Finland’s NATO bid reveals how quickly relations deteriorated with Russia and Putin

They were once so close that their president played hockey with President Vladimir Putin, now this country has taken steps to fight Russia.

Its isolation forced it to remain neutral during the Cold War. And he saw no reason to change after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now neutral, the Finnish prime minister says: “Russia was not the neighbor we thought it was.”

For decades, few nations have been more welcoming to post-Soviet Russia.

Finland saw an opportunity to turn a once bitter enemy into a friend.

After all, it shares a 1300 km border with Moscow.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto is an example of this effort. It has long served as a diplomatic bridge between Europe and Russia. He even played hockey with Putin in expression of their close ties.

But this optimism did not last.

Finland was aware of Moscow’s hostility towards many of its European neighbors.

Then he was subjected to intimidation from Moscow itself. But it took until now for the Finnish public to be alarmed.

“The psychology has changed since the attack on Georgia and the occupation of Crimea,” says Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto. “Russia is our neighbour, and we see Russia behaving aggressively in our neighborhood against other countries.”

The news of Finland’s potential NATO candidacy shook the Kremlin. It is precisely the opposite reaction to the invasion of Ukraine that she expected.

Now it has been observed moving additional military units towards the Finnish border.

And one of its attack helicopters flew 5km into Finnish airspace on Thursday – a month after a similar incursion by a military transport plane.

“Finland takes this historic step for the safety of our own citizens,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said. “Joining NATO will strengthen the whole international community that stands for common values.”

Alarm bells

Just a year ago, Finnish government policies encouraged economic cooperation with Russia. Public opinion was strongly against antagonizing its jittery neighbor – with just 28% of the population wanting to join the NATO alliance.

This is despite the threat from Russian warplanes and warships since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Then, on March 4, a week after invading Ukraine, Finland changed its mind.

Polls showed that 48% wanted to become full members of NATO. About 70 percent wanted membership. Only 20% totally oppose the idea.

“Russia’s ability to mobilize more than 100,000 troops in one place, without fully mobilizing its army – I find that remarkable,” Foreign Minister Haavisto said.

He was referring to how President Putin tried to conceal his intention to invade Ukraine. After large-scale “war games” a year earlier, the Russian army simply left its equipment and stocks in Belarus.

All the war needed was for the troops to return – and for Putin to justify an attack on ‘security concerns’.

But Mr Haavisto also expressed concern over Putin’s bluster about nuclear and chemical warfare.

“It’s a completely new situation in Europe when this kind of rhetoric about unconventional weapons is used,” he said.

Finland’s neutral history has not left it unprepared.

Its army is one of the strongest in Europe. Its population is subject to military conscription. It maintains an active reserve of 280,000 soldiers. And he made sure his military equipment was up to date.

Like Ukraine, it can probably fight a very intense fight.

“Our weakness is chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, nuclear threats; it is very difficult to deal with these kinds of threats, which are now on the table, on our own,” Haavisto told Foreign Policy.

bitter story

Finland’s history is eerily similar to what is happening in Ukraine today.

After a century of belonging to the Russian Empire, it gained its independence in 1917.

Then, in 1939, President Joseph Stalin sought to seize the Arctic-European state again. His reason given: “security problems”.

Finland, though massively outnumbered, successfully resisted a failed Russian invasion. But he couldn’t sustain the effort. Thus, in March 1940, Helsinki signed a peace agreement ceding approximately 9% of its territory to Moscow.

Just a year later, Finland allied with Nazi Germany in an assault on Soviet Russia. He fought to regain lost territory – and to seize part of Russian territory.

Helsinki was ordered to pay war reparations to Moscow after World War II.

Isolated from both East and West, it pragmatically chose to go it alone during the Cold War. And he did everything to avoid upsetting his prickly neighbor.

But times have changed.

“Certainly, since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Helsinki’s ‘special relationship’ with Moscow, the Finns have been moving away from their traditional policy of neutrality,” says historian Gordon Sander in the journal Foreign Policy .

Helsinki joined the European Union in 1995. But it remained “unaligned” in foreign policy.

But, after Russia’s aggression against Chechnya in 1999, Georgia in 2008 and the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Finland saw the writing on the wall.

It joined Sweden in becoming NATO’s “Partners for Peace” – essentially associate members of the European alliance.

Moscow reacted by threatening unspecified “military and diplomatic consequences”.

Today, Finland perceives the threat as a clear and present danger.

And he wants NATO protection.

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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