A four-person panel commissioned by the Finnish government to assess the effects of potential Finnish membership in NATO has completed its work. Its central finding is that whether in or out of NATO, Finland and Sweden should stick together.

Ever since Russia’s illegal occupation and ‘annexation’ of Crimea and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine, part of the Finnish political elite has been living in a strange state of denial.

It is generally accepted that Russia has violated international law and the Helsinki Final Act. It is also accepted that, as a member of the European Union, Finland should follow the sanction regime agreed upon in Brussels. But does this mean that Finland should also draw some new conclusions in her bilateral relations with Russia? No.

Why an expert opinion?

This is probably the reason why the Finnish government wanted to have an independent expert assessment on the most delicate and difficult question of the nation’s foreign and security policy. This is probably also the reason why within the four-person panel there was not a single representative of the Finnish political elite.

The panel of experts presents its findings: (L-R) Mats Bergquist, François Heisbourg, Timo Soini, René Nyberg and Teija Tiilikainen. Photo: Outi Ylitalo / Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland.

Instead, two foreigners were invited – a Frenchman, François Heisbourg, and a Swede, Mats Bergquist – both known and widely respected experts on foreign affairs. The panel was completed by two Finns – a former ambassador, René Nyberg, and the director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Teija Tiilikainen.

When receiving the panel's report of some 60 pages, Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini appeared to be very satisfied, publicly thanking the group for the work well done at a press conference on 29 April 2016. But when politicians got hold of the paper, the first comments were not promising.

“There is nothing new”

Immediately, critical voices were raised: There is nothing new in the document, we have known all of this all the time; there is nothing in it that would make us change our minds. Those who had commissioned the report claimed it proves that “the official Finnish line has been correct all the way” – that is, the policy of staying militarily non-allied, developing close cooperation with NATO and keeping open the option to apply for membership.

In fact, there are a lot of new elements in the report. And if it proves anything, it testifies to the fact that the public Finnish debate on NATO membership has so far been very amateurish: strong emotions have replaced facts, baseless assumptions have replaced serious study and certainty of opinions has hidden lack of knowledge.

Extending the mandate

The panel was not entrusted with voicing a preference for or against NATO membership. Nor was it requested to provide a pro-and-con balance-sheet type approach.

The task was simply to try to provide an evaluation of the potential effects of membership in the most clinical manner possible. The final conclusions will be drawn by the Finnish government, following a comprehensive Report on Foreign and Security Policy due later this year.

The inscrutable and unpredictable Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a destabilising effect on the international order. © Foreign Policy Association

The panel adhered to a strict interpretation of its mandate, with one substantive exception. It became immediately apparent that the choices made by Finland and Sweden (or vice versa) to join or not to join NATO, separately or together, could lead to different effects for the security and defence of Finland.

So, the group decided on its own initiative to extend its analysis to include a hypothesis whereby Sweden would join NATO but Finland would not, since this would change the regional strategic and military status quo for Finland.

Back to the balance of power?

The longest chapter of the document deals with the changing strategic environment. It is divided into two parts – one on Russia and one on the state of the collective security frameworks in Europe.

The report states clearly that Russia as a dynamic and unsatisfied power – a country ruled by man, not by law – has set in motion significant negative changes in Europe. Its policy is ambiguous and it even takes pride in a decision-making process which is as inscrutable and unpredictable as possible. Furthermore, Russia's ability to make strategic decisions quickly and to implement them militarily and politically with great speed and agility sets Russia apart from the tsarist Empire or the Soviet Union.

In Europe, the vision for cooperative security has faded due to strengthened Russian assertiveness and power politics. The model of international order promoted by Russia is based on the balance of power between the main actors consolidating their right to spheres of interest.

Russia’s blatant disregard for the established system of norms and confidence-building measures has increased distrust. As a consequence, political confrontation and military tension have increased also within the Baltic Sea region. With the growing risk of military accidents and the escalation of military activities, the security of Finland is seen to have become vulnerable.

Securing the North

At the same time, it is of strategic significance for Finland and Sweden that the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland and the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea remain free. Therefore, it is in both countries' interests that the security of the Baltic states is enhanced through adequate military means.

(L-R) Russian navy corvette Steregushchy, destroyer Nastoichivy and frigate Admiral Gorshkov are anchored at the Russian fleet base in Kaliningrad, July 2015. © REUTERS

From NATO’s standpoint, a joint entry by Finland and Sweden (or indeed by Sweden alone) would be convenient. Circumventing the anti-access/area denial (‘A2AD’) challenges posed by the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and support for the defence of the Baltic states would presumably transit via Sweden. It is taken for granted by the panel that, in case of a serious crisis or a military conflict, Finland and Sweden would become involved.

