Finland in NATO: Bolstering Arctic Defense & Baltic Stability

From World War II to the joint “friendship agreement” with the Soviet Union, Finland’s demonstration of remaining neutral in politics has been consistent through the decades. However, the long-standing policy of non-alignment with foreign countries has shifted in recent months. As Russian aggression sought to tear down Ukraine and the threat in neighboring countries grew, Finland moved swiftly to embrace collective security amid regional uncertainty. This brief traces the increasing political and diplomatic interception carried out by Finland over the years. It also details the increasing need for military infrastructure buildup in Finland along its borders and the need for caution against nuclearization in the region.

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Although a Helsinki-Moscow conflict is unlikely, the increasing NATO pact does indicate an important implication: the continued preservation of transatlantic security.

Pointed Summary

  • Russo-Ukrainian War has sped up Finland’s membership in NATO
  • Finland’s decision stabilizes regional security and goals of peaceful resolutions


Although Sweden and Finland have maintained neutrality for a long time, Putin’s latest attack has left Nordic nations feeling vulnerable. In late 1939, the Soviets invaded Finland, losing 10% of its territory but fortunately avoiding occupation. In the late 1990s, Helsinki bought combat planes, joined the European Union, and considered the NATO option.

Consequently, the recent attacks by Russia on neighboring countries have thus fostered feelings of endangerment and the ultimate decision to join the pact. 


Amidst the soaring anticipation and historic significance of Finland joining NATO on the momentous day of April 23, 2023, President Niinistö's words had become a reality. In a bold declaration earlier this year, he heralded,” The End of the Era of Finnish Non-Alignment," setting in motion a paradigm shift in Finnish policy.

A nation with a longstanding tradition of neutrality had embarked on this unprecedented journey towards becoming an integral part of the NATO alliance. Understanding the factors that underpinned this momentous change in Finland's stance is paramount, as it unravels a narrative of geopolitical shifts and security imperatives for Eastern Europe, and the world at large.

The recent inclusion of neighboring Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, into NATO ignited a new era of security dynamics in the region, paving the way for Finland to contemplate a historic transformation.

As these Baltic nations found shelter under the protective NATO umbrella, an air of enhanced security enveloped their borders. With a largely shared history and geographic proximity, the prospect of potential exclusion from a collective security framework may have forced Finland to re-evaluate its longstanding non-alignment policy.

Finland found itself grappling with the repercussions of Russia's actions, such as the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in Ukraine. The Baltic Sea region witnessed military strife and overt modernization efforts, exacerbating concerns over the regional balance of power.

Faced with these realities, Finland's need for a credible deterrent against potential threats became even more pronounced. Compounding this predicament was the uncertainty shrouding Russia's future ambitions in Eastern Europe.

Finland’s motivation for this momentous decision comes truly from the benefits that NATO membership offers. At its core, NATO provides an unparalleled framework for collective security, uniting nations under a common defense shield against potential adversaries.

The powerful principle of "an attack against one is an attack against all" ensures a steadfast and unified response to any threat, fostering stability and trust among NATO nations. Moreover, NATO's vast experience and resources in military capabilities and intelligence sharing empower member states to bolster their own defense capabilities, safeguarding sovereignty and territorial integrity with unprecedented strength.

Beyond its military might, NATO serves as a platform for diplomatic engagement and conflict resolution, facilitating dialogue and cooperation among nations sharing core values. To Finland, it opens doors to stronger diplomatic ties and economic opportunities, placing the country in a good position to deal with potential threats from Russia.

Moreover, Finland's bilateral defense agreements with NATO member states, including Sweden, Norway, and the United States, have already yielded tangible benefits, strengthening defense cooperation. For instance, in 2017, in what was Finland’s biggest military exercise in over 20 years, Finland and Sweden conducted a joint military exercise called "Aurora," involving thousands of troops. This increased collaboration may have further convinced Finland that aligning with NATO would optimize its security potential.

Current Stances


Finland’s official stance on NATO membership has changed since the start of the Russia-Ukraine War. In 2017, the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) conducted a survey which found that 26% of Finns favored NATO membership, 49% against it, and 25% were undecided. However, by February 2022, public support for joining NATO jumped to nearly 80%.

By May 2022, Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced their support for joining NATO. Niinisto and Marin, in a joint statement, stated that they believed that NATO membership would provide Finland greater security as the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues. By April 4, 2023, Finland officially joined NATO as the 31st member of the alliance, thereby doubling NATO’s border with Russia.


Ukraine saw Finland's alignment with NATO as a demonstration of solidarity and a signal against Russian aggression, strengthening the collective security of the Baltic Sea region. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “sent his congratulations to Finland, writing on Telegram that ‘amid Russian aggression, the Alliance became the only effective guarantee of security in the region.’” 

Several NATO member states, including the United States, Canada, and Baltic countries such as Estonia and Latvia, have shown great support for Finland’s NATO membership.

