In Johan Ludvig Runeberg's The Tales of Ensign Staal, Finland's national epic about the 1808-09 war between Sweden (of which Finland was then part) and Russia, a hapless young man named Sven Dufva informs his father he's joining the army. To the surprise of his father and everyone else, Dufva proceeds to become a brave soldier on whom his regiment learns to rely in battle.
These days, Finland—which shares an 800-mile border with Russia—has collectively proved itself such a brave soldier that NATO is expected to receive its membership application with open arms. As Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced this week, Finland will decide whether to apply within weeks.
The announcement is an ironic twist on 20th-century history. After World War II, having thwarted the advance of the mighty Red Army in the Winter War of 1939-40 and then seeking to recapture the territory the Soviets eventually claimed, Finland had to settle for neutrality imposed by Moscow. But to almost everyone's surprise, it succeeded in this degrading task, too, building up armed forces that were highly capable and were energetically supported by civil society—while at the same time managing to maintain dialogue with Moscow.
This arrangement, which non-Finns often (to Finns' annoyance) call "Finlandisation," was seen in Moscow as an acceptable compromise. These days, Russian President Vladimir Putin—long paranoid about phantom NATO encroachment on his southeastern border—seems to want such an arrangement for Ukraine, but his aggression there has prompted a dramatic shift in Helsinki. Finland now seems ready to abandon its famed neutrality once and for all, a move that would put real NATO forces on Russia's northwestern border.
On April 13, members of the Finnish parliament received a national security report that launched their deliberations about whether Finland should apply for NATO membership. Many of them, though, had already made up their minds. Indeed, 112 of the 200 members of parliament responded to a new poll by Finland's national broadcaster, Yleisradio, known as YLE. Of them, 71 said they'd support a Finnish NATO membership bid; only six said they would not. On the same day, Marin announced—at a press conference in Stockholm with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson—that Finland would decide "within weeks" whether to submit an application.
In various NATO capitals, meanwhile, governments have already signalled they'd welcome Finland to the alliance. And what's not to like about the prospective applicant? It has rock-solid democratic and good-governance credentials. Moreover, the Finns bring crucial military capabilities to the table—especially when it comes to intelligence.
Declarations regarding Finland's value to NATO are, in fact, becoming so common that it's taken as a fact that Helsinki would, on balance, be a military asset to the alliance despite NATO having to defend an 800-mile border with Russia. But even though virtually every NATO member state seems excited by the prospect of Finnish entry into the alliance, what Finland would bring to the table does matter.
"Our greatest asset is that from the earliest days of us looking at NATO membership decades ago we knew that we'd take part in keeping this part of Europe safe," said retired Adm. Juhani Kaskeala, Finland's chief of defence until 2009. "We knew that we'd be contributors rather than consumers of security in Europe."
Until now, Finland has been a contributor of security in Europe by guarding its border with Russia—and as a NATO member it would put this colossal capability at the alliance's disposal. "The greatest benefit we'd bring to NATO is really that we'd take care of the border with Russia," Kaskeala said. "I don't want to brag, but our military capabilities should definitely be taken seriously."
On the surface of it, it might sound as if Kaskeala is bragging. The Finnish Defence Forces employ a relatively modest 12,000 personnel, and Finland spends only around 2 percent of GDP on defence. The country's strong border guard, though, doesn't count as part of those figures (and unlike many other countries, Finland doesn't count military pensions as defence spending).
Even more importantly, the 12,000 official forces are backed up by conscripts; some three-quarters of all Finnish men complete their military service. (Men with physical or mental ailments preventing them to do military service are exempt, as are the small number of Finns who are conscientious objectors.) Upon completing their military service, all conscripts except those who join the active-duty military become reservists.
"The Finnish Army remains pretty exceptional in Europe," Finnish defence analyst Stefan Forss noted. "We train large cohorts of conscripts each year, and what they're expected to master is the defence against a major Russian attack. That has been the focus of their training even during the past few decades, when virtually every other country switched to crisis management using small units. At our defence college, the general staff officers are still trained to lead brigades and corps."
As for the conscripts, thanks especially to training that has in recent years undergone a major transformation to enhance soldier motivation, most ex-conscripts willingly do their part for the country's security as reservists. In a survey from last December, before Russia's intention to invade Ukraine was clear, 73 percent of Finns surveyed supported maintaining military service, while only 7 percent advocated fully professional armed forces. Such citizen involvement in national security—and popular support of it—would be an asset to NATO.
Another considerable skill that Finland would bring to the alliance is its military intelligence, the accumulation of 105 years of watching and interpreting the mighty country next door. I asked retired Maj. Gen. Pekka Toveri, in charge of Finland's military intelligence until 2020, to name other Finnish strengths. "Our army is big for a country our size, with massive artillery and strong armour, but naturally this is not a very deployable force," he said. "Parts of the army can be used in our areas near Finland, as we have shown in different NATO exercises."
Indeed, Finland and Sweden regularly exercise with their NATO neighbour Norway, which has further increased the two nonmembers' integration. "We have excellent aerial surveillance, which we plug into NATO when asked, for example during Cold Response 2022," Kaskeala noted, referring to a recent joint exercise. "And there are exercises in the far north on an almost weekly basis, involving Finland, Sweden, and Norway, and each time we plug the system in. It would be easy to do it permanently."
Among Finland's other highlights: excellent combat aircraft and the national defence course. The latter is a highly prestigious three-week residential course in which standout performers from all sectors of society are taught the tenets of the country's national security. The result: leaders across society who know about national security and, crucially, know one another.
As countries try to stave off hostile activities, having top corporate managers who understand national security and their respective organizations' role in it is indispensable. Imagine how Mark Zuckerberg might alter his view on Facebook's role in society if he had the chance to attend such a course. Indeed, imagine how NATO member states could involve the private sector in helping to keep their countries safe simply by teaching rising managers about national security.
Sweden, if it too decides to join NATO, would bring strengths including a navy that is playing a crucial role in the Baltic Sea. In fact, Sweden's navy is not just comparatively large but also has submarine-hunting experience that would serve NATO well. (Remember the 2014 hunt?) But while Finland has boldly raised its head above the parapet, Sweden's governing Social Democrats have merely announced they'll conduct a "security review," though it's obvious even to NATO-skeptical Social Democrats that it would be foolish for Sweden to remain outside the alliance on its own.
In The Tales of Ensign Staal, Dufva is given the kamikaze-like assignment of defending a bridge against advancing Russians. Heroically, he takes them on. "Soon the enemy found his attack obliterated / The Russian troop turned around and slowly withdrew," Runeberg writes.
As Finland approaches the NATO door, the obvious question is: Can its population be expected to support its armed forces' bravery not just at home but in faraway NATO member states as well? That's the question the country's parliamentarians will have to answer. In the near and not-so-near future, though, crises are more likely to arise at its own border and on its own roads and bridges. Finland needs NATO at very same moment NATO needs it.
Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defence against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the UK National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.