Finland is finally joining NATO, applying last year along with Sweden in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Finland’s accession to NATO is booming, a radical change in Finland’s foreign and security policy, and yet another unintended setback for Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
While Finland has been officially welcomed into the alliance by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Sweden is still waiting for Hungary and Turkey to unblock its membership, which is unlikely before the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July.
Finland’s accession reverses the country’s longstanding policy of military non-alignment and heavily armed neutrality dating back to the 1940s. The geopolitical situation of Finland, which shares a 1,300 km border with Russia and depends on the Baltic Sea communication routes for most of its vital supplies. Due to the existential threat posed by Russia, Finland maintains a strong national defense capability tailored to defend its territory.
Unlike many European countries that shifted their focus to small professional militaries and expeditionary forces after the end of the Cold War, Finland maintained a pragmatic approach to defense. The direct experience of fighting against Russia in the past has brought civic preparedness, societal resilience and the will to fight to the forefront of what it means to be Finnish.
Joining NATO and gaining Article 5 security does not change Finland’s long-standing focus on self-sufficiency, resilience and the mobilization of the entire Finnish society to defend the country in a crisis (a concept known in Finland as “comprehensive” security). which is similar to Norway’s or Sweden’s “Total Protection”). To ensure national preparedness and resilience, Finland depends on extensive cross-sector cooperation, where private companies and organizations engage with the public sector in various frameworks during the planning process to ensure critical supply and societal functioning during crises. Relying on all the resources of society, conscription, a well-trained reserve and a strong will to defend the country continue to be the basis of Finland’s national defense.
The direct experience of fighting against Russia in the past has brought civic preparedness, societal resilience and the will to fight to the forefront of what it means to be Finnish.
Military defense remains at the core of Finland’s defense and security policy and is based primarily on a conscription-based force supported by a large reserve component, allowing for reliable defense despite a small population base. Compulsory for men over 18 and voluntary for women, conscription takes place either in the military (Defense Forces) or in civil service (Finnish Border Guard). The system has approximately 280,000 troops, with an additional 870,000–900,000 trained as reservists, representing one of NATO’s largest military forces. Finland’s navy and air force are less dependent on conscripts or reservists and, although small, are equipped with remarkable capabilities such as icebreakers, minesweepers and soon the latest F-35 stealth fighters. Finland will bring significant military assets to the table in all areas, having one of the strongest artillery forces in Europe.
This culture of armed self-sufficiency means that Finland joins NATO as a net contributor to the alliance’s collective security, and one with a very influential role in protecting NATO’s longest land border with Russia. Importantly, Finland is already a close partner in the alliance, becoming NATO’s Enhanced Capability Partner alongside Sweden following Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In addition to active participation in joint exercises and exercises, Finland is also part of the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, the Northern Defense Cooperation Framework and other multinational groupings involving NATO member states. These existing ties, as well as long-standing efforts to ensure that Finnish systems and equipment are interoperable and meet NATO standards, should mean that Finland can quickly integrate into the alliance’s structures and programs.
Finland joins NATO as a net contributor to the alliance’s collective security, and one that has a very influential role in defending NATO’s longest land border with Russia.
The accession of Finland, which may be followed by Sweden, brings several opportunities and benefits to the alliance, significant historical experience and experience in assessing Russian capabilities and intentions. NATO, lacking active intelligence capabilities of its own, needs this valuable intelligence and a deep understanding of the Russian threat. Related to this are the long-term benefits to be gained from Finland as a leader in a comprehensive approach to societal resilience and security. With Finland’s membership, the alliance gains a significant strategic position in northern Europe. The region is likely to become a more integrated area of defense and deterrence through a greater presence of NATO forces in the Baltic states and a focus on the High North as a zone of competition with Russia and its allies. As a highly developed market economy and democracy, and with a first-rate military, Finland is likely to have considerable influence in shaping NATO policy.
Many of these investments could be increased if Finland’s neighbor Sweden also gets approval to join the alliance, integrating all the Nordic-Baltic region and Arctic countries (except Russia) into NATO. While the short-term delay may not pose too much of a problem from a security policy perspective, Finnish and Swedish defense planning may diverge somewhat. A prolonged delay could have more serious consequences and leave the alliance on its northern flank without Sweden, making it more vulnerable to attack. NATO may have to wait for Sweden to join the alliance to establish deeper credible deterrence and defense positions in Northern Europe.
Charlotte Kleberg is a research assistant and James Black is assistant director of the Defense and Security Research Group at RAND Europe.
Commentary enables RAND researchers to convey insights based on their professional experience and often on their own peer-reviewed research and analysis.