President Joe Biden stated in a statement that the addition of Finland to NATO has demonstrated that NATO is as “united [as] ever. And together - strengthened by our newest ally, Finland - we will continue to preserve transatlantic security, defend every inch of NATO territory, and meet any and all challenges we face.”

Russia has responded to Finland’s ascension into NATO by vowing to “strengthen its military potential” along the Finnish-Russia border. Russia has stated that it will take additional steps to improve its military security in response to NATO expansion.

Tried Policy

In 1948, Finland and the Soviet Union signed the Soviet-Finnish Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. The Treaty began Finland’s foreign policy known as “Finlandization.” Finlandization aimed to maintain friendly relations with the Soviet Union while preserving its independence. Some actions Finland took included remaining out of NATO, maintaining Finland's neutrality, guaranteeing Moscow wouldn’t invade Finland, and self-censoring any criticism of Moscow in Finland. 

Following the end of the Cold War in 1994, Finland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. The PfP program allowed for cooperation and dialogue between NATO and non-NATO countries, allowing Finland to engage with NATO on defense and security issues without full membership.

Finland has become one of NATO’s most active partners and a valued contributor to NATO-led operations and missions. Finland has also established bilateral defense agreements with NATO member states, including Sweden, Norway, and the United States. Between the various bilateral defense agreements and its cooperation with NATO, Finland has cooperated to enhance defense cooperation, and interoperability, and promote regional security.

Russia has vehemently opposed NATO’s expansion, particularly to countries in its immediate neighborhood, such as Finland. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Perkov stated that Russia would be “watching closely” Finland as it saw NATO’s enlargement as a “violation of [its] security and [its] national interests.”

In addition, Russia has been conducting large-scale military exercises, such as “Zapad,” near its borders, including in the Baltic Sea region. Foreign audiences have interpreted these military exercises as demonstrating military capabilities as a display of power and intimidation.

Policy Problem


With its accession to NATO, Finland has ended a seven-decade-long policy of military non-alignment, declaring that it will no longer stay neutral. Even before its membership, Finland has been active in NATO’s partnership for peace program since 1994, participating in military protocols and cooperation with fellow allies.

Finland’s membership boosts NATO’s military alliance significantly, as it is one of the few European countries with a conscription army and well-trained ground, naval, and air forces. Furthermore, a Wilson Center report notes Finland’s strong cyber security, as it is home to Nokia, a prominent provider of 5G infrastructure. 

Not only does Finland’s membership benefit NATO strategically, but Finland also receives greater military backing. Specifically, NATO’s collective defense policy and integration with the Finnish military strengthen Finland’s ability to defend and deter. Accordingly, in 2021 public opinion polls for Finland, approximately 55% of Finnish citizens supported NATO membership. Finns have, since then, maintained their support for joining NATO, citing an increased sense of security as an alliance member. 

Nonpartisan Reasoning

Amid a changing geopolitical landscape, Finland’s alignment with NATO is primarily to enhance and deter threats to its national security. Specifically, given that Finland and Russia share a maritime border in the Baltic, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and increased aggression in the Baltic Sea have increased Finland’s interest in strengthening defense capabilities.

Indeed, aligning with NATO opens opportunities for maritime security cooperation and joint exercises, as well as reinforces NATO’s message of collective defense and Finland’s commitment to democratic principles. 

On the other hand, Finland’s membership raises long-term geopolitical concerns. Expansion in NATO territory means increasing NATO’s proximity to the Kona Peninsula (a key Russian military base in the Arctic) and strategic Russian bases for nuclear capabilities. Moreover, Russian officials have said that Finland’s accession will not only risk escalation in the Ukraine war but also undo Finland’s status as a “confidence-building presence” in the Baltic and Europe. 

Accordingly, in response to NATO’s expansion, Russia has threatened countermeasures to strengthen its military capacity in the West and Northwest, and will likely accelerate Arctic militarization through actions such as stationing advanced fighter jets and increasing their maritime exercises. If the Russia-Ukraine War were to shift towards the Arctic frontier, Arctic geopolitics would be radically transformed.

Policy Options

Debating the merits of Finland’s admission into NATO is now a matter of history, not policy. With a new member onboarded, NATO command must be strategic in how it chooses to use (and not use) Helsinki.

Posture bolstering in the Arctic and the potential for forward-deployment of capabilities provide the alliance with new opportunities, but they also bring new dangers. Making the most of its new members requires NATO to take obvious steps, avoid violating redlines, and take calculated risks.

Holding the Line

Helsinki’s ascension puts geography front and center. NATO needs to capitalize on Finnish membership on two fronts:

The Nordic/Baltic. The new member state expands NATO’s access to the Baltic Sea, particularly to some key Finnish islands that were previously at risk of Russian seizures. Finland’s mere presence in the alliance brings stability to the Baltic Sea by extending NATO’s Article V umbrella and dissuading Russian adventurism.

