Finland becoming the 31st member of NATO brings with it highly capable armed forces with, for example, a larger force of more modern main battle tanks than the British Army, orders for the fifth generation F-35 aircraft that exceed those of the UK, and an army that when mobilized is more than twice the size of the British Army.
But Finland’s military capabilities are just one reason why their membership of NATO is significant. For those arguing that NATO’s expansion did – at least in part – lead Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, Finland is the first non-former Yugoslav, non-Warsaw Pact or former Soviet state to join NATO since the end of the Cold War.
This changes the enlargement narrative and, along with Sweden which many expect will also join once the Turkish veto is removed, starts to redefine who might be seen in any further NATO enlargement.
Perceptions of NATO both within and outside its membership suffered in the wake of the disastrous Afghanistan operation. But Putin’s actions have, somewhat ironically, changed perceptions of NATO for the better and, as Finland has shown, broadened the value placed upon it as defence alliance.
Flight of the neutrals
Finland, as with Sweden, Austria, the Republic of Ireland, and several other states has historically been neutral. Following its defeats by the Soviet Union in the two Russo-Finnish Wars it sought to balance both East and West during the Cold War by remaining staunchly neutral in a similar fashion to other states such as Austria.
In the post-Cold War world, Finland did edge towards the West by first joining the European Union (EU) and subsequently making contributions to the EU force in Kosovo and NATO in Afghanistan. But Finnish public opinion firmly supported its ongoing neutral stance until Russia’s illegal invasion of the Ukraine.
For Russia, Finland potentially represents the first – with Sweden presumably the second – of a wave of traditionally neutral states opting to join this formal US-led defence alliance with its Article V guarantee of security.
Changing the regional dynamic
Although many analysts focus on the 800-plus mile border Finland shares with Russia, in practice Finland’s membership of NATO changes the whole regional dynamic in two important respects.
First, there have always been concerns within NATO about the ability to reinforce and defence the Baltic states from any Russian aggression. NATO plans look to deploy reinforcements via rail and road through Poland and up into the Baltic states, but this line of communication was always seen as vulnerable given the proximity of Russian-controlled Kaliningrad enclave and Russian forces in Belarus. With Finland joining NATO, an alternative route with an essentially NATO-controlled Baltic Sea becomes an option.
Second, Finland joining makes NATO’s plans for the defence of Norway, which also shares a border with Russia, easier. It will be interesting to see whether NATO raises a new corps headquarters to oversee the defence of Scandinavia.
For Russia, the accession of Finland and potentially Sweden gives it significant headaches in terms of the relative balance of forces in the area. Its disastrous invasion of Ukraine forced it to deplete its existing forces elsewhere alongside calling up significant numbers of reservists. Now it is confronted with a potentially NATO-controlled Baltic Sea, an isolated Kaliningrad, and an extended border with NATO.
A highly capable military
Considerable attention has focused on how the Ukrainian armed forces have sought to defeat the invading Russian forces. Less attention has been given to how Finnish armed forces have planned to defeat a similar type of invasion, although Finnish resilience preparations are held in high regard by many.