Finnish Foreign Affairs Minister Pekka Haavisto (L) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R), as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg looks on, Brussels, Belgium, April 4, 2023 (Johanna Geron/AFP/Getty Images)

“Never again alone!”

The phrase was coined by the Finnish general Adolf Ehrnrooth after the 1939–1940 Winter War that started with the Soviet invasion of Finland.

For Finns, it has been the slogan of a small nation resisting the full might of its large neighbor’s military.

More than 80 years later, it resonates again. Listen and you will understand why Finland has made the historic decision to join NATO.

Before Putin’s Invasion

Finland — until 1917 an autonomous part of the Russian Empire — retained its independence in the Winter War and in the subsequent Continuation War of 1941 to 1944. But it had to cede about 10% of its territory to the Soviet Union, relocate more than 400,000 inhabitants, and pay large reparations.

So when Vladimir Putin’s Russia emulated Stalin’s Soviet Union with the attempt to overrun a neighbor, the significance of the invasion of Ukraine was felt from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.

Less than three months later, on May 17, Finland applied to join NATO, coordinating the candidacy with its neighbor Sweden. With the request to join the military alliance, the two Nordic countries abandoned long-held policies of non-alignment.

Yet the shift was not as dramatic as it seemed. Both Finland and Sweden have been official partners of NATO since 1994 and Enhanced Opportunities Partners — the Alliance’s highest-tiered partnership status — since 2014, participating in military exercises. The armed forces of the two countries also have a high level of interoperability with NATO structures. In 1995, Finland joined the European Union, further raising the issue of NATO accession.

Still, public support remained relatively low, hovering around 20%. Many Finns feared that Russia, with whom Finland shares a 1340-km (833-mile) border, would perceive Helsinki’s NATO membership as an act of provocation. Particularly in the political left, there
was also uneasiness about the United States’ leading role within the Military Alliance, as well as concern that as a NATO member Finland would be inadvertently drawn into the great power conflict between Moscow and Washington. There was also fear that Finland might be
pressed to participate in armed conflicts with a questionable moral justification. The ”NATO option” remained the official line: there was no need for full NATO membership, but the option of joining was retained should the security situation change.

Finland maintained defense readiness. Unlike many Western European countries, it retained a conscription army with an estimate wartime strength of 280,000 soldiers and 870,000 reservists in a country of about 5.6 million people.

The Catalyst of Russia’s Ukraine Invasion

Finns had been alarmed in December 2021 when Vladimir Putin demanded Western guarantees that NATO would not expand eastwards. So the public’s attitude shifted dramatically after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In January 2022, a month before the launch of Moscow’s assault, 43% of Finns were still against NATO membership and 30% in favor. By March, more than half were in favor of NATO membership, and by May, 2/3rds of the country accepted the abandonment of neutrality.

In a press conference in May, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö addressed the Russian leader, “You caused this. Look in the mirror.”

In Sweden, support for NATO accession also rose significantly after Putin’s invasion. In January 2021, only 33% of Swedes were in favor. The number was 49% by March 2022.

A Turkish Barrier

In both Sweden and Finland there was hopeful optimism that the accession process would proceed speedily, given the “grey area” between submission of applications and confirmed of security guarantees under NATO’s Article 5. The Russian Foreign Ministry had warned that Helsinki’s accession would cause “serious damage to bilateral Russian-Finnish relations” and declared Moscow would be “forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature”.

On May 12, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the accession process would be ”smooth and swift”. But a day later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned that Ankara was ”not favourable” towards either Finland and Sweden, labelling them as ”guest houses for terrorists”.

The Erdoğan Government, through State media, accused Finland of supporting its enemies. It said the Finns were hosting ”sympathizers” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought Turkish security forces for almost 40 yers, and as well as several educational organisations linked to the exiled Fethullah Gülen. Sweden was slammed for an allegedly close relationship with the PKK’s Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

On May 16, hours after Stockholm confirmed its intention to apply for NATO membership, Turkey announced that it would not approve either Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

Turkey’s resistance baffled the Finnish leadership, as President Sauli Niinistö and Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto had held discussions with Turkish counterparts. After a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu in early March 2022, Haavisto said the Turks’ message was ”positive”.

Stockholm mood was equally perplexed. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said that she had been in conversation with Çavuşoğlu only two days before Erdoğan’s rejection: “We have a very good and constructive relationship, and nothing like this has been presented to us.”

The Turkish President said he expected Sweden and Finland to ”stand in solidarity with Turkey” in its ”fight against terrorism”, with Stockholm’s ”concrete and serious steps” about the ”PKK and its Iraqi and Syrian offshoots” to end “financial and arms support”. Ankara sought the extradition of Kurdish activists and the lifting of Finnish and Swedish arms export bans in place since 2019.

Most of the Finnish media saw an attempt by Erdoğan, pursuing re-election in May 2023, to exploit the situation and to milk concessions. His party’s support had dropped to a historic low of 23.3%, and inflation had hit a 20-year high of almost 70%. Commentators also posited that the President was seeking leverage for the US to lift its ban on F-35 fighter jets to Ankara.

Both Finnish and Swedish outlets likened Erdoğan to a shopkeeper in a bazaar, rather than regarding him as an international statesman. Helsinki and Stockholm were being rudely treated, given their support for Turkey accession to the European Union in 1999.

Facing a Turkish — and Kurdish — Reality

Had the Finns paid more attention to the development of the relationship between Turkey and Sweden, Ankara’s reaction would have been less of a surprise.

