“Posterity, stand here upon your ground and never rely on outside help,” reads the inscription on King’s Gate, the entrance to the imposing linked-island fortress of Suomenlinna in the Gulf of Finland, built in the eighteenth century, when Finland was part of Sweden. This dictum could be said to have guided Finnish foreign policy since the country won its independence from Russia in 1917, through World War II and the postwar period, when it fell back into Moscow’s orbit, and finally the post-Soviet era.
Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Finnish president Sauli Niinistö, now in the last year of his second six-year term, was still shocked by it when we met last August. “Catastrophe! Mental catastrophe!” he recalled. “Of course we knew from intelligence that the Russians might try something in the area of Donbas. But the fact that they were trying to invade the whole country!” It didn’t take long for Niinistö to recover from his shock. He told me that three days later “I ordered my staff to make a full report of the new strategic situation, including the procedure for becoming a full member of NATO”—a step he had been known to oppose. On May 12, in a joint statement with Prime Minister Sanna Marin, Niinistö recommended that Finland apply for full membership “without delay.”
The Finns fought two separate wars against the Soviet Union during World War II: the 1939–1940 Talvisota—the Winter War—in which they heroically resisted a Soviet invasion for 105 days, and the Continuation War of 1941–1944, in which they were co-belligerents with the Nazis.1 The invasion of Ukraine, which like the Winter War began with a botched blitzkrieg, clearly triggered a tectonic shift in public sentiment regarding NATO membership. Polls over the last decade indicated that no more than a quarter of Finns supported NATO membership, and that before the Ukraine war support had actually been dropping, reaching a low point of 17 percent in 2018. Then, in March 2022, a poll by Finland’s leading newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, showed 48 percent of the Finnish public supporting joining the alliance.
Ever since the collapse of the USSR and the end of Helsinki’s “special relationship” with Moscow—known pejoratively as “Finlandization”—under which Finland retained its democracy and benefited from Soviet trade in return for not criticizing the Kremlin, Helsinki had been moving closer to NATO and the West. Still, Finns were content, like their Swedish neighbors, to call themselves nonaligned. Membership in one pan-European club, the European Union, which they enthusiastically joined in 1995, was sufficient. There were other reasons for reticence, including residual anti-Americanism, a legacy of the failure of the then-neutral US to come to Finland’s aid during the Winter War.
In any case, if the country felt threatened, it always had “the NATO option,” as Niinistö called it. There has also always been a strain of the Finnish character that liked being at once part of Europe and apart from it, while acting as Russia’s broker with the West. It was a position that Niinistö’s imperious and controversial cold war predecessor Urho Kekkonen, who was president from 1956 to 1982, relished and unabashedly exploited.
No one has ever accused Niinistö, who continues to be one of the most popular presidents in Finnish history, of exploiting his access to the Kremlin. Nevertheless, as the Western leader who had the best relationship with Putin, he liked acting as a go-between, just as Kekkonen did between John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev during the 1961 Berlin Crisis, when JFK welcomed Kekkonen to the White House to help him understand the impetuous Soviet leader. “I get along with [Putin] very well,” Niinistö told me three years ago. “We can discuss issues very openly, even sensitive matters.” Niinistö didn’t hold back when he felt the need to criticize Moscow after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. “The Cossack takes everything that is loose,” he said in a speech that year. Still, there was a relationship, or at least a reasonable facsimile of one.
Actually, Niinistö told me last August, he had a presentiment of things to come in December 2021, when Putin warned Finland and Sweden not to join NATO:
You have to remember that in December, Russia announced that NATO had to close its doors and not admit any more members. That changed the whole position. Now Russia was closing the door for us. When he said that I knew the effect it would have on Finnish minds.