In light of the changed Russian posture and military activity, Sweden is re-building its territorial defence. The Finnish defence posture – based on territorial defence, universal male conscription and a well-trained reserve army of 230,000 men – remains a policy of deterrence by denial.

Another result of the changed military environment following the occupation of Crimea is the unprecedented joint undertaking to deepen Finnish and Swedish defence efforts, including preparations for military cooperation under crisis conditions.

Mapping out alternatives

The assessors have done a great job by mapping out in detail the meaning of membership. They describe both NATO's basic purpose as well as full membership options.

The extension of the panel’s mandate has made it possible to study logically all four possible alternatives open to the two countries:

● Both Finland and Sweden stay outside the Alliance
● Finnish ‘Alleingang’: only Finland joins NATO
● Swedish ‘Alleingang’: only Sweden joins NATO
● Both countries join NATO.

In the report, however, only the three latter scenarios are discussed in detail. It is assumed – quite correctly – that neither of the two incumbent governments, barring some very dramatic occurrence in our neighbourhood, will act before the general elections in 2018 (Sweden) and 2019 (Finland) respectively.

Is there a fast track?

In addition to studying the implications of membership from the perspectives of both the applicant countries and NATO – with detailed analysis of administrative, technical and budgetary matters – the panel has also studied a fast-track option. This means a procedure whereby Article 5 commitments would be declared to operate even before Finland (and/or Sweden) had become full members.

A Finnish Marine takes part in NATO exercise BALTOPS 2015.

This would be the first time such a procedure would be used by NATO. The high degree of overall military interoperability between NATO and Finland and Sweden would make this technically a straightforward option. But politically it would encounter great problems and uncertainties. Such an option has never been addressed in the internal Finnish debate.

Russia's reaction

What then would be Russia's reaction to an eventual application and/or membership?

According to the panel, Fenno-Russian relations would take a beating and the political reaction would be harsh. The unexpected and unprovoked breach of the border regime in northern Finland in late 2015 – when Russia allowed 2000 third-country nationals without proper visas to cross through two northern checkpoints – is mentioned as an example of Russia’s propensity to create a problem, then leverage it and offer to manage it without necessarily solving it.

During the accession process, which could be shortened by an eventual fast-track procedure, the atmosphere would be poisoned and trade could be badly hit. The traditional Finnish bilateral agenda would be in a shambles.

The question of a first strike

The panel reminds, however, that more often than not, Russia’s track record towards successive NATO enlargements has followed a similar sequence: first, opposition, sometimes strident opposition and political and economic pressure; then tacit acquiescence and eventually a return to the diplomatic and economic status quo ante, once enlargement has taken place.

According to the panel a direct military reaction by Russia would be higly unlikely since Russia would not want to risk an Article 5 retaliation. Such an eventuality is not even seriously discussed in the report. This, however, is the very centrepiece of the Finnish internal discussion.

A former prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, implied, in a serious essay, that membership would almost automatically make Finland a target of a military first strike by Russia. A former foreign minister, Erkki Tuomioja, even indicated in a blog that such a strike could be made with nuclear weapons.

“There is a limit”

At the panel's press conference, François Heisbourg assured that his discussions with interlocutors in Moscow had shown that there is a clear difference between the case of Finland and that of Georgia and Ukraine. He emphasised that there clearly “is a limit to the irrationality of the Russian foreign policy decision making.”

Swedish Marines land on Ravlunda, Sweden, during NATO exercise BALTOPS 2015. Photo by Swedish COMCAM

When discussing Russian reactions, the panel makes an important observation, which it calls a paradox: Russia is trying to prevent Finnish and/or Swedish membership of the Alliance by intimidation rather than by reassurance. This aspect of Russian behavior, or its deeper implications, have never been publicly discussed in Finland.

A sea change in the making?

Time and again the group stresses, that a decision to join the North Atlantic Alliance and be covered by its Article 5 collective defence commitment would represent a sea change, transforming Finland’s security policy overall and its relationship with Russia in particular.

The deepest effects would not be in the sphere of military policy and dispositions but rather geopolitical and strategic in nature - and it would be a long term commitment.

Also timing is of the essence. On the one hand, decisions should not be rushed; on the other, applying for membership could be difficult once serious trouble breaks out in the Baltic region.

Finland is currently using the possibility to apply for NATO membership as an implicit threat in an attempt to master the inescapable geopolitical dilemma posed by its unpredictable neighbour. By choosing not to act on her own, Finland, however, leaves the keys of her own security to Moscow, Stockholm or to Brussels.