While Finland has 15,000 Kurdish speakers, Sweden has a politically active Kurdish community of about 100,000 people. While the Kurdish language was officially prohibited in Turkey in the 1980s, Kurdish immigrants in Sweden worked actively to preserve their culture and language. They organised cultural festivals and established foundations as well as Kurdish-language TV and radio channels. In Turkey, no Kurdish-language books were published in the 1980s; in Sweden, about 400 were printed between 1971 and 1997. In Turkey, no Kurdish-language books were published in the 1980s; in Sweden, about 400 were printed between 1971 and 1997. In the 2018 Parliamentary election, six of the 20 Kurdish candidates were elected to the Swedish Parliament.

In 1985, Sweden was the first country after Turkey to list the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK as a terrorist organization. But Dr Paul Levin, Director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies, notes that there always been a ”great deal of sympathy for the Kurdish cause”, both among politicians and the general population.

This put Stockholm in Erdoğan’s crosshairs. In April 2016, when the PKK’s Syrian branch PYD opened its office in Stockholm, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu expressed ”uneasiness” to Swedish counterpart Margot Wallström. Turkey repeatedly protested Sweden’s financial support for the Kurdish Autonomous Administration — estimated in 2021 at 100 million Swedish Kronor ($12 million) — in northeast Syria.. In April 2021, Ankara summoned the Swedish Ambassador in Ankara, after the Swedish Defense and Foreign Ministers held teleconferences with senior leaders of the PYD’s military wing, the People’s Defence Units (YPG). There was further Turkish outrage in December 2021 at Foreign Minister Ann Linde’s photo with the PYD co-chair of the Executive Council of the Autonomous Administration, Ilham Ahmad — especially after the Swedish minister shared it on Twitter.

Finding A Solution

Initially, there was little public support in Finland for accession without Sweden, should the opportunity arise. Finns pride themselves, above all, on being loyal friends and allies.

There was also little public support in the two Nordic countries for bowing to Erdoğan demands. Asked in June 2022 whether Finland should ”amend its legislation or give up on certain principles, if it enabled Finland to join NATO”, 70% of respondents said No.

Instead, progress was achieved at the end of June 2022 through a ”trilateral memorandum on cooperation on counter-terrorism” at a NATO summit in Madrid. Sweden and Finland pledged ”not to provide support to the PYD or the YPG”; to avoid arms embargoes against Turkey; ”to consider” Ankara’s ”pending deportation requests”; and ”to investigate and halt” any PKK funding activities. Turkey agreed to lift its veto on Swedish and Finnish accession, allowing the two to obtain NATO invitee status.

In September, Stockholm announced it was reversing the ban on arms exports to Turkey. A right-wing government, even more willing to accommodate Turkish demands than its predecessor, was elected the following month. Ahead of his visit to Turkey in early November, Sweden’s new Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said the Government would distance itself from the PYD and YPG due to their proximity to the PKK. Sweden also continued to strengthen anti-terrorism legislation.

But that progress was abruptly halted on January 21, 2023, with a protest in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm. Demonstrators chanted anti-Muslim slogans, and a Swedish-Danish far-right figure, Rasmus Paludan, burned a copy of the Qur’an. In a separate, pro-Kurdish protest close to Stockholm’s city hall, members of an activist group called “the Swedish Solidarity Committee for Rojava”, hung an effigy of Erdoğan from a lamppost.

Angry protesters gathered in front of the Swedish consulate in Istanbul, and the Turkish Government cancelled a planned visit by Sweden’s Defense Minister and summoned the Swedish Ambassador. Turkish opposition leaders joined Erdoğan in condemnation, with XXX tweeting:

The inhumane attack on the Holy Quran in front of our embassy in Stockholm is unacceptable. We know well the purpose of this disrespect that will hurt billions of Muslims. [We] condemn this fascism which is the pinnacle of hate crime.

Erdoğan withdrew the possibility of Turkish backing for Swedish accession: “If you love members of terrorist organizations and enemies of Islam so much and protect them, then we advise you to seek their support for your countries’ security.”

So at the end of January, Jussi Halla-aho, the chair of Parliament’s Foreign affairs committee, said Finland had never committed itself to joining NATO “together with Sweden”. Mika Aaltola, Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs suggested that, if needed, proceeding without Sweden “might be a good idea”. Retired Maj. Gen. Pekka Toveri said Finland “shouldn’t jeopardise its national security” because of “Sweden’s problems” — Helsinki could do more for Swedish accession from inside the alliance.

Public opinion also appeared to have gradually shifted, with a majority now agreeing that Finland’s NATO accession “should not depend on Sweden’s timetable”.

By mid-February, NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg said Finland and Sweden “joining together” was not the “main priority”. A month later, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö travelled to Ankara to meet Erdoğan. Turkey soon announced it was dropping opposition to Helsinki’s candidacy. At the end of March, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary — another country whose support for the Nordic states had remained uncertain — also ratified Finland’s NATO bid.

Thus Finland became the 31st member of the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation on April 4, 2023 — the 74th anniversary of the bloc’s creation.

A Common Defense

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 had proven the catalyst that led Finland to re-evaluate its security and defence policies and eventually to abandon its long-held policy of military non-alignment. While the Turkish Government’s resistance did cause some gray hairs in Helsinki, the NATO bid was, in the end, ratified in record time.

Given Finland’s pre-existing close cooperation with NATO and its integration into Western structures through membership of the European Union, little appeared to change when the Finnish flag was hoisted along with the flags of other NATO members at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels — even if for many left-leaning Finns, the idea of their country as a member of a US-led military alliance is going to take some time to get used to.

The greatest change is that the Nordic state is now part of NATO’s common defense and covered by the security guarantees. For the Finns, the immediate effect of this appears to have been a greater peace of mind: According to a recent poll, 75% of Finns now feel a “greater sense of security” than before NATO membership.

Never again alone.