“The mask has come off and all one can see is the face of war,” the dismayed president said in a joint press conference with the equally flummoxed Marin on the morning of the Russian invasion. All at once the relative good feeling and trust between the two neighbors that had existed since the dissolution of the USSR ended. So did most remaining reservations on the part of the Finnish people about joining NATO. The revelation of the atrocities the Russians committed as they withdrew from Kyiv in the spring was also decisive, according to Alec Neihum, a Finnish journalist: “After the discovery of the horrors of Bucha, the scales fell from a lot of eyes.” On May 17 the Finnish parliament voted overwhelmingly, 188–8, to endorse the president and prime minister’s recommendation of applying to NATO.
I asked Niinistö last summer what sort of connection he still had with Putin. “None,” he said flatly. They last spoke on May 17, 2022, the day parliament endorsed NATO membership. I wanted to tell him personally, Niinistö said. Putin immediately replied, “I don’t feel that [Finland’s joining NATO] is a threat to Russia.” Then he added very calmly, “I think you are making a mistake.”
Niinistö certainly doesn’t think so. If a mistake was made, he conceded, it was in misjudging Putin. After a trip to Ukraine in January, the Finnish president tweeted, “Visited Borodianka and Bucha. The atrocities committed here must not go unpunished.” “He and we were not the only ones so fooled,” says Jussi Niemeläinen, an editorial writer for Sanomat formerly based in Moscow.
I think it is fair to say that we made the same mistakes as the rest of Europe. It was a mistake to believe that interdependence would tie Russia. We couldn’t see the long game Putin was playing with his imperialist ambitions, or at least act on it.
When I spoke to Niinistö, he didn’t seem worried about a problem that halted the expedited NATO membership process last spring, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, refused to endorse Finland’s and Sweden’s applications because of their putative support for a Kurdish militant group. The impasse was apparently resolved in June at a meeting in Ankara between Erdoğan, Niinistö, and then prime minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden, presided over by NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg. The Turkish president lifted his objections after Helsinki and Stockholm signed a somewhat nebulous agreement to tighten their security arrangements. The process halted again in October, when Erdoğan accused Sweden, which has a larger Kurdish diaspora than Finland, of reneging on its commitments, and claimed that enemies of Turkey were continuing to operate freely, though he did not withdraw his assent altogether. “The solution lies within Erdoğan’s head and its timing is related to Turkey’s internal politics,” the obviously annoyed Niinistö said on December 11.
The imbroglio continued into the new year after a protest near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm on January 21 at which a copy of the Quran was burned. Erdoğan then canceled a meeting with the new Swedish defense minister, Pal Johnson, and two days later announced that he was withdrawing his support for Stockholm’s application altogether. However, he said a week later that he still theoretically could support Helsinki’s application, raising the specter of a possible divide between the two Nordic neighbors and defense partners. “Our strong desire has been and still is to join NATO together with Sweden,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said at a press conference on January 30. “A lot of work has been done toward this goal over the last ten months. Sweden is our closest ally in defense and foreign policy. Our position remains the same.”
Niinistö and Haavisto, as well as most Finns, remain confident that Erdoğan will end up approving both countries’ applications. Whatever happens, it is now clear that the Finnish nation has changed its attitude toward NATO membership and shifted away from nonalignment.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs agrees that Niinistö deserves credit for leading that shift, along with Marin and Haavisto. Nevertheless, he points out,
the Finnish people deserve the main credit for making this decision. Had the steady 60–70 percent that had historically opposed membership not changed their minds, there is no chance that Niinistö, Marin, and Haavisto would have changed their minds or tried to.
As of this writing all but two of the thirty NATO members—Turkey and Hungary—have signed off on Finland’s and Sweden’s applications. (Hungary is expected to approve both in February. Unanimous consent is required for new members to be admitted.) In the meantime, Niinistö told me, President Biden has assured him of America’s full backing should Moscow make trouble. “Biden has repeated his support for Europe and NATO and Article 5 many times,” he said, referring to the article of the NATO charter enjoining all members to come to the aid of any member that is attacked.
