NATO and the Russian crisis: how Niinistö became a (real) president

Nisitö putinIt is not a secret that there has been a time when President Niinistö and Prime Minister Alexander Stubb were great supporters of the participation of Finland in NATO.

Now, it looks that they have chosen a “wait and see” doctrine. At a recent meeting of the parliamentary parties leaders, President Niinistö asked everybody to declare if they were in favour of a rapid request to participate in NATO. The somewhat embarrassed answers allegedly would have been “never”, “not really”, or “not just now”. So President Ninistö, who has a serious international experience, would have indicated that he considers that the case is closed, even if in the following days Prime Minister Stubb tried not to lose face by declaring in an interview on YLE that a referendum on NATO is still possible in some undefinite future.

Ninistö’s New Year’s presidential address is quite revealing from this point of view: ” Our Western partnership is one of the pillars of our security. Membership of the EU is an important security solution for Finland […]  Ever since I took office, I have stressed the importance of bilateral defence cooperation with Sweden. We are pursuing this together, step by step. Both governments are highly committed to the effort, and we are expecting new practical applications to emerge in the year now beginning […] . It goes without saying that we can always apply for NATO membership, if we wish to do so.”

The question of the NATO membership is not an easy one for Finland, and it is quite different from Sweden for example, which has no common border with Russia. Even if 30 % of Finnish people are in favour of a NATO membership (meaning that 70 % are not), it would be in the present situation quite difficult to take the risk, with the existing tensions and moreover the difficult situation in Russia. In addition, the economic difficulties linked to the drop of the energy prices aggravated by the sanctions decided in particular by the EU and the US are not making it a simple decision.

But in reality, as President Niinistö certainly knows, NATO’s membership is not so determinant for Finland.

The NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is an international alliance with 28 member states from North America and Europe plus Turkey. Article Five of the treaty states that if an armed attack occurs against one of the member states, it should be considered an attack against all members, and other members shall assist the attacked member by means in their power, with armed forces if necessary and possible.

There are analogies with the European Union Treaty of Lisbon which has strengthened the solidarity of the Member States in dealing with external threats by introducing a mutual defence clause (Article 42(7) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU)). This clause provides that if a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter on self-defense. As stated by President Niinistö in his New year’s address: “It is inconceivable that the EU would simply look on if the territorial integrity of one of its Member States were violated“.

What is little known is that the EU, which has developed in the last 15 years its own Common Security and Defence Policy, in particular for supporting attacked Member States, has an agreement with NATO (Berlin Plus agreement)  which  allows the EU to use NATO structures, mechanisms and assets to carry out military operations if NATO declines to act. This is already an element protecting Finland as it stands now, even if in the last years Finland has not developed its participation in defence cooperation in the EU, where mainly UK, France and Germany are involved.

The NATO forces in Europe are under American command, but they mainly consist in European troops, which is not bad because the military forces of the European Union  are able to face any Russian threat on the EU territory, except for the nuclear heads (8000 for Russia, 7 300 for the US and 525 for the EU) . We should remember that Russia’s annual defence expenses are reaching 76 billions dollars, against a total of 192 billions for the EU (and 131 for France, Germany and UK alone). It means that the equipment of the EU armies is largely at the level of Russia. A solid common EU defence associated with a good  cooperation with NATO is sufficient to dissuade Russia to attack. Risks may come however from the feeling that EU is not sufficiently united.

Another significant element is the fact that the tempo and diversity of operations and missions in which NATO is involved have increased since the early 1990s, and all NATO members are involved  in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Mediterranean, off the Horn of Africa and in Somalia. Some members are active in Lybia, but others have declined. And it has to be understood that if Turkey was attacked for example by Iran or Syria, all NATO country will support Turkey in what may be a quite large conflict. These operations are sometimes considered by some critics as a way to protect countries and regions providing oil to the West, when the protection of vulnerable populations is the official justification. However, the reality is that they cost billions of euros to participants, and they may cost their reputation for some countries who were not necessarily until now considered to be natural allies of the US.

These are certainly the reasons why Finnish politicians are relatively careful when discussing NATO membership, in addition to Russia’s more or less open threats of a third world war if Finland joins.

But in addition, the global situation with Russia would deserve something else than a debate about NATO. As Niinistö recently indicated, the Russian economic situation is particularly worrying, which may lead for troubles for the Russian leadership, and have consequences on Russia’s stability. There are internal fights in the Kremlin, with different groups which include Putin’s supporters and liberals, but also more nationalists groups who may, if they win, be more belligerent than the present government. This could be a bigger threat to Finland and Europe than the present government, in particular when Russia is a country who has almost always been at war during its whole  history.

And as a final conclusion, and as always when bad things happen, it would be interesting to define who benefits from the present situation. It is certain, from a global point of view, that the EU, once a possible rival for the US, and Russia, always considered as a threat by the US, are the ones suffering the most from the crisis, a lot more than the rest of the world. And Finland will be seriously hit by the sanctions and Russia’s reaction: in August 2014, the Finnish government published an expert report concluding that for 2014-2016, it will cost Finland 1 % of growth, 3,3 % of exports, and 0,6 % additional unemployment, before future aggravation of the sanctions.

For all these reasons, Finland would benefit strongly from a resolution of the crisis, and has no interest in aggravating the situation by discussing NATO. This is the doctrine  defined by President Niinistö, who seems to want to be very active in finding a solution with Putin (that he called on the 30/12)  and the EU. If he is successful, he will have shown that Finland needs a real president able to step up in difficult times.

Categories: Defence

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