Why Finns Joined The Fight

  • Themes: Geopolitics

Finland’s path towards NATO may have been a long one, but Finland is in no sense a reluctant ally.

During the Soviet-Finnish war (1939-1940) skiers of the Finnish army in white camouflage made lightning and effective attacks on units of the Red Army.
During the Soviet-Finnish war (1939-1940) skiers of the Finnish army in white camouflage made lightning and effective attacks on units of the Red Army. Credit: World of Triss / Alamy Stock Photo

Only Finland – superb, nay, sublime in the jaws of peril – Finland shows what free men can do.

Winston Churchill, 20 January, 1940

The Finnish nation is firm and united in the defence of her liberty and of her democratic institutions.

Hjalmar Procopé, Finland’s envoy to the United States 1939–1944

The idea that the free sometimes have to sacrifice their personal liberty, or life, in order to defend collective liberty – in this case, the existence of Finland – was undoubtedly clear to both Prime Minister Churchill and Minister Procopé. It was also clear to many Finns on the eve of the Winter War in autumn 1939. It remained clear to generations hence, with the added bittersweet expectation that Finland would have to defend its freedom alone. While Finns will in the future continue to bear the primary responsibility of defending Finland, with Finland’s April 4, 2023, accession into NATO, it will do so together with Allies.

Finland’s path towards NATO may have been a long one, but Finland is in no sense a reluctant ally. Recent events, primarily Russia’s expanded attack and attempt to destroy Ukraine, and Ukraine’s brave defence, have galvanised multiple generations of citizens and politicians to talk about the importance of defending democracy and liberty. Here, liberty is both the freedom to do something and the freedom from having something imposed: the freedom to ‘do your own thing’ within broader constraints.

It is this that fundamentally explains Finland’s – and I believe Sweden’s – 2022 NATO membership applications: the desire to maintain for future generations a freedom from, and strengthen security against, those forces that seek to restrict the liberty of Finns. In Finland, education is held in high esteem. It makes for better citizens but also, ultimately, citizens who feel there is a reason Finland must continue to exist as a country and society. Throughout spring 2022, various commentators, upon discovering Finland’s decades-long preparations for potential war if Russia chose to attack, sought to present Finland as the Sparta of the north. A far better historical analogy is ancient Athens, for the reasons indicated above but also because the Athenians had a clear sense that freedom required collective sacrifices, to defend the very liberties that they held dear. In Finland, more than four-fifths support this view, even with regard to the continuation of national military service, which obviously limits personal freedom, because without it there could be no effective collective action to defend Finland. The only real societal question is whether, in an age of equality, mandatory service should be expanded to everyone, not just men.

Because it took Finns (and Swedes) much longer to decide to seek NATO membership than to become a part of the EU, questions have been raised about whether Finland and Sweden would be reluctant allies, what kind of allies they will be, and whether they can be relied upon to defend their allies and liberty more broadly? The latter concern must be dispensed with immediately: there is no doubt that Finland will fulfil its role in the defence of other NATO allies. I also have no doubt about this regarding Sweden.

If Finland is not a reluctant ally in 2023, why were a majority of the Finnish public and political leadership consistently, since the end of the Cold War to early 2022, against Finnish NATO membership? Opposition to membership was remarkably stable, despite an ever-deepening cooperation with NATO that progressed from the Partnership for Peace, through operations such as IFOR, SFOR and KFOR in the Balkans, and then ISAF in Afghanistan. This was followed by the signing of a Host Nation Support agreement in 2014, and even deeper cooperation as an Enhanced Opportunity Partner. From the late 1990s to late-2021, 60 to 70% of the population were against NATO membership, while 20 to 30% supported it. This is at least partially explained through historical lessons to do with seeking to avoid becoming involved in great power competitions, and an almost fatalistic expectation that no one, in any event, would ever come to Finland’s assistance.

A frequently quoted plaque by the King’s Gate on Suomenlinna fortress, outside Helsinki, reminds the reader to ‘stand here on your own ground and do not trust/expect foreign assistance’. Considering that before and even after the building of Suomenlinna, Russia had attacked the Finnish people between 30 and 40 times over the centuries – with the Finns not infrequently having been effectively left to their own devices – this was a reasonable reminder to future generations of the time. This feeling of being left alone was strengthened by the Finnish national memory of being abandoned during the Winter War against the Soviet Union. This was not entirely true; Sweden did unofficially provide assistance, but it was a far cry from what the international community has to date provided to Ukraine. This experience left many Finns doubting whether anyone would ever come to the aid of Finland – allied or not. In the one period when Finland was ‘allied’, it did receive important assistance. But in the post-Second World War international political environment, having been a co-belligerent with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union didn’t exactly fit the Finnish national story, even if, in the end, Finland had of course ended up fighting against Nazi Germany once an armistice with the Soviet Union was agreed.

