Finland Raced to Join NATO. Now Comes the Hard Part.

Barely a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland cast aside decades of military nonalignment and self-reliance and joined the NATO alliance.

That happened with breathtaking speed, as these matters go, but gaining membership may have been the easy part. Now comes the complicated process of integrating itself into the alliance and its requirement of collective defense — with all of its financial, legal and strategic hurdles.

“Joining NATO is an expensive business, and supporting Ukraine is an expensive business, and there’s no end to that in sight,” said Janne Kuusela, director-general for defense policy at Finland’s Ministry of Defense.

Membership in NATO has long been considered a cheap benefit, given the American nuclear umbrella and the principle of collective defense. But NATO also has extensive requirements of its members — not just spending goals for the military, but specific demands from each country for certain capabilities, armaments, troop strengths and infrastructure as defined by the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

Achieving that will demand some difficult and costly decisions from the government and military officials as they learn to think strategically outside Finland’s borders and adapt its forces and their capabilities to the alliance’s needs.

They will have to decide how to move troops and equipment to Norway, Sweden or the Baltic States in the event they need reinforcements, for instance, or whether to participate in other NATO tasks like patrols in Kosovo or the Mediterranean.

At the same time, Finnish officials and analysts say, Finland will not alter its intention of defending every inch of its own territory, given its 830-mile border with Russia, a doctrine considered old-fashioned in the age of modern warfare. It sees itself as remaining capable of self-defense for now, so unlike many of the NATO countries that border Russia, Finland is considered unlikely to ask for a rotating presence of allied troops.

“The whole security and foreign-policy establishment believes that no such troops are needed now, but it’s not a categorical no,” said Matti Pesu of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, a research institution.

Finland shares an 830-mile long border with Russia, which it sees as a potential aggressor.Credit…Alessandro Rampazzo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At the same time, the country is negotiating a bilateral defense cooperation agreement with the United States, the kind of accord Washington has with many countries around the world, making joint exercises easier to plan and quicker to implement. It will cover what kind of U.S. troop presence Finland would allow and where, and what sort of equipment NATO’s most powerful country will be able to bring to Finland for exercises or prepositioning. The agreement also governs issues like judicial jurisdiction should U.S. troops commit a crime.

The negotiations are complicated, said Elina Valtonen, Finland’s foreign minister, in an interview. Given its history of fending off Russian assaults, she said, Finland is protective of its sovereignty.

“Of course, it’s a balance, how to also defend your sovereignty against an aggressive and unpredictable neighbor, who does not respect the same values that we do with our friends and allies,” she said. “But Finland is a country where, typically, we like to have agreements, we like to have treaties, we are very legalistic.”

Finland’s relationship with the United States is considered as important as the one with the larger alliance, especially given the American nuclear deterrent that protects all NATO members. Finnish law prevents the importation or storage of nuclear weapons on its soil. But Finland will have to decide its policy on nuclear deterrence and the nature of its involvement in shaping NATO’s nuclear policy.

Relations with neighboring Russia have also inevitably changed. Before invading Ukraine, Russia demanded a roll back of NATO’s borders and warned Finland against membership. But the invasion caused a rapid shift in Finnish public opinion. Support for membership soared from about a quarter of the population before the invasion to more than 80 percent.

Initial Russian reaction to Finland’s joining NATO was muted, given Moscow’s preoccupation with Ukraine. And with Russia having redeployed many of its forces from near Finland to Ukraine, few see any immediate threat.

But Finns see Russia as a permanent potential aggressor, and recent statements by Russian officials, perhaps aimed at changing popular Russian perceptions of Finland, have treated it as “a member of an enemy alliance,” said Mr. Pesu.

In a sort of rear guard action, he said, Russia “wants to intimidate us and limit NATO presence and Finnish integration into the alliance.”

Russia has even been dismantling monuments to the Finnish war dead in Karelia, which it seized from Finland in World War II. Those tributes had been erected with Russian permission in a more cooperative time.

Gen. Timo Kivinen, the commander of Finland’s defense forces, shoulders much of the responsibility for his country’s integration with NATO.Credit…Mauri Ratilainen/EPA, via Shutterstock

Much of the responsibility for integration with NATO rests with Gen. Timo Kivinen, the commander of Finland’s defense forces. At the core, he said in an interview, is Article Three of NATO’s charter, “which underlines that the first priority to defend a country lies with the country itself.” To him, it is as important as Article Five, which treats an assault on one member country as an assault on all.

He is familiar with the inner workings of NATO, since Finland has long been a partner nation and involved in NATO exercises; several hundred NATO troops have been stationed almost continuously in Finland since April 2022. Even as a candidate member, Finland began the first stage of alliance defense planning that July.

Now, as a full member, the planning is more intensive, but there is much to consider, he said, to align Finland’s defense plans with those of the larger alliance.

Article Five will require more from Finland, General Kivinen said. “We need to be capable to contribute to NATO collective defense outside Finland’s borders, and that’s new,” he said. It will have an impact on Finland’s forces “when we go on to develop those deployable capabilities, those capability targets” that NATO demands, he added.

There are other NATO missions as well, like air policing outside Finland, naval task forces and possible participation in the multinational forces the alliance has deployed in other frontline countries. Finland will also have to decide what officers to provide to which NATO headquarters, and how it wants to influence alliance policies.

The war has made northern Europe and the Arctic more important for the security of the whole alliance. So, General Kivinen said, it is also vital that Sweden, a longtime defense partner for Finland, get into NATO soon.

That would make alliance planning easier, especially in determining how best to defend the Arctic, the Baltic region and four of the five Nordic countries — Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark (Iceland is the fifth). Already these four have agreed to operate their approximately 250 fighter jets as a joint operational fleet and also to provide air policing for Iceland.

An American soldier instructs a Finnish soldier on a recoilless rifle during a military exercise in Rovajarvi, Finland, in May. Finland has long been a partner nation of NATO, participating in military exercises and hosting several hundred NATO troops in the country.Credit…Janis Laizans/Reuters

Then there is the issue of where Finland fits in NATO’s three operational commands, responsible for different geographical areas. The five Nordic countries would prefer to be in the same command, run from Norfolk, Va., which is navy-focused and defends the Atlantic sea routes, the Nordics and the Arctic. The logic is that in war, reinforcements would be likely to come from the West, across the Atlantic.

But Norfolk is not yet fully operational. And given the war in Europe and the current threat from Russia, NATO has placed Finland in the land-oriented command based in Brunssum, the Netherlands, which is charged with defending Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland and the Baltic nations. Finland hopes that is temporary, but so far, officials say, the integration has been going smoothly.

Finland has already increased its defense budget, in part to pay for the purchase of F-35 fighter jets and new ships to better patrol its seas and hunt for submarines. It vows to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on the military, as NATO desires.

Joining NATO will require significant cultural, political, legal and military changes, Mr. Kuusela, the defense official said, and it will take years. But of all the countries of Europe, he said, Finland would be the last to underestimate the long-term Russian threat.

Johanna Lemola contributed reporting.

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