How Finland Approaches Its New NATO Role Is a Key Decision for the New President


Feb 14, 2024

Presidential candidate Alexander Stubb attends his election reception in Helsinki, Finland, February 11, 2024, photo by Lehtikuva/Emmi Korhonen via Reuters

Presidential candidate Alexander Stubb attends his election reception in Helsinki, Finland, February 11, 2024

Photo by Lehtikuva/Emmi Korhonen via Reuters

Finland's presidential election is complete, and Alexander Stubb is the winner. As the president holds an executive power to set the foreign and security policies, as well as commanding the military, NATO countries are watching closely to see which course their newfound ally will chart.

In the run-up to the election, three issues divided debate on defence policy: stationing foreign troops on Finnish territory; demilitarisation of Åland; and nuclear weapons policy. Of the three, the most divisive, and the one which could have the greatest impact on Finland's future role in NATO, is the nuclear weapons issue.

Stubbs' view is that, as Finland has joined NATO without any limiting conditions, it should be a full member. To him, that means not excluding NATO's preventive protection, which includes nuclear deterrence. He also states that “transport [of nuclear weapons] through Finland is not the same as permanent stationing,” which can indicate a willingness to alter Finland's' current legislation on nuclear energy, which forbids the transport, manufacture, possession, and detonation of nuclear charges in Finland.

A Possible Turning Point in Finnish Nuclear Policy

Accession to NATO was a significant step in a new direction for Finland. In the wake of the Cold War, Finland was one of the few countries in Europe not to abandon and dismantle its national defence capability to pursue a 'peace dividend.' With the country's history of invasion and experience from World War II, and its 1,340 km–long border with Russia, an awareness of proximity to possible conflict is omnipresent in Finnish culture. This awareness has been maintained by Finland's consistent tradition of self-reliance: formally, through its comprehensive security strategy and informally, through 'sisu,' an exceptionally Finnish mindset of grit, willpower, and hardiness. A previous policy of no military alliances accentuated this sense of self-reliance. Joining NATO broke this tradition, signifying the transformative impact that the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has had on Finnish national security policy.

In the wake of Russia's invasion, Finland—together with Sweden—seems to have decided that bilateral cooperation agreements and EU membership were not sufficient guarantors of security and took a major leap to join the NATO alliance. However, with the comfort that the alliance provides comes a set of challenges and dilemmas.

Having never possessed or sought to acquire nuclear weapons, Finnish policymakers have not yet formed strong views on the matter of nuclear doctrine.

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One such challenge is the option of solidifying the deterrence available to the country through involvement in NATO nuclear sharing. Having never possessed or sought to acquire nuclear weapons, Finnish policymakers have not yet formed strong views on the matter of nuclear doctrine. Coupled with current legislation forbidding nuclear weapons, this seemingly makes nuclear weapons policy a non-issue for politicians. However, as change to the Finnish Nuclear Energy Act is already underway, the new president will have a unique opportunity, if he chooses to take it, to change Finland's longstanding approach to nuclear deterrence.

Full Nuclear Participation May Be Unpopular, but Isn't Necessary

Recent opinion polls (PDF) tell us that the Finnish public trusts the country's military capabilities, strongly supports NATO cooperation, and believes defence policy is well managed. Nine out of ten think that NATO allies would support Finland and that Finland should support other allies when necessary.

However, when it comes to the subject of nuclear weapons, the public exhibits a less positive attitude. Just over 40 percent of Finns support Finland taking part in NATO nuclear weapons exercises, while over 70 percent are against stationing nuclear weapons in Finland and 60 percent oppose them being transported through the country. Considering Finland's longstanding commitment to nonproliferation, changing public opinion might be a challenge. However, it may not be necessary.

NATO has a dual nuclear doctrine, consisting of nuclear deterrence policy and force on one hand and nuclear arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation on the other. NATO's strategic concept emphasises that both parts are essential in maintaining strategic stability. Currently, the security alliance is keen to expand the involvement of member countries in various aspects of nuclear deterrence policy, from providing medical care and sharing intelligence to supplying air defence systems and long-range and dual-capable aircrafts, meaning the kind of aircraft that can also carry nuclear weapons for strike missions. Allies can also support the nuclear doctrine through political means (PDF).

There is no pressure on Finland to participate fully in nuclear deterrence activities, then, as every country in the alliance has a different approach and contribution. Of the Nordic NATO allies, Norway and Denmark have also historically had a reserved attitude towards nuclear weapons. These countries have imposed voluntary restrictions on the deployment of nuclear weapons on their territory, for domestic political reasons, but have not completely opted out of involvement in the support of nuclear weapons operations.

Decisions for Alexander Stubb to Make

The newly elected president of Finland now has priorities to consider and several nuclear weapons policy options to choose from. A good choice for top priority could be to increase public and policymakers' understanding (PDF) of the political, technical and military aspects of nuclear weapons. In terms of options for nuclear weapons policy doctrine, at one end of the spectrum lies a highly ambitious approach: active participation in planning and consultations, conventional operational contribution, and participation in nuclear sharing arrangements. This path could even eventually lead to Finland hosting nuclear forces on its territory. At the lower-ambition end of the scale is the option to participate in planning, but with no active policy.

Finland's contribution to NATO should be based on Finland's strengths, complimenting the country's and the alliance's current capability gaps.

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A middle ground between these two extremes could see Finland getting involved in planning, consultations, and sharing information with NATO allies, but not actively handling nuclear weapons. Continued commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament is a given for all options.

These different routes would, of course, lead to different outcomes. Speculatively, any move involving changing the current law to allow nuclear weapons on Finland's territory would signal an all-embracing commitment to the alliance. By taking this posture, Finland could encourage other Nordic nations to follow suit, thereby strengthening regional allies' collective nuclear deterrence. However, Russia could potentially react to this, perhaps beyond the hybrid operations Finland is currently experiencing, as escalation in the Nordic-Baltic region has not been dismissed as a possibility. The low-ambition route may be a sensible start while Finland builds knowledge and understanding on nuclear weapons and charters its long-term course of action.

Whatever path the new president takes, Finland's contribution to NATO should be based on Finland's strengths, complimenting the country's and the alliance's current capability gaps. NATO membership does not necessarily mean moving away from the country's established belief in nonproliferation; on the contrary, arms control is one of the areas in which Finland is expected to be an active ally (PDF). This is also an opportunity for the country to venture into a new political landscape, acquiring new capabilities while expanding its role in the defence of northern Europe. With sufficient 'sisu,' anything is possible for Finland.

Katja Fedina is a senior analyst at RAND Europe.

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