The second historical lesson that impacted Finns’ views on the idea of NATO membership is the sense that Finns have, throughout the centuries, been drawn into wars by the West (as part of the Swedish kingdom) or forced into wars by Russia. This contributed to the idea that it was best to avoid becoming party to great power competition; and, for many, NATO was still seen as a tool or reflection of great power competition. In academic international relations theory, the great powers are concerned about entanglement – the idea that a small ally might pull them into an unnecessary war. In Finland, quite the opposite has been the central concern, and an argument against NATO membership: that as a member, Finland would be forced into wars that others started, and which a non-allied Finland could have avoided.

To be clear, the Finnish population changed its view of the regional security situation quite dramatically in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Until that point, the prospect of an actual large-scale war, one that could threaten Finland’s freedom and thus the liberty of its citizens, seemed quite distant. Obviously, societal preparations for such a war continued, retaining national military service and an extensive system of shelters for civilians among them, but this had more to do with a concern for future generations – we were a link in the chain, not the link that would be tested. This began to change after 2014, but even then, the Finnish population did not see NATO membership as necessary. The motivation for this can be boiled down to four reasons: the aforementioned history; concerns about Russia’s potential response (essentially an evaluation of whether the potential increase in defence assistance/deterrence would outweigh Russia’s reactions); a belief in Finland’s own robust national defence capability; and ever deeper defence cooperation, bilaterally, with Sweden and the United States, multilaterally through efforts such as the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force and with NATO. The sense among many Finns – including a majority of politicians – was that these factors, taken together, meant that NATO membership was not necessary. For most, membership was also not seen as necessary from the perspective of showing that Finland was part of ‘the West’. Paraphrasing Churchill, Finland had, throughout its independence, shown the world what free men could do to defend not only their own liberty but democracy and the West.

Then, from the end of 2021, Finns began to change their views about what might be required in the future to safeguard their freedom. The opinion polls changed dramatically between December that year and April/May 2022, with the population supporting the idea of NATO membership soaring to nearly eighty percent, from 25%. Why did this happen? Over the coming years, research will give more definitive answers, but I have a few propositions.

Russian demands in December 2021 for spheres of influence, which would clearly limit Finnish freedom in the foreign and security policy sphere, and, over time, potentially in domestic politics.

Russia’s clear willingness to use actual military force against a country much larger than Finland that was viewed by many as a brotherly state and people.

Proof of the clear difference between being a partner (such as Ukraine or Finland) as opposed to an ally, in terms of the material assistance given (including sanctions), while still being alone when it comes to the fighting.

A change in the Finns’ belief that working relations with Russia would provide some protection from being attacked – at times going to great lengths to make clear that they were not a threat.

A reminder of what large-scale, mechanised war looks like, and what it does to civilians and cities.

These are some of the reasons why the population changed its mind, but I believe three more things were needed to re-forge, in a matter of months, the national security consensus to include NATO membership. First, a deep societal pragmatism, especially regarding maximizing Finnish security and freedom of manoeuvre – liberty on a national scale. If, during the Cold War, this required talk of ‘brotherly love’ and neutrality towards the Soviets – done. If, in 2022, this required seeking NATO membership – also done. Second, Finland has had a lively debate about NATO membership for many decades. The societal conclusion had been, up until spring 2022, on balance, that membership was not needed or that its potential risks out-weighed its benefits. In May 2022, President Niinistö made a call to Vladimir Putin to let him know that Finns had come to some new conclusions. Third, and related to the previous one: the existence of a NATO option– the political idea that if the security situation changed, Finland could seek NATO membership. This idea has been enshrined in official government documents for the past two decades, covering every parliamentary party. This made it much easier for all parties and most politicians to change their views regarding NATO membership.

Before going into what kind of members Finland (and perhaps Sweden) are likely to be, a quick note about how the Finnish government assessed the need to seek NATO membership would be helpful.

The report on the changed security environment that formed the basis for the parliamentary process and debate in Finland did not explicitly call for NATO membership, but when a second report proposing membership was published, it was foreign minister Pekka Haavisto and defence minister Antti Kaikkonen who, together, made the argument very clear.

The application was not about solving Finland’s potential security issues in 2022, but rather about anticipating problems arising in the coming years and decades. Of particular concern was Russia’s increased propensity to use military force; its ability to quickly mass hundreds of thousands of soldiers at a neighbour’s border; and looser talk about the use of non-conventional/nuclear weapons. Due to the nature of these threats, Haavisto argued, Finland needed a stronger deterrence, including a nuclear component, and the potential for collective defence efforts – requirements that only NATO membership fulfils. Defence minister Kaikkonen put it even more succinctly: Finnish NATO membership is about avoiding war and, failing that, to never again have to fight alone.