If Sauli Niinistö is still getting his head around the extraordinary and somewhat rushed decision to apply for NATO membership, so are many Finns, particularly because it was essentially forced on them by Russia’s aggression. Many of those I spoke to during my travels over the last year saw membership as a mixed blessing. One positive, some say, is the end of perhaps the most noxious legacy of the “special relationship”: Finnish self-censorship. “When Sauli Niinistö says that the mask came off Russia,” Raoul Grunstein, a noted Helsinki entrepreneur, told me, “in a way the mask also came off Finnish society.” He points to the media’s willingness to call out the Finnish politicians who joined the boards of Russian banks and other companies as part of Putin’s effort to gain “soft power” in Finnish society. Alec Neihum agrees:
The ghosts of Finlandization have died, and for a country that prides itself on being a democracy as well as free of corruption, that is certainly for the good. However, what we have lost is any balance in our relationship as Russia’s closest Western neighbor. The fact remains there is no world where Finland is not a small country next to a large country with a history of attacking its neighbors, and joining NATO will not change that.
Others I spoke to were distressed about the breakdown in relations between Finland and Russia, which have steadily worsened since the invasion. In December a gang of masked, sledgehammer-bearing vandals attacked the Finnish embassy in Moscow. “Many people here are angry and disgusted with what Russia is doing,” Niemeläinen told me afterward. “There is also a growing feeling that this is not only Putin’s war and that many Russians still carry the old imperial virus and would have celebrated a swift victory in Ukraine.” He added, “I don’t know if the [embassy] attack was explicitly authorized, but it was certainly approved of.”
One of those distressed by the renewed enmity between the Finns and their former rulers is Foreign Minister Haavisto. He has been working with Russian friends and contacts on a wide range of issues since I interviewed him in 1990 about Soviet air pollution when he was the first Green Party member of parliament. “It is of course frustrating when you see what we have been trying to do with Russia on environmental issues, on the Arctic, on the protection of the Baltic, as well as human rights issues,” says Haavisto, who later became minister of environment and ran against Niinistö for president twice, in 2012 and 2018. He is expected to run again next year and is favored to win. Others, like Teivo Teivainen, a professor of world politics at the University of Helsinki, continue to have qualms about the nebulous agreement Helsinki made with Ankara and the concessions it entailed, including the possible damage it did to Finland’s reputation as a supporter of human rights. He told me:
For Finns the NATO process and especially the Turkish question has been a moment of realizing that we are perhaps not the kind of promoter of peace, neutrality, and rights of oppressed people we would like the world to see us as.
The word from Washington continues to be not to worry. “I have every expectation that both will formally become [NATO] members soon,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on December 8, when he met Haavisto and his Swedish counterpart, Tobias Billström. The US Congress has now also inserted itself into the fractious process. On February 2, a bipartisan group of twenty-six senators sent a letter to Biden threatening to halt a $20 billion arms sale to Turkey, including forty F-16 fighter jets, as long as Ankara continues to block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO.
The Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen is following developments in Ukraine especially closely. That country is the site of her last novel, Dog Park (2019), which makes the war news particularly excruciating for her:
When you write a novel, you live through the characters, and through [my] characters I have been living in Ukrainian cities for several years, and seeing the destruction taking place there is just devastating to my heart and soul.
Meanwhile, Oksanen notes, Finns are ready for the “consequences” Moscow darkly threatened before the invasion if Finland joined NATO: “Finns are a practical people when it comes to Russia. That’s why we have always had a good army even when it was ‘fashionable’ not to and other countries let their defense down.” She added, “I guess you know that Finns invented the Molotov cocktail,” which was named after Stalin’s foreign minister Vyascheslav Molotov and used by Finnish troops to deadly effect against Soviet tanks during the Winter War.
The commander-in-chief of the Finnish Defence Forces, Timo Kivinen, told me that his highly equipped combined forces, with their wartime strength of 280,000 personnel, are ready for any eventuality. “Ukraine has been a tough nut for Russia to chew,” he said, “and so would Finland. We have systematically developed our military defense for the type of warfare that is being waged in Ukraine with a massive use of firepower, armored forces, and air forces.”
