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Finnish Security and European Security Policy

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank.

September 27, 1996

37 Pages

Brief Synopsis

In 1995 Finland joined the European Union (EU). This action culminated several years of a fundamental reorientation of Finnish security policy as Finland moved from the neutrality imposed on it by the Soviet Union to a policy with a priority on European integration through the European Union. Finland, in joining the EU, has retained its independent defense and security posture, even as it seeks to strengthen its standing abroad and gain added leverage, through the EU, for dealing with Russia. Finland's odyssey indicates much about two fundamental issues in European security: coping with Russia's crises, and the interrelationship between the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as providers of security for small states in Europe.

Furthermore, Finland's proximity to Russia and the difficult history of Fenno-Russian relations have imposed on Finnish policymakers the need for penetrating and sober analysis of Finland's and Europe's security situation. Therefore, Finland's evolution from an imposed neutrality to overt participation in European integration merits our careful scrutiny and attention.


When Finland joined the European Union (EU) in 1995, it completed a fundamental transformation of its security policy. Until the end of the Cold War, Finland's position in Europe derived from its treaty with the Soviet Union which imposed neutrality upon it and debarred Finland from any security cooperation with Scandinavia, Western Europe, and the United States. The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union allowed Finland to move towards European integration through the EU while preserving its own independent defense posture. Other reasons for moving towards the EU stemmed from Finland's new economic vulnerability to trends in the European economy, and its determination that current security challenges no longer included the Cold War threat of military invasion. Rather, current dangers involved the risk of a collapse of Russia's social or political infrastructure which could then confront Helsinki with challenges that it could not meet alone.

Therefore, Finland needed to find ways of associating with other states to meet those nonmilitary challenges and, at the same time, terminate its erstwhile political isolation by participating in European integration. It chose the EU over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) because the expansion of NATO to its border would have alarmed Moscow and because Helsinki viewed the threats to Europe as being essentially nonmilitary, and thus outside NATO's mandate or purview. Also, as Finland emerged from the Cold War, it found itself exposed to severe economic dislocations, if not crises, that forced integration upon both it and Sweden (whose international economic lead Finland had to follow).

But, by opting for EU and European integration, Finland stimulated fears at home that it was abandoning its reliance on self-defense and chasing what might prove to be an elusive form of indirect political guarantees in future crises. Other domestic groups worried that Finland might be drawn into European crises of others' making where it had no say in decisionmaking since it was outside the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). As a result, the decision to join the EU forced a major domestic debate which was won in 1994 by supporters of membership, and which also led to publication of a White Paper on Finnish security in 1995.

The Finnish Government published the 1995 White Paper to educate Finnish elites and masses as to the purposes behind Finland's policy and in order to give it a formal public statement. The White Paper retains Finland's commitment to independent defense. It also reflects Finland's support for a strengthened EU/WEU capability for crisis management, peace operations, and for dealing with the challenges posed by Russia's current crisis. The White Paper lists the threats that could engage Finland due to Russia's crisis. These threats pertain mainly to the possible breakdown of socio-political order in Russia, the consequences of which would rapidly spread towards Finland and the Baltic states while overwhelming those states' ability to confront those challenges.

The White Paper both reaffirmed and carried forward the policy perspectives that had developed in 1992-1994 as Finland prepared for accession to the EU. It also reflected Finnish policymakers' belief that EU membership opened the way to overcome Finland's prior political isolation and even attain indirect security guarantees. At the same time, Finland preserved its independent defense capability.

But by 1995, when the White Paper came out, other Finnish statements indicated a belief that the Western European Union (WEU), the military arm, so to speak, of the EU, could become an institution devoted to peace operations and crisis management and that Finland could safely associate with the WEU for such operations. The WEU, combined with NATO's Partnership for Peace program that began in 1994, could become vehicles for Finland's military integration with Europe and progress towards achieving real, as opposed to indirect, security guarantees from Europe and even, possibly, from the United States.

Finland has apparently come around to advocating this position. It participates in the Partnership for Peace program and accepts the EU/WEU as a security provider for instances where peacemaking or peacekeeping forces are needed or for purely political or economic issues. At the same time, Finland rejects the idea that the WEU could be a parallel pillar or alternative to NATO. As for self-defense, Finland remains as strongly committed as before to providing its own robust self-defense against threats to its integrity or sovereignty. One reason for Helsinki's position is its belief that Finnish adhesion to the WEU would again unnecessarily provoke Russia since Russia has clearly indicated its apprehension about Finnish membership in any European military alliance system.

However, Finland has crafted its evolving position with such care that if its perspective on its role in European security issues is accepted abroad, then Finland could come as close as possible to NATO membership without formal membership in it. Similarly Finland could come as close as possible to real political, if not necessarily defense guarantees from either the WEU or even NATO in the future. Its objectives are to maximize Finnish room for maneuver and flexibility, while avoiding any directly provocative actions against Moscow. Thus self-defense remains the foundation of its position in Europe even as Helsinki aspires to membership in the overall process of European integration.

Finland's subtle and evolving policy represents a substantial departure from its previous, Cold War posture; this is especially true in regard to NATO membership. Since avoiding conflict and direct confrontation with Russia are Finland's top priorities, and NATO expansion would spark such confrontation, Finland must balance deterrence against Russia with reassurance that it will not become a hostile base for anti-Russian activities and the need to pursue European integration further (to secure itself against nonmilitary threats and gain support if such threats do emerge). For Finland, therefore, NATO expansion should take place with maximum transparency, consultation, and gradualness so that Finland does not become "a front-line state."

Similar goals apply to Finland's relationship with the Baltic states. Finland's nuanced approach to Russia is not always appreciated in those states whose emotional recollections of Soviet/Russian oppression distort their policies. But, Finland is working with them and other Nordic and Western states to relieve sources of tension and subject them to international mediation processes, and to bring the Baltic states into Europe in a nonprovocative fashion that emulates Finland's own odyssey. Just as Finland wants Russia integrated into as many European channels as possible, so, too, does it want the Baltic states equally enmeshed in those European networks as a means of preserving regional peace in the Baltic. To the degree that Baltic security issues are internationalized, peace remains secure, everyone is consulted, and the Baltic states are not left face to face with Russia.

Obviously not everyone will appreciate Finnish goals and perspectives which contradict the vision of the WEU as a "European pillar" that provides for Europe's defense as distinct from NATO. Nonetheless, Finland's policy and vision combines self-defense, a nonprovocative policy that sponsors Russia's integration into Europe, and Finland's own integration with Europe into a cohesive whole. For small states which must operate in the shadow of a status quo set by others and where subregional organizations cannot provide defense against potential threats, Finland might well become a model of how to proceed in building individual, regional, and even European security.

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