Ukraine war: Putin planned to split Europe with invasion - but more nations now are seeking the security of NATO membership

·4-min read

Finland's border with Russia snakes for more than 800 miles, from Nellim in the frozen north all the way down to the southern end of the country, where it hits the Gulf of Finland halfway between Helsinki and St Petersburg.

No country in the European Union has such a long border with Russia and, ever since the invasion of Ukraine, geographic exposure has turned into a sense of vulnerability.

Once, not so long ago, only about 20% of Finns wanted to join NATO. Now, the tables have turned and the great majority of the population back membership.

Although it is, officially, just being considered, the reality is that Finland will certainly seek membership along with its neighbour Sweden.

The process is likely to start as soon as next week with an official announcement of support from the Finnish president.

Sweden will follow suit a few days later, with NATO already looking for ways to hasten the process of ratification.

One well-placed source told me that NATO's summit, in Madrid at the end of June, was a good target for seeking the necessary agreement among the existing members.

That may not be hard to achieve. NATO is keen to expand its reach, and both Finland and Sweden bring political and economic heft, as well as military strength.

Finland, which still has conscription, has around 900,000 people listed as military reservists - around one in six of the entire population.

In western Finland, near the small town of Niinisalo, some of them are taking part in a huge military exercise. There are thousands of Finnish troops involved, but also units from Britain, America, Estonia and Latvia - all of them NATO members.

We are invited to observe and watch tanks, and armoured vehicles, speed across the dusty plains, or drive through the forests. They are divided into teams - blue and yellow - and conduct a simulated battle against each other.

But at lunch, there is a pause. A Finnish vehicle, equipped with large mortars, stops nearby and as the turret opens, we shout out a hello to the soldier emerging from within. He is quietly confident that things can be resolved to keep Finland safe.

"Does that mean joining NATO?" I ask.

He pauses for a long time, which is a fairly frequent conversational trait in Finland, and then simply says: "Yes, I think so."

Other soldiers tell us that they, too, back NATO membership; that it would be good to have allies from around the world.

The key to all this, though, is not so much camaraderie, but military insurance.

NATO's fundamental principle is enshrined in its Article 5, which dictates that an attack on one member nation is considered as an attack on all of them.

Watching the exercise is the Finnish defence minister, Antti Kaikkonen, a thoughtful politician who considers his words with care.

"We are especially interested in Article 5 and that would be the main reasons to become a member of NATO," he tells me.

Is that, I ask, because he is worried that Russia will attack your country?

"The Russian attack on Ukraine changed the security situation in Europe," he says.

"And it changed the Finnish people's attitude. Now a majority of Finns are in favour of joining NATO. There is no immediate threat from Russia but," he pauses for a few, long seconds, "we have to think of the future."

And therein lies a curiosity of the Russian attack on Ukraine. It was supposed to cleave Europe, to divide a country from a continent and spread fear.

Instead, it appears to have generated a sense of unity and purpose in Europe, if not around the world. And Russia's angry warnings against NATO becoming more expansive will, paradoxically, lead to NATO becoming bigger and stronger.

The unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable, question is whether this makes Europe stronger.

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Russia has said that if Finland and Sweden join NATO (which, barring something extraordinary, they will) then it will deploy troops and equipment, potentially including nuclear missiles, to the Baltic region.

But will they? Can they? As ever in this brutal conflict, it feels almost impossible to predict how the ripples will spread.

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