How Putin's NATO Nightmare Became a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Russian President Vladimir Putin is getting exactly what he has been railing against after Finland announced it would seek NATO membership.

The foreign ministry in Moscow was swift to vow "retaliatory steps" to Helsinki's pledge on Thursday that it would move to join the alliance "without delay," ending decades of neutrality that have shaped ties between the two countries who share an 810-mile border.

Putin used the encroachment of NATO towards Russia's borders as part of the justification for his invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Now his actions have galvanized the alliance in potentially raising its membership by two—Sweden is also likely to follow suit—and giving Putin the very thing he said he did not want.

"It's the fundamental paradox of Russian action, that the result is precisely the opposite of what President Putin wanted to achieve," said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at London's Chatham House think tank.

"This was clear even before he launched his invasion of Ukraine, because he wanted to intimidate his neighbors into not joining NATO. But military intimidation just demonstrated for them how important it was to be members of the alliance," he told Newsweek.

"Every single time Russia throws its weight around and makes direct threats to Sweden and Finland, about NATO membership, support for membership ticks up."

"It's a symptom of President Putin's detachment from reality and his inability to assess the real state of affairs in the world around him, either because of his own paranoia, or because he is fed inaccurate information by his circle," Giles added.

A tricky balancing act has been a feature of relations between Russia and the neighbor it once occupied before Helskinki declared independence after World War I.

The Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939 in what was known as the Winter War. It was followed by a short-lived peace treaty in 1940 before hostilities resumed the following year. In 1948, Finland signed the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union recognizing its desire to remain neutral.

Finlandization

Katie Laatikainen, a political science professor at New York's Adelphi University, said Cold War Finland was independent and democratic, with the freedom to trade and travel across Western Europe—"but its foreign relations and especially security policy were constrained by Russian interests."

"The treaty stipulated a strict neutrality with the result that Finland could not join western European organizations like NATO or even what became the European Union," she told Newsweek in March. Finland joined the EU in 1995.

Before Putin's invasion, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested the post-World War II deal between Helsinki and Moscow could be a blueprint to defuse tensions between Kyiv and Moscow.

"Finlandization," in which peace is swapped for a foreign sway over defense policy, was cemented by the Paasikivi-Kekkonen doctrine—named after former Finnish President Juho Kusti Paasikivi and his successor Urho Kekkonen.

However, Laatikainen said, "most Finns, based on their experience of the 1948 Agreement, have reacted very negatively to this model being applied to another European state in the 21st century."

Meanwhile, Giles said that Finlandization was out of date "well before the start of the Ukraine invasion."

"Finland was an example of a nation which was fully integrated with Western security structures, showing that NATO membership is not the defining factor for ensuring your security when plugged into Europe as a whole.

"The idea of Finland being a neutral country hasn't applied in decades," he added.

Given Russia's actions in Ukraine, support within Finland for joining the defense pact has jumped to a record 76 percent, according to a poll published by Finland's public broadcaster YLE.

"There has been a massive change in public opinion. The 24th of February was the turning point," said Johanna Vuorelma, a researcher at the Centre for European Studies at the University of Helsinki, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

She said that joining NATO will mean Finland will have "a powerful set of allies." But there is still fraught political debate over whether joining the bloc will increase tension in the Baltic region, especially during the interim between applying for membership and actually receiving it. Russia has repeatedly said it would respond severely to Finland joining the alliance.

"On the Finnish side, we would want to normalize the relations as soon as possible," Vuorelma told Newsweek. "We will always have Russia as a neighbor."

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin waves during the Victory Day Parade at Red Square on May 9, 2022, in Moscow, Russia. Finland has said it would seek to join NATO as it responds to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Getty Images