Ambassador: I hope the Finns realize time for joining NATO is short

Sven Sakkov.
Sven Sakkov. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Finnish government is set to present the parliament with a report on the altered security situation in the coming weeks. Estonian Ambassador to Finland Sven Sakkov tells ERR in an interview that he hopes Finnish decision-makers realize that the window for joining NATO might not stay open very long.

Finland finds itself in a paradoxical trap. When the security situation is calm, the NATO umbrella is considered unnecessary. When tensions soar, there are fears that joining NATO would escalate Russia-relations. There will never be a right time like that.

You just summed up in one sentence the criticism of Finns who have found that Finland should have joined NATO the day before yesterday.

Russia's aggression and the war in Ukraine has delivered a greater shock in Finland than Estonia. The latter has sported a different view of Russia for years.

Finland was pursuing good-neighborly relations and economic cooperation with Russia until a few weeks ago. By now, economic ties with Russia have become toxic also in Finland.

Prime Minister of Sweden Magdalena Andersson said the day before yesterday that it is not a good time to join NATO, with Finnish Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen saying as much during his recent visit to Washington. Eduskunta Speaker Mati Vanhanen said something along the lines of Finland being unable to save its skin by pouring fuel on the fire.

The political situation is highly dynamic. Everyone agrees that the security situation in Europe has changed beyond recognition.

The Finnish security policy source document reads that Finland reserves the right to apply for NATO membership. This decision is reviewed in real time whenever the security situation undergoes radical change. That time has now come.

The Finnish government is set to present the parliament with a report that also treats with NATO accession. The process is coming along promptly, considering Finland's usual thoroughness and the Nordic search for consensus. There could be some clarity by early summer in terms of looming changes in Finnish foreign, security and defense policy. The defense budget will be hiked, that much is for sure and has been confirmed by Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

Finland and Sweden have been saying for years that they will try to make the NATO decision jointly and through consultations. Discussions have come along much faster in Finland today, while Stockholm can count on the latter being between it and Moscow. The Finns feel more in a hurry than Sweden.

Additionally, the NATO question is also a matter of whether the government will stay together. Supporters of the Left Alliance are the only ones firmly against joining NATO, and it is a watershed moment for the party. They will either have to leave the government or change their stance. A month's worth of events happen in Finland every day.

President Sauli Niinistö visited the White House on Friday, and the Finnish defense minister was also recently in Washington. What did they ask the Americans? Supposedly, they are after security guarantees because an application to join would be followed by a long ratification process during which Article Five would not automatically be applied to Finland.

Finnish security experts have raised this concern. Defense Minister Kaikkonen's visit was agreed earlier and concerned the procurement of F-35 fighters. But I'm sure they also discussed the situation in Ukraine.

The Finnish president's account of the visit has not given the public a clear idea. The Finnish ambassador to USA gave an interview to daily Helsingin Sanomat where they said they cannot imagine what those security guarantees could be.

Niinistö was clearest in an interview to Fox News, saying that the Finnish people's attitude toward joining NATO has changed and that the decision will be weighed thoroughly and without delay. This has become something of a mantra as far as the altered security situation is concerned.

Coming to ratification by NATO member states, we have no reason to believe proceedings wouldn't be expedited as things are moving very fast. For example, we saw more change in German foreign policy over a single weekend than has happened over the past 30 years. Estonia was invited to join NATO at the Prague summit in November of 2002 and joined 18 months later. But war in Europe would make the process much faster today.

I believe the situation in Finland was perfectly summed up by a Helsingin Sanomat cartoon of a broken stool. Finnish security policy has stood on four legs: strong defensive capacity, European Union membership, good relations with Russia and the rules-based world order. Good Russia-relations are broken. And the rules-based world order isn't really working in a situation where children's hospitals are being bombed and Russian forces are looting and raping in Ukraine.

Decisions are in order, and I believe the Finns understand that time is short. This window of opportunity opens at specific times and closes at others, and we don't know for how long it will be open. The risk of staying out, provided the opportunity cannot be seized, is quite real.

That window of opportunity opened for the Baltics after the previous systemic shock was delivered by the 9/11 attacks in USA. It changed the world order and the idea of international relations.

Now, we have a new shock and convulsion to result in tectonic changes in Europe and the world. Once the hot lava stops shifting around, we will have a new geopolitical situation and reality.

Estonia can thank God for being a NATO member today. We can see in Ukraine the risks associated with being a neighbor of Russia and not a member of NATO. The same thought is plaguing Finnish foreign and security policy decision-makers.

The necessity of a referendum has also been discussed in Finland. Sauli Niinistö said at a press conference that a thorough debate similar to a referendum is needed. At the same time, periods leading up to referendums are perfect for information manipulators, with Russian troll factories likely switched to overdrive. GPS signal disappaearing around Savonlinna was a taste of things to come and a reminded that Russia is serious.

Niinistö said that an extensive census was needed to gauge the people's opinion. It is important for the losing side to admit the results.

When Niinistö first ran for president, he said that NATO accession would require a referendum. I believe Finnish decision-makers realize that the threat of a hybrid attack would be significant in case of a referendum, and that one will not be held this time.

Legal experts seem to agree that the Finnish Constitution does not require a referendum on the question of joining NATO. There is a debate over whether a simple majority would suffice in the parliament or whether two-thirds of votes are needed. The decision is up to the Eduskunta Constitutional Law Committee that is a highly influential body in Finland as we have seen during the coronavirus pandemic. They have opposed government positions when necessary.

And I would emphasize that the decision is expected from the president and the government as the Constitution puts the former in charge of Finland's foreign policy, in cooperation with the government. The president is expected to plot the course and set the tone.

We will likely see no tone-setting from PM Sanna Marin. Allow me to quote her from a few days ago: "It is possible that a day will come when I will voice my position on NATO accession. The debate we are heading into will surely influence my attitude." As a journalist and unlike you, I can call it what it is – incredible! The prime minister lacking a stance on something that has been debated for decades. She did not become premiere ten minutes ago.

Estonia and Finland have different political cultures.

The Finnish PM has repeatedly said that she represents the entire government's position. If there are differences of opinion in the cabinet, hers will be the position of the coalition program and the so-called Finnish security white paper. That is why she is not voicing her personal stance.

President Niinistö has also refrained from making clear his preference, saying at a press conference on Thursday that the debate is up to the parliament and voicing his opinion could sway MPs.

Most Finnish MPs refused to answer when asked by public broadcaster YLE where they stand on NATO accession. Only the proponents were clear in their position, while most Social Democrats said they were as of yet undecided.

My guess is that they are waiting for their party's line to solidify. However, proponents are stepping up one-by -one, with one recently prominent example being the True Finns whip who changed his stance to support joining the alliance.

Things are moving and in one particular direction as far as I can see. But I would refrain from counting chickens until the security report lands in the parliament. The Finnish president also said during the press conference that once consideration of the NATO decisions needs to be whether it would escalate the situation too much.

Last question. Dare you offer an educated guess as to what will be decided? Will Finland soon join NATO?

It is devilishly difficult to forecast, especially if you have a neighbor that will surely try to sway that decision. But I believe the process is moving in one direction. People in Finland understand that the security situation has changed and Finland needs to make some important decisions. But I really dare not predict the final decisions, at least no in front of the microphone.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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