- Finland’s admission to NATO this month doubles the length of NATO’s border with Russia.
- Russian leaders have downplayed the significance of their neighbor joining the alliance.
- But Moscow is making moves that indicate concern about NATO gaining new territory nearby.
Finland joining NATO has created an unwelcome prospect for Moscow: a potential adversary on Russia’s sensitive northern border.
Finland’s admission this month doubles the length of NATO’s border with Russia and does so in a region with important Russian military outposts. Russian leaders have downplayed the significance of Finland joining NATO, but as the alliance gets closer and the Arctic becomes more accessible, Moscow is making moves that indicate growing concern about a part of its frontier that has long been calm.
The Grand Duchy of Finland was a part of the Russian Tsarist Empire from 1809 until 1917 but became an independent nation in the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Two decades later, Finland had perhaps its finest hour in the Winter War, in which the outnumbered and outgunned Finns held off a clumsy Red Army invasion before agreeing to terms with the Soviets.
After allying with Nazi Germany, Finland renewed the fighting in the Continuation War, which ended in an armistice in 1944.
After World War II, the Kremlin could take comfort that at least its smaller neighbor had been “Finlandized,” a somewhat uncomplimentary Cold War term referring to Helsinki’s stance of strict neutrality in return for the Soviets not invading or interfering.
Even as Eastern Europe and Central Asia chafed under Soviet occupation, Finland remained a Western-oriented democracy just 100 miles from St. Petersburg and Murmansk.
But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine scared not only Finland into joining NATO but also Sweden, which hasn’t fought a war since Napoleon was alive. (Sweden’s application has yet to be approved.) This boosts the alliance’s military, political, and economic power considerably and confronts Russia with the prospect of even more NATO forces on its border.
“There will be more integration” between the new members and the rest of NATO, said Dmitry Gorenburg, a researcher with the Center for Naval Analyses think tank in a March 24 podcast. “There’ll be more intelligence-sharing. There is the possibility of NATO forces and infrastructure being deployed to those countries. And that’s something that does concern Russia.”
Which brings up the inevitable question: How will Russia respond? So far, the Kremlin has downplayed Finland’s NATO accession, perhaps out of caution or embarrassment, Gorenburg said. “What they’ve always said is, ‘this is fine, we don’t care. It’s your decision. But if NATO infrastructure is developed or if the US or other NATO member states’ forces are deployed to the new members, that will be a concern for us and we will react.'”
Moscow reiterated that message after Finland officially joined the alliance, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying, “Naturally, this forces us to take countermeasures to ensure our own tactical and strategic security.”
Exactly what that reaction will be isn’t clear. So far, Moscow has announced plans to increase the size of its military, beef up its forces in northwestern Russia, and reestablish the Leningrad Military District, which covers part of that region, including the Kola Peninsula, and was merged with other districts in 2010.
“The problem for them is that right now, it’s quite unclear that they have the wherewithal to develop those new forces given that they’re fighting in Ukraine,” Gorenburg said. “But they’ve at least broadcast that intention.”
Russia has long experience in Arctic operations and had developed specialized units and equipment for operations near Finland. Indeed, Russia has been building up Arctic bases and forces for years, a move that other countries, including the US and China, have followed, drawn by the prospect of more accessible Arctic resources and shipping routes.
Previously, the Atlantic Ocean was the Russian military’s focus and the Arctic was its third priority, according to Vice Adm. Daniel Dwyer, commander of the US Navy’s Second Fleet, which reactivated in 2018 in response to Russian activity in the Arctic and North Atlantic.
In July 2022, however, Russia released a new maritime doctrine that raised the priority of the Arctic and pledged to protect those waters “by all means,” Dwyer said during a Wilson Center event on February 9.
“Now Russia has realized that the Arctic is the key to their to their economy and to their defense, as they see the receding of the Arctic ice cap,” Dwyer added.
Since 2013, Russia has built six bases, 14 airfields, and 16 deepwater ports in the high north, as well as 14 icebreakers, according to Adm. Daryl Caudle, head of US Fleet Forces Command. Russia’s Arctic forces also field an array of powerful weapons, including submarine- and land-based cruise missiles and air-launched hypersonic weapons.
“They have strong anti-access and access-denial capability that reaches from the Arctic to the Baltic to the GIUK gap,” Caudle said at the Wilson Center event, referring to the chokepoint between Greenland, Iceland, and the UK.
But Russian units trained for Arctic ice are being chewed up in Ukrainian mud.
“They ended up throwing ground forces from the entire country into this fight, including from the East, from the Pacific region, and from the North,” Gorenburg said. “There are specialized Arctic brigades and naval infantry brigades and that kind of thing that have been fighting and getting ground up in Ukraine. So the ground forces component of that northwest force grouping has been significantly degraded.”
Even if Russia had more troops to threaten Finland, the overall balance has changed. Under Article 5 of NATO’s charter, an attack against one member “shall be considered an attack against them all.” If Putin wants to punish Finland, he risks war with NATO. That’s a gamble he will be reluctant to take.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.