Since the Ukraine crisis began there has been an increase in Russian military activity to test reactions across Europe, including Finland. In late summer, Russian naval and air units intercepted a Finnish research ship on two occasions. Russian Air Force aircraft have also violated Finland’s airspace on multiple occasions, according to a report into increased Russian military activity from the European Leadership Network, a UK-based think tank.
Finland is a member of the EU, but not the NATO military alliance. Russia’s actions have led to speculation in the media that Finland will join the alliance to warn Russia off. The country's current policy is to reserve the right to join while having no plans to do so while at the same time remaining militarily non-aligned and seeking partnership with NATO.
‘Finnish–Russian bilateral relations are characterised by stability with the emphasis on practical issues, primarily trade and business as well as tourism,’ Kari Möttölä, a professor at the University of Helsinki whose research covers Finland's security , told Geographical.
Finland has implemented EU sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis. ‘This is a new situation for Finland in the post-cold war Europe, bearing in mind also that Finnish firms are suffering relatively more due to the high share (around ten per cent) of Russian trade,’ says Möttölä. For its part, Russia is concerned with how ethnic Russians and Russian speakers are treated in Finland, he adds.
'...[T]he European Union’s sanctions have jeopardised the whole range of Russian-Finnish trade and investment ties. Negative trends are emerging in our bilateral cooperation: our trade turnover has dropped by 8 percent since the start of the year. Russia is categorically against the situation developing this way,' President Putin warned after meeting Finland's president last August.
‘The sanctions policy has not caused any direct or visible worsening of the bilateral relations, even though Russian politicians and commentators are keen to note any sign of deviation from the common EU line in the Finnish public discussion,’ says Möttölä.
‘In the short timeframe, Finland has experienced a peak in the pattern of violation of its airspace by the Russian Air Force – three cases close to each other recently – which can be connected with the general rise of Russian military activity during the Ukrainian crisis,’ adds Möttölä.
Within Finland's party politics, the conservative National Coalition Party (NCP) has a conference resolution favouring NATO membership. But in the country's governing 4-party alliance the party does not pursue membership, although NCP prime minister Alexander Stubb has spoken in favour membership. Carl Haglund, chairman of the Swedish People’s Party and defence minister in the coalition, has also spoken in favour. His party represents Swedish-speaking Finns and is not united on the issue, according to Möttölä. Finland's Social Democratic Party, the country's second-largest party and also in the governing coalition, does not favour membership.
NATO membership is likely to be discussed in next April's parliamentary elections, but Möttölä expects most parties to back the established policy.
‘Public opinion surveys indicate that more than a half to two thirds of the public is behind the established government’s policy,’ says Möttölä. Finland’s coalition politics is consensus-driven, and Möttölä believes it almost inconceivable that any party would force a pro-NATO policy through parliament. Several leading parties favour a referendum on the issue, he says.
‘In the short term, even with such changes in the security milieu as the Ukrainian crisis, no change is likely,’ says Möttölä. Even if Finland joined NATO there would not necessarily be any negative political or economic implications, he adds, basing his analysis on Russian reactions to Poland, Norway and the Baltic States joining the alliance.