Only days ago, Russian foreign ministry officials were warning Finland about “retaliation” if its leaders applied to join NATO. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev spouted dire nuclear threats, and many Western pundits warned about the danger of further NATO expansion.
Yet on Monday, after top Finnish and Swedish officials announced plans to join NATO — abandoning a long history of military nonalignment — Vladimir Putin did an about-face. He said there was “no immediate threat to Russia” if Finland and Sweden joined the Western military alliance.
This reversal is a perfect illustration of how Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has boomeranged.
Putin has forced nonaligned nations near Russia to choose between submission to Moscow or seeking protection for their independence. “What we see now (is that) Europe, the world, is more divided,” Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö told CNN in explaining his country’s decision to join NATO, adding that Putin does not respect nonaligned countries.
Putin’s attack on Ukraine awakened Europeans to the danger he poses to any country he considers part of Russia’s rightful sphere of influence. But Russia’s dismal military performance in Ukraine also makes clear that Putin can’t afford to expand his war beyond Ukraine. Swedes and Finns believe the Kremlin’s nuclear saber-rattling is aimed more at his domestic audience than at them.
This week, I spoke by phone with Elina Valtonen, deputy head of the National Coalition Party, the main Finnish opposition party, which has long supported NATO membership. From Helsinki, she spoke about how Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine dramatically changed Finnish public opinion.
Before the Russian attack, a majority of Finns had long opposed NATO membership, Valtonen told me. “The invasion caused a striking shift in the polls to become a full member with Article 5 protection,” she continued. (Article 5 states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all.)
According to Finnish polls, that support rose from 53% in February to 62% in March and 76% in May — and increased to 83% if Sweden joined at the same time.
“One of our main fears,” she said, “and a reason why Finland didn’t seek membership earlier, was the concern about Russian retaliation,” given that Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia. ”But people know now if they don’t act now things could be worse later. We have one of the strongest defense forces in Europe, along with cyber capacity. We are very well prepared.”
Indeed, Finland’s history shows remarkable similarities to the brave Ukrainian military performance against Russian forces. In 1939, the Soviet Union demanded that neighboring Finland cede substantial border territory to Moscow. When it refused, the Soviets invaded, but the vastly outnumbered Finns held them off for two months, inflicting heavy losses. “You had a motivated army fighting for independence,” said Valtonen.
“My grandparents and family members never forgot,” Valtonen continued. She said the courage of Ukrainians and of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “reminds me of the experience and mindset I heard from them.”
Following World War II, Finland was forced to accept a form of nonalignment often referred to as “Finlandization,” in which they had to cede substantial territory but retained nominal independence with substantial political interference from Moscow.
Some European leaders are still urging Ukraine to accept a form of “Finlandization” as a compromise with Putin. But the term has become a dirty word to Finns. “We are not terribly proud of the concept,” Valtonen said. “It is wise to know that the mindset of Russia hasn’t changed from Soviet times.”
Putin’s aggressive, Soviet-style behavior is also why Sweden has dropped its 200-year-old tradition of neutrality to apply for membership in NATO. Politicians such as Hans Hallmark, deputy chairman of the Swedish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, point out that — similar to Finland — Stockholm had been pursuing a “long farewell” to neutrality since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Swedes joined the European Union in 1995 and have pursued ever stronger cooperation with NATO.
When their closest historic and cultural ally, Finland, made the decision to join NATO, “the train started to leave the station,” Hallmark told me by phone from Stockholm. “It was necessary for Sweden to jump on board.” He is confident that this decision will make Europe safer, as neighboring Sweden and Finland will join with the three Baltic states, Norway, and the United Kingdom in protecting Northern Europe.
Hallmark said Sweden is grateful for NATO countries’ pledges of support in the risky period between applying for membership and being accepted — which requires ratification by all 30 NATO members. “Sen. Mitch McConnell, who just visited Helsinki, assured us the U.S. Senate will work to speed up ratification, which is of great importance,” said Hallmark.
That’s encouraging news, since more and more MAGA-loyal Republican legislators, and Fox News pundits, have been voicing reluctance to support Ukraine.
The Finns and Swedes have recognized that there is no neutrality when it comes to dealing with an aggressor willing to seize and destroy another European country.
This is not the time for concessions or the “Finlandization” of Ukraine. It’s the time to push Putin back.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org