“The war in Ukraine,” Kivinen said, “has further strengthened the national defense will of the Finnish people, which was already high,” alluding to a defense ministry survey from May indicating that 82 percent of Finns were willing to participate in national defense in case of war. “As long as a nation has the will to defend itself, it stands on strong fortifications. My officers, soldiers, airmen, and sailors are motivated to defend our country and our way of life.”
That way of life remains robust. “Things are pretty good here,” Jussi Niemeläinen told me.
In the last parliamentary election in 2019 the turnout went up to 72.1. People also trust their politicians to give them accurate information. Society is not polarized—even if it looks otherwise on Twitter. People are educated and have media literacy, which makes it harder for hostile governments to undertake disinformation.
Last March, for the fifth year in a row, Finland was named the happiest country in the world, according to a UN-sponsored survey that uses a host of quantifiable variables including GDP and life expectancy, as well as more elusive ones like generosity and declines in perceived corruption. “People in Finland understand that you have to construct and maintain the culture and the social institutions that form the basis to build happiness,” the survey concluded. “That proves that [the survey] isn’t a one-off,” said the writer Katja Pantzar, the author of several books about sisu, the Finnish word that translates roughly as “resilience”:
I think that in Finland the average person has a fair shot at a happy and healthy life because of factors built into our society such as access to education and health care. I think that when you have a capital city—like Helsinki—where children can safely walk or take the bus without being scared, that contributes to a sense of resilience which is not possible in a lot of other places.
A foreigner visiting Helsinki would hardly guess how “happy” Finns are from the look of the grim-faced pedestrians. One stereotype that remains accurate is the stoic Finn. Indeed, for a veteran Fennophile like me with vivid memories of the early 1990s, when the country had one of the highest suicide rates in the world and it seemed like half the capital was blotto every weekend, the notion of extolling the Finnish way of life remains bemusing.
And yet it is hard to deny the Finns’ sense of caring for the public good. “The strength of a society is measured not by the wealth of its most affluent members,” Prime Minister Marin said in her first New Year’s address in 2019, “but by how well its most vulnerable citizens are able to cope.”
That attitude has resulted in a slew of innovative buildings and public spaces. Emilia Brock, a Finnish American journalist who visited Finland for the first time in ten years last summer, was impressed by Oodi, the $110 million spaceship-like central library that opened in 2018 and has quickly become a new symbol of the city. “I was in awe at the services it provided,” she said. “I marveled at how it offered access to not only books, but also sewing machines, musical instruments, learning and working spaces, and even 3D and large-format printers, all with a library card.”
“Oodi is not just a library,” Tommi Laitio, Helsinki’s former executive director of culture and leisure, told me. “It’s also a symbol of the goals we have as a society. Oodi does not relegate citizens to the role of spectator but rather acts as an open platform and tool for people to use as they see fit.”
“I suppose you could say that Oodi is the culmination of Finnish peoplehood,” said Raoul Grunstein, whose latest creation, the sprawling, stadium-like Allas Sea Pool, a “sea spa and urban oasis” on Helsinki’s waterfront, has also become a symbol for the new, less bibulous Finnish way of life. “I see Allas as the opening round of a campaign to reclaim urban waterfronts around the world for people, as well as a showcase for Nordic well-being, but with a communal twist,” said Grunstein, who is negotiating to bring a similar complex to New York City’s East River.
Meanwhile, beyond the cozy confines of Oodi and Allas, the war in Ukraine goes on. “Of course the war has affected us deeply as well as our sense of well-being,” Pantzar told me.
How could it not? Russia is right across the border. And now the border is closed. And then there are the Finnish companies which did business in and with Russia and had to shut. The war is one of the main topics of discussion just about everywhere every day, from the dock where I go for my morning swim to my workplaces and cafés. We worry about the war, we worry about the Ukrainian refugees we have taken in, we think about reducing energy consumption and doing anything that unwittingly supports Russia.2 But we carry on and we are ready for anything. And that is sisu too.
Every few summers I seem to find myself on the top deck of one of the massive cruise ships that travel “the archipelago route” from the south coast of Finland to Mariehamn, the bucolic provincial capital of Åland, an otherworldly archipelago of 6,500 isles and skerries with some 30,000 inhabitants.
