Western military alliance, a jump of almost 25 points, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine .

Within the political class, the debate is open and the question of Finland’s sacrosanct neutrality seems increasingly secondary in the current security context. From the start of the attack led by Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced that she was going to supply arms to Ukraine, something never seen before for this Nordic country, militarily non-aligned but a member of the European Union.

President Sauli Niinistö, however, recently called on his fellow citizens to keep a “cool head” on the issue. “There is an emotion within public opinion in a country which has been governed lately by two Atlanticist parties, namely the national coalition and the social democrats, explains Maurice Carrez, professor at Sciences Po Strasbourg, joined by France 24. “But the Finnish president reminded us that we had to avoid acting under the influence of emotion”, adds the director of the journal of Nordic History.

Russian warnings

However, keeping a cool head for Finland and its 5.5 million people is proving to be a daunting challenge as Russian threats become more specific.

“There are frequent warnings from Russia to Sweden and Finland. For example, in early March, four Russian fighter jets violated Swedish airspace while the Swedish and Finnish armies were conducting exercises on the island of Gotland [la plus grande île de Suède située en mer Baltique]“, recalls Chiara Ruffa, professor at the Swedish University of Defense on the antenna of France 24. “However, nobody really believes in the hypothesis of an imminent attack but it is now very clear that it will be necessary prepare for this eventuality”, adds the researcher.

“The movements of Russian troops near the border of the Baltic countries have also played a role in this concern which actually dates back to 2014”, specifies Maurice Carrez.

Indeed, with the annexation of Crimea and the rise of Russia in the Baltic Sea, Finland’s distrust of Moscow has grown in recent years. The country has therefore undertaken to modernize its army and has multiplied initiatives to get closer to NATO, without however joining it.

Memories of the “Winter War”

This fear of a Russian attack also has its roots in the history of the Second World War. Delimited to the east by more than 1,300 kilometers of border with Russia, the invasion of its territory by the Red Army in 1939, remains a significant event in the collective memory. During this “Winter War”, the Finns led a fierce resistance against the Russian ogre, losing more than 80,000 soldiers.

If the country has been independent since December 6, 1917 after having been under the domination of the Russian Empire for more than a century, it is indeed the Second World War that has served as a founding myth for the Finnish nation, explains Maurice Carrez .

“After independence, there was a terrible civil war and the whole interwar period was marked by a conflict between the Reds and the Whites. But at the time of the Winter War [guerre russo-finlandaise durant l’hiver 39-40], part of this division has disappeared. Today, Finns rather remember this event as the one that marked the birth of Finland”, analyzes the historian.

>> To see: Ukraine: No to “Finlandization”?

With the Cold War, Finland then adopted a cautious policy so as not to upset Moscow. In the spring of 1948, Helsinki signed a “treaty of friendship” and cooperation with Moscow.

“Finland did not become neutral because it had lost the war against the Soviet Union in 1944″, specifies however Maurice Carrez.” In reality, Finland has always tried to present itself as a neutral country, even during between the wars. It was obviously a forced neutrality linked to the presence of a very powerful state on its border”, explains the specialist in Finland.

For and against

After the collapse of the USSR, Finland logically anchored itself in the west and joined the European Union in 1995 but chose to remain outside NATO. Like Sweden, the country is officially non-aligned, despite being alliance partners.

However, the war in Ukraine changes the situation. “Experts speak of a relatively quick accession process because the military capabilities of Sweden and Finland are well known and there is a very high level of interoperability, as these two countries have participated in many joint missions with NATO,” said Chiara Ruffa.

>> To read: Crisis in Ukraine: has NATO “betrayed” Russia by expanding to the East?

On the Finnish side, the question should be examined in Parliament in April, after the submission of a report on the “benefits and risks” of such an option.

The main interest for the country would be to benefit from article 5 of the NATO Treaty. But “does NATO offer real protection? This could also be counter-productive”, believes Maurice Carrez, who underlines the importance of the ties uniting Russia to Finland where there is a large Russian-speaking community.

Crossing the Rubicon would also mean undermining its economic relations with Moscow, an important trading partner, which supplies it with almost all of its gas. According to Eurostat, 97% of Finland’s natural gas imports come from Russia.

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