But to fully actualize these new geographic advantages, NATO must begin plans to forward deploy troops in the area, based in Helsinki’s coastal territory, and quickly incorporate the Finnish defense apparatus into NATO's unified command. Previously, NATO relied on tripwire forces in the Baltic region.

It was a cheap signal, and while Russia is currently preoccupied, Moscow likely had the capacity to walk into Baltic capitals if it decided to. Fighting its way back into these allied states, NATO would take massive hits to deter credibility and military readiness.

Washington and leading NATO partners will need to invest considerably in Finland’s military infrastructure if they wish to realize the pledges of forward defense in NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept.

Second, while Finland has worked considerably with NATO in the past, interoperability gaps exist, and in a Baltic contingency, lacking or vulnerable operational capabilities will radically undermine an otherwise unbeatable allied response. Fully incorporating Finland’s defense structures remains a pressing imperative. 

The Arctic. With coasts accounting for 53% of the Arctic Ocean, Russia has considerable commercial interests in the region and has sought to solidify them by aggressively investing in military infrastructure. The ascension of Finland to NATO fundamentally increases the importance of the Arctic as a more proximate zone of East-West competition.

As the effects of climate change make fossil fuel and mineral deposits in the Arctic increasingly available and make the Northeast passage commercially navigable, the Arctic region will develop into a series of maritime geopolitical chokepoints – such as the Straight of Hormuz and Suez Canal – that will demand Western military defense as FONOPS will have to expand northward to deny Russian monopolization of the Arctic sphere.

Helsinki’s membership greatly increases NATO’s ability to gain a presence in the region, and while due caution should be exercised, particularly with regard to potential climate ramifications of Arctic exploitation, enhancing Western presence in the region through infrastructure and capabilities investment is essential. Finland’s membership provides that much-needed opportunity; Brussels ought not to squander it. 

Nuclear No-No

After Finland and Sweden submitted bids last May, flurries of new reports prospected about the countries’ potential as hosts for NATO’s nuclear forces. But Joe Biden should not set himself up to deal with the same crises Jack Kennedy navigated. Forward deploying tactical – and especially strategic – nuclear weapons in Helsinki’s territory is an unwarranted step of escalation that produces little military benefit for NATO command. 

So far, both sides have been accepting of this. The Finnish government has been clear that “no nuclear weapons will be brought to Finland,” and NATO never attempted to make the possibility of hosting a precondition for membership. And for both, the logic is intuitive: Helsinki hardly wants to make itself a target for Moscow’s strategic capabilities, and NATO – whose most powerful country is headed by a leader petrified of the prospects of WW3 – is far from keen on Russia's agitation.

At the same time, however, no preconditions mean no preconditions, and Helsinki did not exclude the potential for nuclear hosting in the future from its bid.

This likely isn’t a temporally proximate issue; it is hard to imagine that the Biden administration, or other key NATO parties, would soon demand Finnish hosting of nuclear capabilities, and Finland would be hard-pressed to place itself in Moscow’s nuclear cross-hairs, regardless of degradation in the strategic environment.

But if Russia overruns Ukraine or decides to expand its violent imperialist adventurism Westwards, it isn’t difficult to imagine NATO attempting a covert, Cuba-esque fait accompli. In most cases short of a pan-European conflagration, this would be a costly mistake.

Putin has made his anti-Western bid apparent. Discussions over the extent to which NATO expansion is at fault for the paranoiac aggression of the Kremlin will be had in the history books, but the policies of today must take the strategic environment as is and craft a viable response.

Integrating Finland into NATO helps advance those objectives, insofar as the alliance is intentional and decisive about the capabilities it must develop and certain in the nuclear redlines that risk massive escalation. It is ultimately pretty straightforward. But for a bureaucracy based on consensus-building and power-jockeying, nothing is as easy as it should be.


The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Ahad Khan, Donovan Zagorin, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.

Works Cited

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Photo by Philip Myrtorp on Unsplash

Chanhee Joy Park

Director, Policy Media

Chanhee (Joy) Park is a Foreign Policy Co-Lead based in Texas and Michigan, specializing in the history and politics of East Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Kendall Carll

Policy Analyst

A first-year at Harvard studying Government and International Relations with a Secondary in History, Kendall is interested in American security policy, particularly nuclear, great-power, and East Asian issues.

Sanjay Karthikeyan

Lead Analyst, Foreign Policy

Sanjay Karthikeyan is a high school senior based in Singapore and the Co-Founder and CEO of GovMetrix, a youth-led, solution-oriented organization that strives to solve the world’s most pressing problems through collaboration, incisive analysis, and candid discourse.

Michelle Liou

Senior Vice President, Policy

Michelle Liou is currently a student at UCLA, studying Business Economics and Statistics. She hopes to attend law school in the future, and seeks to develop her interest in policy making, leadership, and business.

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