inland is “committed” to NATO membership and will “stick with” the decision in the face of Russian threats, the Finnish ambassador to the UK has said.
Speaking to the Standard, Jukka Siukosaari said the invasion of Ukraine had led to a “strong change” in his country’s perception of the military alliance and that it now saw membership as an opportunity to “maximise” its security in northern Europe.
His comments came just over a week after Finland and Sweden formally announced their applications to join Nato, provoking the ire of Vladimir Putin. The Russian President has claimed, without evidence, that the build-up of the military alliance on his country’s border poses an existential threat.
Finland, which shares a 1,300-mile border with Russia, fought a war against the Red Army in 1939-40 but has since maintained neutrality. Since Mr Putin’s invasion, public enthusiasm for joining the alliance has surged.
“We have a strong national defense but when you have a neighbor like Russia who you cannot trust, who makes irrational decisions such as attacking a sovereign neighbor, you have to maximise your security through alignment,” Mr Siukosaari told the Standard from the Finnish embassy in Belgravia.
“Over the last 25 years, the polls have been very consistent with around 20 per cent of Finns supporting Nato membership. But now there has been a huge rise in popularity that has not faded ever since the war started.
“I don’t think that this will go away. As Finns, once we are committed to something, we stick with that decision. Our membership of the European Union is an example of this.”
Finland and Russia’s troubled relationship stretches back hundreds of years. The tsars of the Russian Empire repeatedly tried to conquer the country in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it became an autonomous part of the Russian empire after Sweden lost a war to Russia in 1809.
In 1917, Finland declared its independence amid the chaos of the Russian Revolution. But just over twenty years later, Joseph Stalin’s Red Army would invade the country in what became known as the Winter War.
Finland later allied itself with Nazi Germany in a second war against the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944. It had lost around 10 per cent of its territory by the time it signed an armistice with Moscow in September 1944.
Memories of the war still haunt Finnish society and have informed its pivot towards Nato, Mr Siukosarri said.
“Part of the population who will witness the war in 1939 still remember it. My father is one of them, he was 8 when war broke out and I have heard his stories of what happened.
“It has left a scar in our national memory.”
The Kremlin’s bellicose rhetoric against neighbouring countries seeking to jointo has also backfired, Mr Siukosaari said, as it was perceived in Finland as “an to interfere in our sovereign right determine our security arrangements”.
“It’s important to recognise that there is a sensitivity towards any attempt to question our national sovereignty,” he added.
The Kremlin’s muted reaction to Finland and Sweden’s decision to join Nato surprised some international observers. Mr Putin said the enlargement of the alliance posed “no direct threat to Russia” but that any expansion of military infrastructure “would provoke a response” from Moscow.
Mr Siukosaari said that while Helsinki feels “no direct military threat” at the moment, joining the alliance would secure the country against any possible future aggression.
“It remains to be seen once we have peace in Ukraine – and let’s hope that happens soon – how the Russians will organize their military presence in the north,” he said.
“It’s clear that the border with Finland has been the least problematic of Russia’s borders in its entirety. They know we pose no threat to them – it’s a functioning border and a secure border as well.
“To us, joining Nato increases our security but does not take anything away from anyone else. We think that, when and if Sweden and Finland join, regional security will increase.”
Helsinki’s application to join Nato hit a stumbling block earlier this month after Turkey’s President Recep Tayipp Erdogan claimed Finland and Sweden had turned an eye to the activities of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, who Ankara has branded “terrorists”.
His comments “came as a surprise”, Mr Siukosaari said.
“Finns take a pragmatic approach. We had a phone call between our two presidents, and we sent a delegation to Ankara for talks yesterday.
“The way we see it, we need to get to the bottom of things, understand what Turkey’s concerns are and see how we can meet them. It’s a diplomatic process, and it’s better to do that behind closed doors than in the public eye.”
While Finland had initially hoped for a fast accession into Nato, the country is prepared for a longer and more complex process. Foreign minister Pekka Haavisto told the Svenska newspaper last week that talks were likely to continue for several weeks, with late June touted as a possible deadline.
Pressed on what an acceptable timeline for membership would be, Mr Siukosaari said diplomatic talks will “take as long as they take”.
He noted that the process of ratification in each member state could “take months”, adding: “We are looking at a process that could take up to a year in its totality before it comes back to our parliament.”
In the meantime, he said Finland must focus on helping the EU maintain its unified stance against Mr Putin’s aggression and supporting Ukraine’s resistance. The first evidence of a fracturing of the bloc’s unified approach emerged earlier this month as Hungary frustrated attempts to impose an EU-wide oil embargo, saying its economy would struggle to withstand the shock of such a move.
“We in Finland and in northern member states are very determined to hold onto the sanctions we have imposed on Russia,” Mr Siukosaari said. “These sanctions are popular in Finland and are not questioned at all.
“For other European countries it’s clear that the dependence on Russian energy is much bigger than ours. For these countries they easily become political questions.
“We must be careful in maintaining unity in the EU. At the moment, I don’t see a real risk to this breaking but the further you go with sanctions the more consequences you see on the European side of the equation.”
As the battle in the Donbas region grinds on, Mr Siukosaari said that a frozen conflict was one of the “unfortunate” potential outcomes facing Ukraine and the west. But as some European leaders talk of an acceptable acceptance, he stressed we must look “not only at what is to Russia but also what is acceptable to Ukraine.”
“Ukraine is a democracy – any agreement that President Volodymyr Zelensky makes is measured in the next election he faces,” he said.
“They have shown such valiant strength and heroism in fighting this war, for them to accept a peace while conceding territory would be difficult.”
However, he said the West “should not underestimate” the crippling economic effect of sanctions on Russia’s economy and that the Kremlin too will “need to find a way out” of the war.
“Perhaps they will need a solution they can sell to their own people,” he added.
If any peace deal is eventually signed between the two countries, he said they would need to come with tangible security guarantees for Ukraine.
“We must find serious arrangements for the security of Ukraine and make sure that after an interim period of rearmament, Russia does not come back.
“It’s difficult to see how that will evolve. But we need structures – and the US must be involved in that process. They are still an integral part of European security.”
He added: “We in Finland appreciate that very much, but we don’t want to see anything agreed over the heads of the Ukrainians.
“Every small, sovereign nation wants to avoid that. As we know from our history.”