The islands’ Elysian calm is partly the product of their unique topography, as well as their peculiar geopolitical status as an autonomous, Swedish-speaking province of Finland. After World War I the new Republic of Finland and the Kingdom of Sweden both claimed the archipelago, which lies equidistant from them in the Gulf of Bothnia. They submitted their dispute to the new League of Nations, which in 1921 awarded Åland to Finland on the condition that it respect the islands’ indigenous Swedish language and culture. Finland also agreed to respect Åland’s demilitarized status, the legacy of the 1856 Treaty of Paris, also known as the Åland Servitude, signed by Britain, France, Russia, and four other powers following the Crimean War, during which, in 1854, an Anglo-French flotilla bombarded the gigantic fortress that Russia was constructing at Bomarsund, overlooking the eastern approaches to Åland.
Apart from occasional grumblings from the mainland, the accord has worked so well that Åland has its own Peace Institute, which promotes the so-called Åland Model. But since February 24, things haven’t been quite so peaceable there. Every day at 5:00 PM there is a demonstration by shouting Ålanders in front of the Russian consulate in Mariehamn. The consul—the only staff member at the besieged outpost—makes a point of staying away from the window.
Åland’s quixotic military status, whereby Finland is forbidden to place troops or defensive fortifications in the archipelago but nevertheless is responsible for its defense, has recently come into question. “There have been over time various pronouncements in Finland and beyond, asking for the withdrawal of some sort of the special status of the Åland islands,” concedes Sia Åkermark, the director of the Peace Institute. “Such voices try to depict Åland as the most dangerous of places, something which it has not been for some time.”
Charly Salonius-Pasternak is one of those voices. “How would any other country react if you told them you are 100 percent responsible for defending this territory while placing these kinds of limitations on it?” he says, contrasting Sweden’s recent decision to place troops on nearby Gotland Island and Finland’s inability to do so. “It’s frankly insane that we’re still accepting this.” Salonius-Pasternak also points to a poll by Finnish Broadcasting from last June showing that 58 percent of Finns would approve of a military presence in Åland. It wouldn’t really matter except for the fact that the islands are still of considerable strategic importance: they are situated at the entrance to the eastern Baltic and the Gulf of Finland, which helps explain why Tsar Alexander I decided to build the fortress when Moscow wrested Åland and Finland from Sweden after the war of 1808–1809.
A state-of-the-art museum about the imperial Russian occupation and the destruction of the fortress that opened in June has unexpectedly taken on an “uncomfortable dimension,” according to its curator, Graham Robins. “The ruins [of the fortress] remind Ålanders of their past as part of Russia and at the same time could be seen to give Russia a legitimate claim to the islands,” says Robins. So do the museum’s exhibits, particularly an animation that shows the early period of Peter the Great’s rule and continues through the 1800s. It “sends shivers down people’s spines,” explains Robins, a historian and Åland aficionado from Scotland. The wall-sized display shows an inexorable tide washing westward from landlocked Russia and consuming the former Swedish lands in Estonia and Latvia, and then Finland, including Åland. “Before February 24 the animation was strictly historical. After the invasion of Ukraine, it’s as if the animation could be presaging the future.”
Ironically, the closest thing to a Russian assault on Finland so far has been the one Putin inadvertently provoked in late September, when he ordered a draft and nearly 60,000 Russian men eager to escape it descended on the Finnish–Russian border.3 The Russian response to Finland’s NATO application has been surprisingly mild, says Niemeläinen: “But nasty things can always happen. And probably will.”
As the first anniversary of the invasion approaches, the numerous Ukrainian flags flying from buildings in Helsinki attest to which side Finns are on. Hannes Tuovinen, a ninety-eight-year-old war veteran, spoke for millions of Finns last year when he posted this message on his veterans’ organization website:
Greetings to Ukraine. Once upon a time Finland fought the Russian Army with everything we had and were able to hold on to our freedom and democracy. That is what we wish for you as well.
—February 8, 2023