Finland pokes the Russian bear, says it can join NATO

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

We only recently learned that President Joe Biden’s latest chat with Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t exactly deliver any major breakthrough moments in terms of the standoff on the Ukrainian border. Putin is still insisting on “assurance” that Ukraine will not be invited to join NATO and that NATO won’t push its boundaries any further east. Biden is only responding with threats of more sanctions. The tension was already at a heightened level at the end of the year, so we probably didn’t need to see this news showing up on top of everything else. Finland decided to up the ante and inform Russia that if they want to apply to join NATO, they will darned well do so and they don’t need Putin’s permission to do it. (Telegraph)

Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö on Saturday reiterated his country’s right to join Nato if it wants to, in a dismissal of Russian demands for no further expansion of the Western military alliance near its borders.

“Finland’s room to manoeuvre and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for Nato membership, should we ourselves so decide,” President Niinistö said in his New Year address.

Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin sought guarantees that Finland would not join Nato. In a statement released by the Kremlin, President Putin said Russian wants “international legal security guarantees” ruling out “Nato’s further movement eastward”.

The situation with Finland was already on a slow boil back in November when Putin tossed out some warnings about Sauli Niinistö not getting any bright ideas about joining NATO. That situation hadn’t really come to head in the same way that Ukraine has because Putin has thus far not bothered staging any large number of troops on the Finnish border as he’s done to the south and west of his country. But that situation could change on a dime if circumstances dictated it.

The confusing part about all of this, at least to me, is why Niinistö would decide to roll this sort of grenade into the room just when Putin is acting more and more excitable. It’s clear that Finland’s president is a big fan of NATO and would probably support becoming a member, but it’s not clear that he needs to or would even be able to manage it. Finland already enjoys the highest level of “partner” status with NATO and has all of the trade advantages that go along with it. But they aren’t under the same level of mutual military obligations that full members are. Considering the very long border they share with Russia, putting them literally on the front lines of any potential conflict, they pretty much have the best of both worlds as things currently stand.

Also, Niinistö holds a position on this issue that is distinctly in the minority in his country. Recent polling indicates that 40% of Fins oppose joining NATO while only 26% support it. Were they to hold a referendum on the motion tomorrow, it would likely fail. So if Finland isn’t really on the verge of applying for and receiving NATO membership in the immediate future, why start rattling Putin’s cage when he’s already fueling up his new hypersonic missiles and threatening various European capitals?

We are supposedly sending negotiators to Geneve this month to meet with both Russian and NATO representatives to discuss the Ukrainian situation. (Let’s hope it goes better than our disastrous negotiations with Iran.) This is a delicate situation and it’s going to require a lot of diplomatic skill to prevent the entire situation with Russia from spiraling out of control. Traditionally, the rest of our western allies have looked to the United States to take the lead in such matters and NATO has relied on us particularly heavily. But at this specific moment in time, perhaps it might be better if we let the big dogs at NATO speak for themselves. And in the background, perhaps someone could quietly pass a note to Finland’s president suggesting that he might want to slow his roll a bit until things settle down.