Balancing Neutrality Between Russia and NATO: The Case of Finland

By: William Haynes, Columnist

Photo Credit: Deutsche Welle

Since the end of World War II, Finland has remained relatively neutral when it comes to military and political relations with Russia and the West. While Finland occasionally works with NATO and cooperates with Russia on trade agreements, it almost never fully commits to aligning with either side.[i] This disposition is out of concern that Russia could retaliate if provoked, particularly since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Finland’s resulting balance between NATO and Russia has created an arena for both NATO and Russia to continue fighting for influence inside the country.

NATO has sought to increase its partnership with Finland and pressured the country into assisting its neighbors. In the 1990s, Finland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) as a way for Finland to create individualized relations with NATO.[ii] However, unlike most countries that use the PfP as a stepping stone towards full NATO membership, Finland never joined with that goal in mind. While Finland has participated in the NATO Response Force and other NATO military exercises and operations, Helsinki uses its partnership with NATO strategically in order to further its own security goals.[iii] For example, Finland became a contributing participant in both the NATO Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence and the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence to enhance Helsinki’s cyber and strategic communication strategies.[iv] Finland also established a NATO-EU hybrid warfare center aimed at increasing Europe’s understanding of emerging hybrid threats.[v] These partnerships, however, come at a cost. NATO has pressured Finland to use its air defense systems to aid Baltic countries if the need arises.[vi] Finland’s partnerships with NATO have thus also resulted in a rise in military aggression from Russia.

Indeed, Russia flexes its military strength and uses its proximity to Finland as a way to assert coercive diplomacy and counter Finland’s partnerships with NATO.[vii] Finland has accused Russia of flying fighter jets into its airspace and using submarines in its territorial waters.[viii] Russian citizens have also bought land near Finnish military bases at concerning rates, according to Finnish officials, prompting the Finnish government to propose laws to prevent future sales over concerns about potential surreptitious activity.[ix] Additionally, when Russia moved its ballistic missiles into Kaliningrad as part of its anti-access and area denial strategy, it further raised concerns over NATO and Finland’s ability to support its Baltic allies in the event of a crisis.[x] Furthermore, in 2013, Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) identified an advanced persistent threat (APT) in their computer systems that extracted sensitive political and military intelligence over several years.[xi] Since the discovery, the MFA has reported on monthly state-sponsored cyber attacks from Russia.[xii] However, these cyber attacks are not limited to APTs, as Russia actively engages in an information warfare campaign against Finland.

Russia conducts psychological operations to influence Finnish policy making, public perception, and relations with the West and NATO.[xiii] Russia adapted its brand of information warfare from the Soviet Union’s active measures, an intelligence campaign used to enhance the image of the Soviet Union abroad and discredit U.S. foreign policy.[xiv] Russia’s current information warfare campaign employs an army of internet trolls and bots to flood social media with pro-Putin, pro-Russia, anti-NATO, and anti-governmental propaganda.[xv] Russia pairs these messages with the concepts of nostalgia and nationalism in an effort to garner support for itself.[xvi] By appealing to Russian minorities and extreme Finnish nationalism, Russia hopes Finland will turn inward and reject its Western alliances.[xvii]

Russia uses hybrid warfare techniques to drive a wedge between Finland and the West. While Finland is unlikely to fully join NATO, Helsinki must be cautious in the partnerships it undertakes. This is particularly true given the Trump’s administration’s expressed doubts over NATO’s geopolitical value. If Finland seeks stronger NATO ties with its European counterparts, a newly emboldened Russia may further its aggression in the country. Given Finland’s proximity to Russia and the history of Russian aggression to date, strengthening relations with NATO could be an incredibly dangerous move. Strategically, it would be more beneficial for Finland to focus solely on its defense partnership with Sweden rather than pursue new NATO partnerships.[xviii] Finland must also use the lessons learned in its partnerships with NATO to counter Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at destabilizing country. Ultimately, Finland must determine how it will maintain this precarious balance of neutrality, particularly with an inward-looking United States and an increasingly emboldened Russia inside its borders.

