NATO not an op­tion for Finns, de­spite Rus­sia

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY RE­BECCA LIBER­MANN

Af­ter 25 years of tran­quil post Cold War re­la­tions, Finns are once again wor­ried about the threat posed by their resur­gent eastern neigh­bor Rus­sia, though they re­main firmly op­posed to join­ing NATO.

The is­sue has been on every­body’s lips since Rus­sia an­nexed the Crimean penin­sula from Ukraine last year, but de­spite the tan­gi­ble con­cern, the ques­tion of NATO membership has been broadly avoided in po­lit­i­cal de­bates ahead of Sun­day’s leg­isla­tive elec­tions.

“Se­cu­rity is sur­pris­ingly ab­sent in the elec­tion de­bates. Finns have dis­cussed se­cu­rity is­sues quite in­ten­sively in the me­dia, es­pe­cially the con­flict in Ukraine and Rus­sia’s be­hav­ior, but (the is­sue has been) avoided in the de­bates,” Helsinki Uni­ver­sity po­lit­i­cal his­tory pro­fes­sor Juhana Aunes­lu­oma told AFP.

“Peo­ple are clearly con­cerned about it but they seem to stand be­hind the gov­ern­ment con­sen­sus right now, which is to stick with EU pol­icy to strengthen col­lab­o­ra­tion with NATO within ex­ist­ing agree­ments,” he added.

“It’s more like peo­ple think about it long-term. Maybe one day Finnish se­cu­rity pol­icy will have to change but they don’t see that a change would be im­mi­nent,” Aunes­lu­oma said.

The Nordic coun­try of 5.5 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants shares a 1,340-kilo­me­ter (830-mile) bor­der with Rus­sia.

Fin­land’s mil­i­tary non-align­ment is seen as an im­por­tant tool for main­tain­ing good re­la­tions with its pow­er­ful neigh­bor.

The two coun­tries waged a hor­rific war in 1939-1940, still fresh in the minds of Fin­land’s old­est gen­er­a­tion.

For decades dur­ing the Cold War, when it was strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned be­tween East and West, Fin­land’s un­crit­i­cal stance to­wards the Soviet Union al­lowed it to ac­cess a vast mar­ket while trad­ing ex­ten­sively with the West.

Helsinki has how­ever aligned it­self with the West af­ter the fall of the Soviet Union, join­ing the EU in 1995 and inch­ing closer to NATO.

It is part of NATO’s Part­ner­ship for Peace pro­gram, and has for ex­am­ple par­tic­i­pated in the Al­liance’s ISAF op­er­a­tion in Afghanistan.

But Helsinki has pri­or­i­tized EUbased mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion over NATO.

The head of the Finnish mil­i­tary, Cmdr. Jarmo Lind­berg, says Rus­sia has done noth­ing that could be con­sid­ered as pos­ing an acute threat to Fin­land.

How­ever, “the en­tire vol­ume of ac­tiv­ity near Fin­land’s bor­ders has grown. For this rea­son we need to re-ex­am­ine our pre­pared­ness ac­cord­ingly.”

‘Big­gest chal­lenge to

Euro­pean se­cu­rity’

Fin­land and its Nordic neigh­bors say they have seen an uptick in Rus­sian mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity over the last year, in­clud­ing sev­eral airspace vi­o­la­tions and war planes al­legedly fly­ing with­out their iden­ti­fy­ing transpon­ders.

Just last week, Finnish De­fense Min­is­ter Carl Haglund joined his Nordic coun­ter­parts in is­su­ing a dec­la­ra­tion re­fer­ring to Rus­sia as the “big­gest chal­lenge to Euro­pean se­cu­rity.”

“The se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion around the Nordic coun­tries has sig­nif­i­cantly wors­ened dur­ing the past year,” the min­is­ters wrote.

Fin­land, Swe­den, Den­mark, Nor­way and Ice­land agreed to step up their mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion fol­low­ing the changed se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion, in­clud­ing more joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises, in­tel­li­gence ex­changes and stronger de­fense in­dus­try ties.

“Rus­sia’s pro­pa­ganda and po­lit­i­cal ma­neu­ver­ing are con­tribut­ing to sow­ing dis­cord” within both the EU and NATO, they added.

The dec­la­ra­tion prompted the Rus­sian for­eign min­istry to ex­press “con­cern” that non-NATO mem­bers Swe­den and Fin­land were in­creas­ing their co­op­er­a­tion with NATO mem­bers Den­mark, Nor­way and Ice­land.

Finnish Prime Min­is­ter Alexander Stubb has­tened to tell Finns they should not let Rus­sia’s “saber­rat­tling” star­tle them, while For­eign Min­is­ter Erkki Tuomioja in­sisted Rus­sia was not a threat.

But a poll pub­lished in Finnish broad­sheet Helsin­gin Sanomat in March showed that 61 per­cent of Finns ei­ther com­pletely or some­what agreed with the state­ment that “Rus­sia is now a greater threat to Fin­land.”

At the same time, 57 per­cent of re­spon­dents said they were op­posed to join­ing the North At­lantic Al­liance, while 27 per­cent were in fa­vor — the high­est sup­port level recorded since 2002.

De­spite the re­cent de­vel­op­ments, Fin­land still “has a good, close work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia,” Aunes­lu­oma said.

And that is not seen chang­ing af­ter Sun­day’s leg­isla­tive elec­tion, in part be­cause for­eign and se­cu­rity pol­icy is de­cided jointly be­tween Fin­land’s pres­i­dent and the gov­ern­ment.

“It doesn’t seem that there will be a big change. The cur­rent line has al­ready been agreed be­tween the big par­ties and the gov­ern­ment and the pres­i­dent,” Aunes­lu­oma said.

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