HELSINKI — Finland’s Armed Forces’ commander in chief, President Sauli Niinistö, has entered the debate over whether the Nordic nation should join NATO as a long-term solution to meeting its future defense needs.
The Finnish NATO debate mirrors a similar and even more robust discussion in neighboring non-aligned Sweden, where a number of government and opposition parties see closer ties and membership in the alliance as pivotal to bolstering the country’s overall defense capability and guaranteeing long-term security in the face of Russia’s rearming in the High North.
The NATO debates in Finland and Sweden are taking place against a backdrop of cost-reduction-driven military reform programs. While these are designed to create more compact, modernized and cost-efficient fighting forces, military chiefs are faced with falling or stagnating budgets, which are straining the ability to maintain core units and fund procurement programs.
In Niinistö’s view, while Finland should keep the door open to NATO membership, the preferred solution is to build a stronger national defense capability outside of any military alliance.
“There are some who believe that NATO membership can replace a strong national defense capability. We must as a nation be able to look after ourselves, whether or not we are in an alliance,” Niinistö said at a news conference here. “It is a fundamental asset to have a strong national defense.”
Niinistö’s position reflects Defense Ministry thinking, which favors retaining the country’s non-aligned status while building closer military relations with both NATO and Russia.
This twin-track strategic balancing act holds two central objectives, said Paul Beernert, a Brussels-based political analyst.
“It is intended to sharpen the operational capabilities of Finnish forces through increased interaction and exercises with NATO,” he said. “It is also designed to explore new areas for cooperation with Russia’s military, perhaps in strategic areas like the Arctic.”
The Finnish government has emphasized that no decision on NATO membership will be made in the lifetime of the current government, pushing back a decision to sometime after the next parliamentary elections in 2015, Beernert said.
“Even then, the government’s forward-looking budget projections make no provision for actually scaling up capital investments in material procurement before 2018, something that would be required in order to achieve commonality with equipment used by NATO if Finland were to join the alliance,” he said.
Unlike many European heads of state, Niinistö holds wider powers that include sharing executive authority with the prime minister, as well as directing foreign and security policy together with the government. The president also said he sees a significant role for the European Union in enhancing defense and security in the Nordic-Baltic regions.
In June, Niinistö reiterated that while NATO would remain a viable option to strengthen Finnish defense, this would only happen if membership is broadly supported by referendum and has the full confidence of Parliament.
“I do not think that NATO’s door is closing on us in any way. We are free to apply for membership at any time,” he said.
Worries About Russia
The possibility of non-aligned Finland and Sweden jumping together into NATO was briefly discussed by the two countries’ governments in 2009 as part of cross-border discussions on strengthening defense. The talks were linked to reinforcing Nordic defense cooperation with NATO-aligned neighbors Norway and Denmark.
The potential for a possible united front on NATO emerged again in May, when a report by the Swedish government’s Defense Policy Advisory Committee (DPAC) raised concerns over Russia’s rearming in the High North.
The report recommended a more robust policy of military cooperation with NATO and the Nordic states.
“The political developments in Russia are worrying, as are the ambitious modernization plans for its armed forces. This increases the level of insecurity compared to levels that existed in 2007,” DPAC Chairman Cecilia Widegren told Defense News.
Widegren belongs to the Moderates, one of four parties in Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s ruling coalition, which includes the Center, Christian Democrat and Liberal People’s parties.
The report, “Sweden, Defense Readiness,” was criticized by Mikael Oscarsson, the Christian Democrats’ spokesman on defense, for underestimating the potential threat from Russia.
“We believe that we should no longer get a free ride from NATO. We need to join,” Oscarsson said. “We are as good as members already. It would contribute to increased security both for our country and our neighboring countries. It would be good to have Finland in there, too, and have all Nordic states in NATO.”
The view in some quarters in Finland is that Sweden could move toward NATO membership after parliamentary elections in 2014.
“If this were to happen, then it would change the security policy atmosphere in Finland, and this could add a new sense of urgency to the NATO debate here and whether we would jump with Sweden into the alliance,” said Jussi Niinistö (Finns Party), chairman of Finland’s Parliamentary Defense Committee.
It would be unrealistic to expect Sweden to apply for NATO membership in 2014 or 2015, said Erkki Tuomioja, Finland’s foreign minister. The idea that Finland and Sweden might “jump together” into NATO remains an unlikely prospect, Tuomioja said.
“We established a very clear principle [with Sweden] over a decade ago that we will not hand each other surprises in defense policy issues,” he said. “Instead, we discuss such matters together, and after we discuss, we are both free to make our own decisions. In the past, these decisions have been, more often than not, quite compatible.”
In reality, the hands of both governments are constitutionally tied on the issue of NATO membership, Beernert said.
“Both governments would need to decide the issue by referendum,” he said. “As it stands now, those voters in Finland and Sweden who support NATO membership are in the minority.
“There also is the issue of funding,” Beernert said. “NATO membership would require both states to spend much more on defense, at least 2 percent of their GDP [gross domestic product].
“There is no sign that this will happen in either country,” Beernert said.