“ The Lord’s our shepherd”, says the Psalm
But just in case, we better get a bomb!’
-Tom Lehrer, Who’s next?
The story so far: The strategic geopolitical ambiguity of Finland has finally come to a halt and taken a hard turn as Finland formally announced its intention of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This marks the culmination of a series of veiled comments by Finland hinting their intention of joining NATO. The Finnish President Sauli Niinistö along with the Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy announced their bid for NATO membership on Sunday. They would now send their recommendation to the Parliament where it is expected to pass through without any roadblocks.
The last two odd decades have seen Finland revise its outlook of global geopolitics and order but rarely have their different heads of state overtly signalled their shift. This ambiguity has allowed them to not only improve their ties with rest of the Europe post 2000 but also go back to increasing trade ties with Russia during the European economic slump. Their actions post the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of a more integrated European Union indicate their preference for having their cake and eating it too. This is set to change and has been brought about by Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The Finnish security concerns began to heighten post the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and have snow-balled now into an immediate existential crisis of sorts after the recent Russian assault on Ukraine.
The last joint statement by the Finnish President and Prime Minister Sanna Marin put it in no ambiguous terms that “Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay”. This was followed by the official Finnish declaration of a NATO bid on Sunday. This tectonic shift is likely to have significant ramifications for the entire European continent. The last few days also saw Russian Defence Committee deputy chair, Aleksey Zhuravlyov, discuss Russia nuking Europe and question the very existence of Finland on Russian state television which bears similarities to their justification for the Ukrainian invasion. Mr. Zhuravlyov also threated the Finns with the use of Kinzhal-class ballistic missiles boasting how it “will reach Finland in 20 seconds, or even 10 seconds”. RAO Nordic (a subsidiary of Inter RAO which is a major energy company in Russia), citing delayed payments from Finland, cut off electricity supply to Finland. The Finns seem to be hopeful that Sweden, the Baltic nations, and their own energy sources can help fill the void. There also seems to be a concerted effort from sections of the western media to create a sense of panic in Finland which has been decried by Finnish nationals. Mr. Niinistö spoke with the U.S. President Joe Biden and the Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson discussing their “next steps towards NATO membership”.
Official voices from within Russia give a sense of how they perceive the U.S’s role as an agent provocateur trying to lure other countries towards NATO. The Russian state seems to be going through a sense of mania where officials talk about nuking countries, ‘crushing bugs’ (referring to the Baltic states), and invading countries in a bid to safeguard their security. Finland’s formal declaration and Sweden’s interest in joining NATO has aggravated their security dilemma. We see the manifestation of Waltzian realism unravelling in front of us as nations begin to grapple with their existential crises precipitated by the anarchic structure of the world and actions of other states aimed towards their security goals.
These states seek security guarantees through alliance formation as well. The risk of a new arms race cannot be entirely written off as we see strongman tactics from the Russian head of state and from different senior security officials of the Russian government which signal revanchist attitudes and a highly volatile method of engagement.
One would expect NATO membership to allay Finland and Sweden’s security concerns to a reasonable degree as all the countries involved in the highly volatile region would, likely, reach an impasse until someone decides to break through the gridlock through a change in tactics.
However, the rational actor assumption has recently been on tumultuous grounds vis-à-vis Russia, and it would be difficult to predict its next set of actions as and when Finland and Sweden formally join NATO. Even the comments of a former Prime Minister of Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, on the NATO membership teaching Russian President Vladimir Putin the resolve of the West and the counterproductive nature of the war, are based on Mr. Putin following the supposed logic of a rational actor.
As Kremlin’s rhetoric and threats against its neighbours continue to increase, it wouldn’t be a flight of fancy to imagine that more of its neighbours, primarily the Baltic states, will firmly express their heightened security concerns and seek to remedy them. Those actions would then in turn further create a high security risk environment in the immediate periphery of Russia. NATO expansionism has been publicly cited multiple times by Russian Ministers and senior defence officers as a major reason for Russia’s perceived security threat. Estonia has already asked NATO for local anti-Russia command centres and greater air defence systems citing Baltic security concerns.
The full-blown Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began almost three months back, has only resulted in isolating Russia from most countries in the world. They are losing a significant number of troops and scores of military equipment as the war continues. What seemed initially like a quick victory to the Russians is now spiralling into a nightmare for Kremlin. The propaganda can only cloak the reality for so long. The war is also taking an economic toll on Moscow as it is further impacted by the economic sanctions against them by the West. As multiple corporations leave the Russian space and countries continue to decrease their energy dependency on Russia, the road ahead for Moscow is most certainly a dark and long-winding one. As Finland joins NATO, Russia could seek to deploy more troops along the Russian-Finland border and further thin-out an already attenuated Russian army.
Finland and Russia share a 1,300 km border and Kremlin’s actions against Finland’s (and potentially Sweden’s) NATO membership may heavily depend on the potential military asset deployment along the border on the Finnish, and potentially Swedish, side. The Finns may very well not opt for immediate asset deployment and perhaps would want to use their NATO membership as a signal to Russia but if they continue to feel sufficiently threatened, they may opt for exhaustive asset deployment. Russia’s revanchist assault on Ukrainian sovereignty has cascaded into a nightmare for Russian security concerns, with NATO looking to be at their immediate doorsteps. Such actions would only further fuel already anxious and retaliatory minds within Russia and may cause things to spiral out of control. Constant communication from all sides is key to avoid a grim eventuality. The Finns understand this and have constantly been in touch with Kremlin updating them of developments. Sunday’s announcement saw the Finnish President reiterate that they don’t see security as a zero-sum game (a comment aimed to quell anxious minds within Kremlin). The situation is also exacerbated by the political capital Mr. Putin continues to enjoy which makes it even more difficult for any significant political opposition to come to the fore. The only hope from within the Russian borders would be the collective conscience of the Russian public.
Rishabh Kachroo is a Ph.D scholar at the department of International Relations and Governance Studies at Shiv Nadar University