The Finnish president has warned that applying for NATO membership would pose a “great risk” of escalation in Europe as the Scandinavian country explores ways to improve its security configuration after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Sauli Niinisto said that joining NATO was one of the two main alternatives to Finland’s current position within the EU, but outside a military alliance. The other option is to deepen defense cooperation with the US and neighboring Sweden.
“The premise is that we’re looking at something other than just keep going,” Niinisto told the Financial Times. “All of these alternatives have the advantage of improving our security. Or we make sure that our stability remains and that we can live in [a] secured environment. † † Our main headline is: Finnish security.”
For the first time, a majority of Finns want to join NATO; A poll by state broadcaster Yle last week showed that 62 percent were in favor and only 16 percent against. Support has been around 20 percent for decades. If the Finnish political leadership supported NATO membership, 74 percent of Finns would be in favor of joining.
Niinisto, who as president exercises significant influence over Finland’s foreign policy, said: “I fully understand that, for example, [joining] NATO may seem like our worries are over. But all the different alternatives carry risks that we must recognize. † † At the moment, the biggest risk is an escalation of the situation in Europe.”
Finnish Defense Minister Jussi Niinisto inspects Finnish troops during a joint operation by Finnish and Swedish troops on the Swedish island of Gotland © Anders Wiklund/AFP/Getty Images
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is turning decades of security thinking in Finland and Sweden upside down, as people in the two Scandinavian countries see what happens to a country that is not a NATO member of Europe.
The Finnish government is preparing a white paper on security options, including possible NATO membership. Parliament will make a decision on whether or not to apply for it in the coming months.
Finland is the EU country with the longest border with Russia, at 1,340 km, and was invaded by the Soviet Union during World War II. It is one of the few European countries that did not end conscription or sharply cut defense spending after the Cold War.
Finland has long wanted to cooperate with Sweden, but there are signs that the NATO debate in Helsinki has progressed further. Swedish Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson recently rejected a Swedish request to NATO, saying it would “further destabilize” the region.
When asked if he endorsed her comments, Niinisto replied: “We have no escalation in this region. That’s the starting point. I would just say that we have to study very carefully all the elements that we have to take into account.”
The Finnish president said he saw the “escalation risk in Europe” as different from the debate over security solutions. “If there is an escalation, it will have a huge impact [on] everyone. That is why I underline the risk of escalation, and do not link it to Finnish behavior or our decision-making.”
Niinisto underlined that deepening defense cooperation with Sweden and the US was a real possibility, in addition to Finland’s status as a strengthened partner of NATO. “It’s a big network of different partnerships that we’ve created. An alternative is to create it more and more,” he said.
He added that during his recent meeting with US President Joe Biden, “Swedish-Finnish-American cooperation was discussed, and we got a lot of understanding from Washington.”
The Finnish president also emphasized that it is “the tradition to keep our own armed forces as strong as possible”. Finland, a country of 5.5 million inhabitants, can rely on up to 280,000 troops. “We will further strengthen them,” Niinisto added.
Finland has long tried to strengthen the EU’s mutual defense clause – Article 42.7 – and make it akin to NATO’s Article 5, which promises that an attack on one member state is an attack on all member states. Few other EU members are willing to attach much importance to it.
Niinisto called Article 42.7 “stronger than Article 5 in expression, but we don’t find much behind it”. But he added that Germany’s recent decision to nearly double its defense spending had “turned a page in European security and defense discussions”.
He added: “We see a stronger Europe. † † to participate in transatlantic cooperation, and so we also see a stronger NATO in Europe. That is an element that we must take into account. It is not an immediate solution, it takes time.”
This post Finland’s accession to NATO would pose a ‘major escalation risk’, says president
was original published at “https://www.ft.com/content/e636c759-aad7-4ee1-b245-f3575dd5ce73”