[i] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Relations with Finland,” NATO, November 28, 2016, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_49594.htm; Richard Milne, “Norway and Finland thaw relations with Russia,” Financial Times, November 30, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/269a73e4-b70b-11e6-ba85-95d1533d9a62.

[ii] Carl Bergqvist, “Determined by History: Why Sweden and Finland Will Not Be More Than NATO Partners,” War on the Rocks. July 13, 2015, https://warontherocks.com/2016/07/determined-by-history-why-sweden-and-finland-will-not-be-more-than-nato-partners/.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, “VADAM Takenen: Finland Needs Cyber Defence Experts,” July 14, 2016, https://ccdcoe.org/vadm-takanen-finland-needs-cyber-defence-experts.html; NATO Stratcom, “Finland contributes to the work of the Centre,” July 16, 2015, http://www.stratcomcoe.org/finland-contributes-work-centre.

[v] Shaun Waterman, “Finns Plan NATO-EU Hybrid Warfare Center,” Cyberscoop, November 29, 2016, https://www.cyberscoop.com/finns-plan-nato-eu-hybrid-warfare-center/.

[vi] Yle Uutiset, “Finnish Security Expert: NATO troops in Baltics only symbolic gesture,” July 9, 2016, http://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/finnish_security_expert_nato_troops_in_baltic_countries_only_symbolic_gesture/9014713.

[vii] Jussi Rosendahl and Tuomas Forsell, “Finland sees propaganda attack from former Russian master,” Reuters, October 19, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-finland-russia-informationattacks-idUSKCN12J197.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Elisabeth Braw, “Back to Finland Station,” Foreign Affairs, June 18, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/finland/2015-06-18/back-finland-station.

[x] Geoff Brumfiel, “Russia Seen Moving Missiles to Eastern Europe,” NPR, December 8, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/08/russia-confirms-deployment-of-nuclear-capable-missiles-to-kaliningrad; “Kaliningrad: New Russian missile deployment angers NATO,” BBC, November 22, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-38070201.

[xi] Keir Giles, “Cyber Attack on Finland is a Warning for the EU,” Chatham House, November 08, 2013, https://www.chathamhouse.org/media/comment/view/195392.

[xii] Aleksi Korpela, “Preparing for the Unthinkable? Russian Intelligence Activity in Sweden and Finland,” The NATO Association of Canada, March 26, 2016, http://natoassociation.ca/preparing-for-the-unthinkable-russian-intelligence-activity-in-finland-and-sweden/.

[xiii] Rosendahl and Forsell, “Finland sees propaganda attack from former Russian master.”

[xiv] United States Department of State, “Active Measures: A Report on the Substance and Process of Anti-US Disinformation and Propaganda Campaigns,” Washington, DC, 1986. http://jmw.typepad.com/files/state-department—a-report-on-the-substance-and-process-of-anti-us-disinformation-and-propaganda-campaigns.pdf.

[xv] Adrian Chen, “The Agency,” The New York Times, June 2, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html.

[xvi] Edward Lucas and Peter Pomeranev, “Winning the Information War,” Center for European Policy Analysis, August 2016, https://cepa.ecms.pl/files/?id_plik=2715.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Gerard O’Dwyer, “Sweden, Finland Stress Defense Cooperation Ahead of Russian Visit,” Defense News, June 24, 2016, http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/international/europe/2016/06/24/finland-sweden-nato-russia/86334800/.

One Reply to “Balancing Neutrality Between Russia and NATO: The Case of Finland”

  1. Technically, Finland is no longer neutral since it is politically aligned with the EU and the West generally. The official appellation is “militarily non-aligned”.

    Also, there have been ongoing discussions over a Finnish-Swedish defence arrangement that goes beyond NORDEFCO, but these fall very short of any meaningful defence pact.

    Also, I’m not sure if pressure is the right word for what NATO is doing to Finland, given that most of the MOD and FDF wants to join NATO. In that sense, Finland is a very willing partner, although the MFA usually objects to what the MOD does on that front.

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