Finland pursues NATO membership as Russia vows retaliation

Correction:  After this interview, Eric Edelman reached out to clarify his statement about Finland's participation in the Ottawa Convention. “Finland did join the Landmine Convention in 2011 (although the decision was very controversial). Nevertheless, Finland has developed a 'self-propelled' landmine which they believe is permissible under the treaty's definition and which they would undoubtedly use in a conflict with Russia."

Finland announced Thursday it would end its decades-long neutral status and seek to join NATO. A formal declaration will be made Sunday, while Sweden is expected to follow suit next week. Both nations have resisted joining NATO but were spurred by Russia's invasion of Ukraine to change course. Eric Edelman, U.S. ambassador to Finland during the Clinton administration, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Finland's president and prime minister announced today the country would end its decades-long neutral status and seek to join NATO. The full government will make a formal declaration on Sunday. And its neighbor, Sweden, is expected to take similar steps next week.

    For many years, Finland has opted out of defense pacts, even when the Cold War divided East and West. In 2017, 22 percent of Finns backed NATO membership. But Russia's unprovoked war in Ukraine pushed public support for the U.S.-led alliance up to 76 percent this month.

    If accepted, Finland and Sweden would join a cluster of new NATO members in Eastern Europe since 1997, just what President Putin had sought to prevent when he invaded Ukraine. Russia has vowed to retaliate, saying Finland's decision — quote — "definitely" posed a threat to its security.

    For more on all of this, we turn to Eric Edelman, who served as American ambassador to Finland during the Clinton administration. He was also undersecretary of defense for policy during the George W. Bush administration.

    Ambassador Edelman, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for joining us.

    So, in terms of strengthening this defense alliance, tell us about Finland and Sweden's militaries. What do they bring to the table?

    Eric Edelman, Former State Department and Defense Department Official: Well, Finland and streaming Sweden bring geostrategic and military capability to the alliance.

    Unlike some other of the recent additions to NATO, it is very serious military capability. From the geostrategic point of view, Finland and Sweden provide a strategic hinterland for the Baltic states, making it easier to defend them with conventional means. And they also provide the ability to close the Danish Straits and, with the presence of Gotland, a Swedish possession in the Baltic, in the case of a conflict with Russia, to bottle up the Russian Baltic fleet.

    In terms of capability, Finland is able to bring, when fully mobilized, an army of about 280,000 or so into the field. But it also has a commitment to total national territorial defense and can mobilize up to 900,000, if necessary, in extremis.

    And it also brings a capability in the air. It is flying currently 62 us F-18 aircraft, but it has agreed to purchase F-35 as a fifth-generation fighter, as the F-18s age out. And it has about 1,500 artillery pieces. And if we have learned anything from the war in Ukraine, artillery matters.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about the Russian response that we have heard so far?

    This — Russian leaders have said that this would inflict serious damage to the Russian-Finnish relationship and that Russia would be forced to take what they called retaliatory steps if this moves forward. What does that mean to you?

  • Eric Edelman:

    I think, so far, it's really mostly bluster, frankly.

    There is certainly an issue here of imposing costs on Russia by having Finland and Sweden join NATO. But we have had NATO troops in the Baltic states, for instance, cheek by jowl with Russia, and it hasn't led to any particular military outbreak.

    I think this is mostly jawboning. Right now, the Russians have their hands full in Ukraine.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about that Finnish defense? I mean, we noted that, basically, since the Cold War, they have had this policy of nonalignment.

    What has their defense strategy looked like? They have an 800-mile border with Russia, right? If Russia were to attack, what would they do?

  • Eric Edelman:

    Well, Finland, like the United States, not a signatory to the land mine convention.

    And I think their plan is to seed that 830-mile-long border with mines right at the outset of any conflict to impede a Russian advance, as would the forests that divide Finland from Russia. That's something the Russians learned about in 1939 in the Winter War, when they had a lot of difficulty moving their forces into Finland.

    But Finland has operated on the basis of very close cooperation with NATO since the Cold War ended, maintaining the option for membership, and now Russia's actions have actually led them to seek that membership.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador, officials seemed to say this could happen quickly, within a matter of weeks.

    So I guess the big question is, what kind of impact, if any, would Sweden and Finland joining NATO have on the war in Ukraine?

  • Eric Edelman:

    Well, again, it's kind of cost imposition for President Putin, who has said, ostensibly, one of the reasons he went into Ukraine was because he didn't want NATO military coming closer to Russia's borders.

    Well, now it will be along an 830-mile border. So there's some cost imposition. But Finland has also provided military support for Ukraine. I would expect that to continue. But, other than that, I don't think there'll be any immediate impact on the war.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And in just the few seconds we have left, does it mean anything for Ukraine's future potential membership in NATO?

  • Eric Edelman:

    Well, I think the fact that a country that went through the kind of unprovoked premeditated aggression that Russia today has inflicted on Ukraine in the past, which is Finland in 1939 and '40 and then again in 1944, has the ability to join NATO, should hold out hope in the long run that, depending on the outcome of this conflict, depending on developments in Russia, at some point in the future, Ukraine might be able to aspire to NATO membership, particularly given the military account they have given of themselves in this fight with Russia.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is former U.S. Ambassador to Finland Eric Edelman joining us tonight.

    Ambassador Edelman, thank you so much.

  • Eric Edelman:

    Thank you.

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