Finland in NATO: What’s the Significance?


    Finland in NATO will enhance the organisation’s operational capability in the Arctic region. The importance of the Arctic Sea will increase as climate change enables access to valuable natural resources, and a considerably shortened distance between Europe and Asia. Moreover, with Finland and Sweden in NATO, Russia will stand-alone as the only non-NATO member in the Arctic council. As interests in the region grow, this will have implications for regional and global stability.

    1.0. The increasing significance of the Arctic region signifies Finnish NATO membership

    Dating back to the 19th century, Finland is one state most familiar with Russian aggression. Its ability to master the arctic climate in winter warfare has entailed hardships for the Russian military more than once. Hence, Finland will likely play a key role in promoting European and global stability. Particularly as external actors are seeking influence in the region.

    Proclaiming itself a “near-Arctic state” in its Arctic policy published in 2018 [source], China is signalling its interests and ambitions in the region. China’s increased partnership with Russia poses not only a significant challenge to European stability, but it will also challenge NATO’s influence in the Arctic and its role as the security provider for the West. 

    Most evident in the Russia-Ukraine War, authoritarian regimes will use military intimidation or aggression to achieve their aims. Hence, the Arctic is likely to develop into a hotbed for future West/East tensions where the capability to operate in such a specific climate will be essential. Therefore, Finland’s future contribution to NATO will provide strategic and operational opportunities for the alliance and critical contributions to regional and global security.

    2.0. Increasing interest and a multipolar power balance in the Arctic

    2.1. The United States (US)

    The US will likely increase its presence and influence in the Arctic region shortly. As proclaimed in its strategy for the Arctic, the US will seek to expand its power and control in the Arctic Region. Furthermore, by enhancing its deterrent capabilities to defend the country’s interests in the Arctic, the US will increase its presence and cooperation with regional allies [source].

    However, as the country lacks the maritime infrastructure to efficiently protect its growing interests in the region [source], the current development entails more significant risks. Hence, Finland’s capability will be essential in maintaining and developing joint strategies for future stability.

    A Belgian F-16 taking off from Rovaniemi Airbase during exercise Trident Juncture 2018. Image: NATO. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

    2.2. The European Union (EU) in the Arctic

    The EU is likely to increase its efforts to protect its interests in the Arctic region. New trade routes in the Arctic are likely to increase incentives for future presence, as the main interest of the EU is to develop and maintain regional and international cooperation. The EU has suspended Russia from several cooperation frameworks after the invasion of Ukraine [Source]. As several EU members enjoy NATO membership, tensions with Russia and Russia-friendly actors will likely spur military tension. Particularly as the region develops into an arena of geopolitical competition. Hence, incentives for the increased military presence among EU members and NATO are prevalent.

    On November 10th, the EU proposed a new policy of increased security measures allowing its member’s military to move more freely across borders [source]. Apart from the situation in Europe, this will have implications for an EU presence and commitment in the Arctic.

    2.3. Russia in the Arctic

    It is highly likely that Russia will further expand its presence and seriously threaten regional stability in the Arctic. For at least 10 years, Russia has expanded its military in the region with a new Arctic command, hundreds of military bases, airfields and weapons systems along its 6000 km coastline [source]. Particularly, the Kola Peninsula plays a significant military role, as it is the home base of the newly upgraded Northern fleet. However, in terms of its military capability, it is reportedly not comparable to that of Ukraine [source]. Hence, comparing the hardships that Russian forces currently face in Europe differs from its estimated capability in the Arctic. Further, 80% of its gas revenues and 17% of its oil come from the region [source].

    2.4. China in the Arctic

    Chinese presence and support of Russia in the Arctic will likely increase following sea routes, i.e., the southern passage, become more accessible because of climate change. In 2018, China declared itself a “near-Arctic state” and reportedly has the ambition to become a “polar great power” until 2030 [source]. China’s Polar Silk Road initiative includes the Arctic [source]. Further on, the Chinese-Russian relationship has grown ever more robust since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In February 2022, Russia and China proclaimed the prospects for future cooperation. Xi Jinping stated that Russian and Chinese collaboration has “no limits”.

    Russia is now China’s biggest oil supplier; during 2022, the overall trade between the countries increased by around 30% [source; source]. Hence, China has significant economic interests in the Arctic due to its interdependent relationship with Russia.

    3.0 Finland’s potential contribution

    Finland in NATO will likely play a crucial role in the organisation’s capability to counter external threats and promote regional stability. As Sweden and Finland made a joint NATO application, both states as members of NATO would mean that Russia is the only non-NATO member of the Arctic council. Hence, the prospects for enhanced and focused military operational capability are desirable. Further, the ability to endure the arctic climate characterises the Finnish military organisation. Utilising the terrain has shown to be its crucial strength tracing back to the 19th century and several events of Russian aggression. To endure the arctic climate is an essential element in the Finnish military and its conscription-based reserves totalling 900,000. The country also has a well-developed Civilian Total Defense system, a remnant from the Soviet invasion in the 1940s.

    Further on, Finland has the most prominent and well-equipped artillery forces in Western Europe, more than Poland, Germany, Sweden, and Norway combined [source]. Finland will hence provide a robust defense on the northeast flank. Apart from valuable training areas, it offers an important geostrategic position with Sweden and the unity of the Northern countries. As a member of Nordefco, Finland is also a participant in regional exercises such as the air combat exercise Arctic Challenge, jointly executed every second year by Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden with the support of the US Air Force [source]. Hence, Finnish operational capability is an already integral part of several NATO members’ joint Arctic military strategy. Apart from their explicit military capacity, Finland and Sweden share the second-largest fleets of icebreakers in the world [source].

    A small boat team during Trident Juncture, Finland 2018. Image: WO FRAN C.Valverde/Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.

    4.0. Looking forward

    Climate change-induced sea routes will likely open up for further regional competition shortly. Through the southern passage, actors such as India and North Korea will gain increased access. Such a development will have implications for future power constellations and stability on regional and global levels.

    5.0 Summary

    The development in the Arctic region signifies the value of Finnish NATO membership. In a multipolar region with developing power struggles and Russia as a key player, the importance of the arctic sea will likely increase as climate change enables new sea routes. Finland in NATO will enhance the organisation’s operational capability in the Arctic and its ability to counter developing threats and promote regional and global stability.

    Oscar Rosengren
    Oscar Rosengren
    Oscar Rosengren is a student at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm. His main focus area is the Sahel Region and West Africa. Specific interests are asymmetric threats, mainly terrorism, covert action, and cyber threats.

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