On Wednesday, May 4, 2022, a Russian Mi-17 helicopter violated Finnish airspace. The violation comes as Finland considers NATO membership amid the Russia-Ukraine war about 1,200 miles away from its border. On the same day as the airspace violation, members of the U.S., British, Latvian, Estonian, and Finnish militaries participated in a military exercise in Satakunta, in Western Finland.
In addition, on May 4, 2022, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin explained that any application process to NATO needs to be approved within a short time frame. Marin said, “The key issue is to keep the ratification process as short as possible … That would be the best security guarantee.”
According to Iltalehti — one of Finland’s most circulated news outlets — Finland plans to apply for NATO membership on May 12, 2022.
While Sweden is also seriously considering NATO membership, Overwatch focused on Finland for this brief.
Overwatch reviewed comments from Russian officials about Finland potentially joining NATO and spoke to Finns in Finland to get an on-the-ground perspective on the issue. Our research indicates that Finland’s NATO membership will not lead to a larger military conflict in Eastern Europe, which lessens the possibility for the U.S. or NATO to have a direct conflict with Russia.
Recent Comments from Russian Officials
On March 13, 2022, Russian Foreign Ministry Second European Department Director Sergei Belyayev said of Finland and Sweden joining NATO. “It is obvious that Finland and Sweden’s joining NATO, which is a military organization in the first place, would have serious military and political consequences requiring us to revise the entire range of relations with these countries and take retaliatory measures.”
On April 7, 2022, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would have to “rebalance the situation” should Finland and Sweden join NATO.
On April 14, 2022, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and current Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of Russia, said of Finland and Sweden’s potential NATO membership. Russia will have to “seriously strengthen the grouping of land forces and air defense, deploy significant naval forces in the waters of the Gulf of Finland. In this case, it will no longer be possible to talk about any nuclear-free status of the Baltic – the balance must be restored.”
While Medvedev threatened the idea of a nuclear-free status in the Baltic should Finland join NATO, the Baltic currently is not a nuclear-free region. In Kaliningrad, which is in the Baltic Sea, it has a nuclear weapons storage bunker and the capability to deliver a nuclear payload using its Iskander missiles.
On the Ground Perspective in Finland
Petri Mäkelä served in the Finnish Rapid Deployment Force and has been a reservist for 15 years.
Mäkelä told Overwatch what he thinks Finland’s chances of joining NATO are, and how Russia may respond to the move. “I’d say it 90+% sure that Finland joins. Russia will do small things to annoy us, like counter-sanctions and cutting off gas. They don’t really have the numbers for military action at the moment. We can throw 280k men in the fight within a few days of notice.”
Mäkelä explained how Russia doesn’t have any significant political influence, and its financial influence is waning in Finland. “They have some political power, especially among older politicians, but not enough to matter. Their economic power has declined rapidly as there is no trade or tourism and the only big investment was a nuclear powerplant, which was just canceled.”
Henri Hautamaki is the chairman of Suomen Sisu, a nationalist organization in Finland.
Sisu said of Finland joining NATO. “Well, personally, I consider it to be good for our security. Granted, Russia won’t like it, but they can’t do overly much about it. If, or rather when Finland joins the alliance, Russia’s potential for pressuring Finland with the threat of military force will lessen, as will the chance of them actually launching an invasion sometime in the future. Especially with their failures in Ukraine, Russia cannot credibly maintain the picture that they would rapidly overwhelm the Finnish defense during wartime. When we add NATO to that, their attack would quickly end up with them being in a battle for the very existence of their state. Russia will, of course, try to do everything possible to disrupt the joining process, but it is rather doubtful they could find any real success.”
Another Finn we spoke to, who requested to remain anonymous, said that they support Finland joining NATO, and they expect “more military pressure in the Baltic Sea.”
Further, according to survey data from Mtvuutiset, 68% of Finns support Finland’s NATO membership. Mtvuutiset reported, “68 percent of Finns believe that Finland should join the military alliance of NATO.”
Overwatch assess that Russia will continue to target Finland for its potential membership in NATO. However, a military confrontation is unlikely, as Russia continues its operations in Ukraine and lacks the manpower to respond to a quickly prepared force of Finns in a potential conflict. Attacks will likely be limited to cyber, economic sanctions, airspace violations, and disinformation campaigns from Russia.
Additionally, both Germany and the U.K. have pledged their support to Finland in the event of a confrontation with Russia, which decreases the chances of an attack by Russia on Finland. Germany and the U.K. continue to receive serious threats based on their support for Finland and other European countries opposing Russian aggression. NATO membership for Finland would provide the Nordic nation with more security guarantees, which will also likely limit the possibilities for further escalation with Russia.
Finland has an annual GDP of $253 billion. Its main exports are refined petroleum, kaolin-coated paper, and cars. However, these goods are also produced by the United States and other major world powers, which suggests that a Russia-Finland conflict would not significantly impact markets as the Russian-Ukraine war has with food and gas prices.