HELSINKI — In a move that is certain to further irritate Moscow, Finland's new center-right coalition has included the option of applying for NATO membership "at any time" in its government formation Joint Policy Position statement.
Moreover, in an unprecedented initiative, Prime Minister-elect Juha Sipilä's administration is set to draft a foreign and security policy that will include a special segment to calculate the potential monetary costs and implications of full Finnish membership in NATO.
The Kremlin has expressed growing consternation over the deepening relationship between Finland, Sweden and NATO.
That Finland will retain the option to apply for NATO membership during the government's four-year term has somewhat surprised the Kremlin, which believed that the inclusion of the nationalist and traditionally anti-NATO Finns Party in the new coalition would cool interest in joining the Western alliance.
However, the Finns constitute the junior partner in the government, which also includes the robustly pro-NATO National Coalition Party (NCP). The Center and the NCP will be the key players dictating defense and security policy going forward.
The "NATO option" and the new government's decision to conduct a root and branch cost and effect analysis of NATO membership represent milestones in the evolution of Finland's historically neutral foreign and security policies.
"The geopolitical landscape has changed in the Nordic and Baltic areas since Russia became involved in Ukraine. The important issue of whether Finland will remain non-aligned or join NATO is a question for the future and a possible referendum. It is important to maintain the option of NATO membership," said Alexander Stubb, the NCP's party chairman
In the interim, the NCP, which led the previous conservative-left government, favors moving the Finnish Armed Forces (FAF) closer to NATO by intensifying cooperation within the Partnership for Peace framework, while expanding near-neighborhood exercises with NATO forces.
In a decision welcomed by the FAF's command, the new government's Joint Policy Position backs a comprehensive review of future spending on defense. In addition, the government plans to produce a defense strategy report to define policy guidelines for the maintenance, development and use of Finland's conscript-based system, which is currently organized along total defense structures.
In a parallel initiative, the new government plans to amend legislation to permit military- and national security-run surveillance programs to collect signals intelligence outside Finnish borders and in communications passing through Finnish territory.
Unlike the earlier four-party conservative-left administration, all three partners in the new coalition support increasing the FAF's annual budgets in 2016-2025, with a particular focus on strengthening the military's procurement capability ahead of big ticket purchases, including the acquisition of a new fighter type and up to 64 aircraft to replace aging F/A-18 Hornets.
The government is embarking on a defense and security policy direction new to Finnish politics and strategic defense planning, said Teija Tiilikainen, the director of the Finnish Institute for International Affairs.
"The previous government made sure that it did not apply for NATO membership during its time in office. The new government's policy is different, it keeps the issue alive and the option open. It will be interesting to see how all this develops," Tiilikainen said.
Security tensions caused by Russia in Ukraine and the Baltic Sea region is the primary driver of the changes in Finnish policy.
The regional security environment has worsened considerably, and in a more unpredictable way, over recent years and especially since Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, said Kari Sundström, a Stockholm-based political analyst.
"The Finnish center-right government's elevated interest in NATO is linked to a desire to build a stronger overall national defense capability through cost and task sharing. The appraisal and implications side of the planned investigation will help Finland determine, in a much more accurate way, the likely value of NATO membership," Sundström said
Entry costs for Finland, in terms of compatibility of training and equipment, may require a bigger defense budget at the beginning, said Sundström. "In reality, much of the Finnish defense forces' equipment and training is already of a NATO-standard," he said.
Finland's more security conscious mood is also fueling political movement on possible NATO membership, Sundström said.
"Finnish membership in NATO was never discussed as a serious or immediate option as part of public debate until two years ago. It is now a hot topic. All recent polls show that Finns are becoming increasingly concerned about Russian aggression in the region and want a stronger defense. Finns also want a higher level of spending for the military. Although majority backing for NATO membership is still lacking, over 55 percent of Finns support the holding of a referendum to decide the issue," Sundström said.
The immediate need for increased capital spending on defense was identified by a special government-appointed parliamentary working group last September. Chaired by Ilkka Kanerva, the group proposed incrementally increasing the defense budget by US $170 million annually.
"The review we carried out advocated regular reviews of index increases to defense spending. It did not include spending on major material acquisitions for the Army, Navy and Air Force. This element of future budgeting will need to be addressed by the new government," Kanerva said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has made no secret of his desire to see Sweden and Finland join fellow Nordic states Denmark and Norway in NATO.
In April, Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, outlined ambitions and plans to expand joint exercises and increase information-sharing between Swedish and Finnish armed forces and NATO, particularly in the high-tension area of the Baltic Sea.
NATO's offer of deeper collaboration with Sweden and Finland happens against a backdrop of increasing unease over airspace violations by Russian aircraft and the detection of suspect "foreign" submarines and heightened underwater activity in Swedish and Finnish territorial waters.
The Finnish Navy dropped low-impact depth charges in the waters off Helsinki harbor at the end of April after its surveillance network detected unidentified "objects" off the near coast. The Swedish Navy has conducted similar "sub hunt" operations over recent months.
The incident off Helsinki harbor has reinforced the Finnish government's resolve to dispatch troops and naval assets to NATO's US-led BALTOPS naval and amphibious exercises in the Baltic Sea in June. Sweden is also participating.