These words already give an indication of what kind of a member Finland intends to be. The talk in analytical bubbles in Finland has begun to shift from ‘burden sharing’ to ‘responsibility sharing’. Looking at how Finland (and Sweden) behaves generally in international organisations, in the EU, and thus far with NATO (as a partner), will give some clues, as well as what has already been said about it – such as whether there will be any self-imposed limitations.

As Finnish politicians have made it clear that gaining nuclear deterrence is one of the reasons to seek membership, Finland is unlikely to place any additional nuclear weapons related restrictions on itself, except those imposed by the constitution. In short, no nukes in Finland during peace. This does leave quite a large door open to participating in ‘nuclear missions’ in other ways. It also seems unlikely that Finland would place ‘Norway-like’ limits on NATO member forces or basing. Again, why pre-emptively limit the potential avenues of strengthening deterrence or defensive capabilities? That said, with the exception of individual politicians, Finland has not indicated that it sees any need for the permanent stationing of other NATO members’ forces on its soil (such as the Enhanced Forward Presence units in other front-line states) – the exception being a NATO Force Integration Unit of some 20 to 30 people.

So, what kind of member will Finland be and how will it impact things? Finnish and hopefully soon Swedish membership will contribute to strengthening the transatlantic relationship but not change some of the underlying Alliance-wide dynamics regarding defence spending and different prioritizations of perceived security threats. Finland and Sweden are, together, going to change the political balance within the Alliance. Both are also likely to be quite ‘Harmelian’ in their approach, after the famous Belgian statesman, working to strengthen deterrence and defence, while also seeing the value and necessity of engaging in dialogue with Russia on certain practical issues (at some future point).

Unlike almost all post-Cold War expansions, Finland and Sweden also contribute significant military capabilities from day one. For NATO, Finland’s and Sweden’s robust military capabilities, long experience operating in a challenging regional environment and geographic location will contribute to the potential for strengthening collective defence. Ultimately, Finnish and Swedish membership makes it possible to reconceptualize the defence of the whole of northern Europe. Finland will not change its fundamental approach to defence – that it is primarily in the hands of the Finns – nor its defence posture. At the same time, there is bound to be pressure to show that Finland is an active ally.

The old ‘partner-era’ argument, that Finland’s contribution is defending its own territory (NATO’s flank), is no longer enough, and has largely been faded from official statements. The low-hanging fruit is as follows: active participation in all NATO organisations and groups, requiring that it sends out a sufficient number of civilians and soldiers, with current efforts suggesting a goal of some 150 individuals in NATO structures within a few years; taking on roles in ongoing forward defence missions, such as Baltic and Icelandic air patrols/defence; contributing to an Enhanced Forward Presence unit; and allocating a ship to participate in a NATO Standing Maritime Group in the Mediterranean or Baltic Sea. The practical and operational issues will be dealt with reasonably quickly. The larger, arguably the largest, change with Finnish membership is the need for cultural change. This cultural change has multiple levels, from political to military to social. The national strategic culture, notoriously slow to change, will also have to change. In Finland’s case, going from ‘we alone’ to being part of a collective defence family. This change in strategic cultural approach will take years but there are already clear signs that it has started. Finns’ pragmatism and staunch belief in the importance of liberty – both individual and national – will ensure it.

A final historical anecdote may explain it better than any longer analytical treatises. In October 1939, a long train left the station at Vallila in Helsinki, heading towards Kuolemanjärvi (Death Lake). Aboard was the 2,900-soldier-strong JR 11, an infantry regiment composed of people from Kallio, Vallila and Sörnäis, all legendary workers’ districts. Many were politically left leaning, some perhaps with fathers who had fought on the red side during the civil war some two decades earlier; the scars of that particularly nasty war were still in the process of healing. Nonetheless, while their fathers had fought for a worker’s paradise, what these men abhorred was the idea that someone from the outside – namely Stalin – could come to tell them how Finnish society should be structured. To a man, all had seen and understood the importance of changes that were occurring in Finland. Changes that would in the coming decades – when Finland had maintained its freedom – contribute to the country becoming the most stable in the world (according to the Fund for Peace Fragile State Index), and the happiest too.

In the case of that JR 11 regiment, the human cost of defending Finland’s liberty, and also their own, was high. After four months of conflict, of those 2,900 soldiers, only 850 would be left. While these men undoubtedly fought for each other in the foxholes, they also had a collective sense that Finland’s existence and survival was important, that progress and safety were intimately tied to each other. A limitation on personal freedom – in the form of national service – was necessary to guarantee that national liberty. Because there needed to be a Finland and a Finnish political system that was free to make its own decisions, to build and maintain a social system with high quality schooling, from daycare through university, social services and health care, and so on, all the things that ultimately liberate the individual and allow them to flourish, irrespective of their social background. But only if Finland is free.


Charly Salonius-Pasternak