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Finland may break decades-long neutrality

The Russian invasion, invoked under its irredentism, shocked many of its neighbours with the possibility of war. NATO members gathered equipment for Zelensky and united sanctions against Russia; whilst boosting the number of troops on its border. As for Finland, the war has now encouraged its government to consider the unthinkable, joining the NATO alliance. It has been maintaining a neutrality policy towards Russia for decades in return for the guarantee of sovereignty and independence. Because it is one of Europe's few neutral countries, a shift in its foreign policy might have a larger geopolitical impact. Internally, the new endeavours have the potential to disrupt past relationships as well as have a significant influence on the country's future. The article will review Finland’s relationship with Russia and how joining NATO could change things between the two.


Historic relations with Russia


Finland was once a part of the Swedish Empire, but after its defeat by Russia in 1809, it was ceded to the victor. The situation continued to the end of the First World War and the Russian civil war. Like other Eastern European states, it took the opportunity to declare independence under the belief of self-determination. An independent Finland was finally formed in 1917.


Troubled relations between Finland and Russia, then the Soviet Union, continued after its creation. At the beginning of the Second World War, with the Third Reich invading Poland and the West, the war finally erupted between Finland and the Soviet Union. The War was fought from 1939 to 1940, commonly known as the Winter War, ending with Finland ceding territories to the Soviets. A second war broke out a year later, as Finland allied with Nazi Germany and hoped to reclaim territory lost in the Winter War. This conflict is known as the Continuation War, lasting from 1941 to 1944. In the end, facing the Soviet advance on the whole Eastern front, the Finnish government signed a peace treaty with Russia, further ceded and lent territory to the Soviets, demanded reparation, accepted responsibility for the war, and acknowledged its role in supporting Nazi Germany. 


Finlandisation, referring to a mechanism of appeasement whilst maintaining sovereignty, is a word deriving from Finland’s Cold War strategy. Since the defeat in the Continuation War, Helsinki had strictly followed a neutral doctrine in foreign policy and often sided with the Union. Domestically, media and movies deemed anti-Soviet were censored, while activists and journalists followed self-censorship, avoiding commentating on Soviet issues. As for foreign relations, it abstained from the Marshall Plans and declined to comment on the Soviet's international policies. This mechanism helped Finland to secure independence and remain neutral in the theatre of international bipolarity.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland took the slow initiative in approaching the West. Indeed, the government joined the European Union in 1995, but it does not participate in any military corporations with the West in order to ensure Russian security. Economically, Finland depends on Russia for oil and gas, whilst Russia imports technologies from Finland.


Prospect of joining NATO


When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported rebels in the Donbas region, Finland increased military cooperation and drills with NATO. In response to the war in Ukraine, Finland unprecedentedly formed a combined Brigade with Sweden, another neutral country, in the exercise drill in Norway. The government in Helsinki is currently preparing for the prospect of joining NATO, with widespread popular backing According to the Economist, in 2019, more than half of the people opposed NATO membership. However, in 2022, for the first time in history, the majority of the population chose to join.


However, the government is still careful in how to respond. Kremlin has already issued a warning regarding the matter, saying that ending neutrality would be retaliated with military and political consequences. Finnish membership in NATO may pose a greater threat than Ukraine's. The Gulf of Finland is controlled by Finland and Estonia. Any maritime travel from St. Petersburg will pass through that area. If the security alliance secured the strait, a sea blockade could paralyze the Russian city, crippling its trade and export. Furthermore, the current NATO border with Russia is 1,215 km long. If Finland joined NATO, its frontier would expand drastically, doubling the current borders, further surrounding Russia.


It is still earlier to say whether the Finnish government would immediately turn to NATO, but a response from the administration is likely to take place later this month. 

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