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Just to keep things interesting, Russian planes keep flying into Finnish airspace

Russian An-72 transport plane found in Finnish airspace
Russian An-72 transport plane found in Finnish airspace
FinnishDefense Forces

This is a photograph of an AN-27 Russian military transport aircraft. Which wouldn't be so extraordinary, except that the air force of Finland says they took the photo while the Russian plane was in Finnish airspace. Even that wouldn't necessarily be so extraordinary, except the Finns say it was "the third event of its kind within a one-week period." And even that you might write off as just one of these things, except that Russia also invaded Ukraine this week so it's kind of hard to see it all as a big coincidence.

It's difficult to guess why exactly Russia is doing this, but it's making Finland nervous and elevating a longstanding disagreement in Finnish politics about the country's relationship to Russia. Finland, you see, is an unusual case — it shares a long border with Russia and is part of the European Union but not NATO, and while many prominent Finnish politicians including the current prime minister want it to join NATO, that's a controversial view and it doesn't have majority support in the parliament.

A tangled history

Russo-Finnish history is complicated by the fact that, for many years, Finland was part of the Russian Empire. When the Russian Empire collapsed in the wake of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, Finland emerged as an independent country. Then, in late-1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, seeking to readjust the border.

Finland fought surprisingly effectively during the Winter War, inflicting heavy losses on Soviet forces, but ultimately had to make concessions in order to sue for peace. Then in 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the USSR. With the Soviets distracted, Finland made a strategic blunder and chose to attack the Soviets, hoping to recapture its lost territory. This put democratic Finland into a problematic de facto alliance with Nazi Germany, which of course lost the war.

That left Finland as a bit of an orphan of Cold War politics. The country was democratic, capitalist, and armed to the teeth against possible Soviet aggression, but was not a part of the anti-Soviet alliance system. On the contrary, Finnish foreign policy was oriented toward appeasing the USSR in as many ways as possible — all while preserving the country's independence. After the USSR fell in 1991, Finland moved clearly into the Western sphere by joining the European Union and the Eurozone. But it never made it into NATO.

The NATO debate

Finland's prime minister, Alexander Stubb, favors NATO membership. So does Sauli Niinistö, the country's president. Both Stubb and Niinistö are members of the National Coalition Party. The NCP is currently the main right-of-center party in Finland and the largest party in parliament. It is also the main party that opposed Finland's conciliatory attitude toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War days. Given that the NCP is running the show and its leaders favor NATO membership, you might think NATO membership is in the cards.

But Finland, like many European countries, has seen a surge in electoral support for somewhat fringy euroskeptical parties in recent elections. Consequently, the current coalition government is a broad tent that incorporates Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, and a party representing the country's Swedish-speaking minority. Social Democrats firmly oppose NATO membership, and the terms of the coalition agreement bar Stubb from seeking it. Instead, Finland (and its neighbor Sweden) are both signing deals to enhance cooperation with NATO without joining the alliance outright.

Pros and cons

The upside to NATO membership — security against Russian threats — might seem obvious. But opponents within Finland counter that joining an anti-Russian military alliance would anger Moscow without fundamentally altering the balance of power. Finland has proven in the past that it can deter formal invasion.

Finnish trade

(MIT Atlas of Economic Complexity)

At the same time, no military alliance is going to alter Finland's extreme dependence on economic ties to Russia. About 9 percent of Finnish exports head for Russian markets, and over 15 percent of Finnish imports — largely key production inputs such as oil — come from Russia. In this view, Finnish foreign policy needs to emphasize good relations with Russia regardless of the military situation, which would make NATO membership counterproductive.

Finland is scheduled to hold a parliamentary election next spring. In theory, that could lead to the formation of a new coalition that might open the door to NATO membership. In practice, with neither the leading opposition party nor the NCP's main coalition partner supporting NATO, it is difficult to envision a majority for NATO membership being assembled. Unless, that is, aggressive Russian behavior prompts a massive change in Finnish opinion — a small but telling example of how Putin's reckless conduct can backfire against Russia's interests.