This spring may herald a new security order for Finland and Sweden, as the two countries prepare to bid for NATO membership.
In January, Finland’s Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, reiterated her country’s traditional position, that she had no plans to join the Security Alliance. But she noted in early April that “everything has changed” since Russia attacked Ukraine.
“Finland must be ready for all kinds of measures from Russia,” she told reporters during a visit to Sweden, adding that Helsinki would decide on NATO membership “in a matter of weeks.”
While popular support for Finland’s membership in NATO has been between 20 and 30 percent, recent polls have shown that since the start of the war in Ukraine, about 70 percent of the Finnish people want their country to join NATO.
Al Jazeera spoke to former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Staub to understand what led to this dramatic change.
Staab, who also served as Finland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Finance, is currently Professor and Director at the School of Transnational Governance, based at the European University Institute in Florence.
Al Jazeera: How would you describe Finland’s national awakening towards joining NATO? What has changed?
Alexander Stabb: I believe that the decision on Finland’s membership in NATO was made on February 24, at five o’clock in the morning, when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin attacked Ukraine. That’s when public opinion essentially took a 180-degree turn.
From 50 percent against and 20 percent in favor, to 50 percent with supporters and 20 percent against. Currently, we are 68 percent in favor and 12 percent against, and when our political leadership issues the request with Sweden in mid-May, I expect our numbers to be over 80 percent in favor of NATO membership.
The basic idea is that if Putin can massacre his brothers, sisters and cousins in Ukraine, he can do so in Finland and Sweden as well.
For the Finns, this brings back memories of World War II. So NATO membership would be a way to increase our security and that of the alliance.
Al Jazeera: But this is not the first time that Russia has attacked Ukraine. In 2014, when I was Prime Minister of Finland, Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine. Did you think about NATO membership at the time?
set up: I have been one of the few people in Finland who has always advocated for Finland’s membership in NATO. In fact, I think we should have joined NATO in 1995, when we became part of the European Union.
In 2008 she tried to lobby for NATO membership. At the time I was Finland’s Foreign Minister and Chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and mediated peace in the war in Georgia.
After these mediation talks, I made a speech [on August 8, 2008]who was called 080808. In the speech, she explained how Russian aggression had returned and that Finland should consider NATO membership. But I had a lot of backtracking and since then, even when Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014, I didn’t try to push for NATO membership because I was in the minority.
However, things are different now.
Given how Russia attacked Ukraine in 2022, this invasion appears to have provoked people in Finland and changed their minds. When public opinion changes, political leaders change theirs, too.
Al Jazeera: Prime Minister Sanna Marin spoke out about Finland’s joining NATO when a security report warned that possible Finland’s membership could aggravate Russia further, causing tensions along the Finnish-Russian border.
Do you think the prime minister should have waited for the current war in Ukraine to calm down?
set up: I think, you know, we’re past that discussion for now. We don’t expect any conventional military threats, or attacks at all, because we have one of the largest standing armies in Europe – 900 thousand, reserves of 280,000 mobilized, we just bought 64 F-35s and have excellent missile defense systems.
I think we are more prepared for NATO than most of the member countries themselves.
But what we will see from the moment we apply in mid-May, to the moment we become members of NATO, there will be mixed threats. There will be cyber threats, there will be an information war, and we are ready for that.
For example, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was speaking in the Finnish Parliament about two and a half weeks ago, the main pages of the Finnish Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fell. And as you know, it was clearly a Russian attack.
At the same time, there was a violation of our airspace, clearly the Russians again.
So these are the threats that we will continue to receive while we are ready. In the bigger picture, Finnish and Swedish NATO membership will also increase the security of the region.
Al Jazeera: Is there opposition that Finland could face from NATO members regarding its bid for its ascendancy?
Alexander Stabb: I am subjective, but it is very difficult to make any rational argument against allowing Finland and Sweden to join NATO. Besides strong military forces, we both have the largest Western telecom service companies in the world – Nokia and Ericsson and this is important for the overall security infrastructure.
Moreover, we already have the experience of fighting wars with Russia, given our history with the Kremlin. NATO members are aware of our capabilities and will not get bogged down when it comes to our membership.
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