The prospect of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine is a key factor behind Finland’s debate over whether to join Nato, the country’s foreign minister has said.
Pekka Haavisto is having a busy few weeks. As Finland’s foreign minister, Haavisto, 64, may soon oversee the biggest political shift the country has experienced since it joined the EU almost three decades ago. “Finland is currently making its choices. And among those choices, Nato membership is one,” Haavisto told the Guardian in an interview on Thursday.
Yesterday, the Finnish parliament started its much-anticipated debate over the possibility of submitting a membership bid to Nato. Recent polls have shown a dramatic U-turn in public opinion in Finland, with the majority now favoring joining Nato after the invasion of Ukraine.
“Our security environment has dramatically changed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February,” the veteran Green party politician said.
Haavisto proceeded to list the conclusions Finland has drawn about its big neighbor that have led to the political debates in his country. Moscow has shown its willingness to take increasing risks in its military operations and demonstrated its ability to quickly mobilize more than 100,000 soldiers against a neighboring country without conducting a general mobilization.
“Russia’s behavior is more unpredictable, and it is ready to take higher risks than earlier. If we look at Georgia in 2008 or Crimea in 2014, we could say that in those cases, Russia took calculated risks,” the minister said, referring to the war in Georgia and the annexation of Crimea.
“What is different now is that we see that Russia’s original purpose when attacking Ukraine was to change the regime in a country of 40 million people. This is a high-risk operation for Russia, but Russia showed it was ready to take those risks.”
Haavisto said he was also deeply troubled by reports that Russia could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine as its military continues to struggle.
“For Russia’s neighbours, the country’s loose talk on the use of unconventional weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons and chemicals, is very uncomfortable.
“This is a really concerning issue for us. This has triggered talk in Finland about our own security position in Europe.”
Western intelligence officials have started to publicly warn that the Kremlin might turn to tactical or other limited nuclear weapons from its arsenal if its invasion of Ukraine continues to flooder. On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that these fears were also shared by some senior Russian officials and senior managers of state-run businesses.
Russia, which has previously denied planning a military operation against Ukraine, has stated its commitment to avoiding nuclear war. However, on Wednesday, Moscow test-launched its Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, a new addition to its nuclear arsenal, which President Vladimir Putin said would give Moscow’s enemies “something to think about”.
Haavisto said that, for the first time in his long political career, Finns “on the streets” are concerned with the “nuclear” question.
“A typical question that I now get from people on the streets or in the shops, which I did not have during my whole political life, is what Finland will do if it is threatened by nuclear or chemical weapons. As a politician, you have to have an answer for that,” he said.
That Finland, a country that traditionally maintained dialogue with the Kremlin, is openly raising the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons indicates just how much of a threat the west perceives the country to be after its invasion of Ukraine.
The popular president of the Nordic state, Sauli Niinistö – often described as the “Putin whisperer” due to his direct line to the Kremlin – had been engaged in long conversations trying to persuade the Russian president not to invade Ukraine.
Haavisto now shrugged that it was “a big disappointment that Russia chose the military way in Ukraine” despite the Finnish efforts.
The minister said Finland has kept his diplomatic channels open with Russia during the war, and he pointed to Niinistö’s call with Putin on 10 March as one of the ways his country was trying to get Putin to the negotiating table.
Finland is expected to make a decision on whether to apply for Nato membership within the next few weeks, and it will take between four and 12 months for the 30 members of the alliance to formally accept the country.
“In that period, we are prepared for all kinds of [Russian] disturbances, cyber-attacks, hybrid attacks and so forth. It is just something you have to be prepared for,” Haavisto said.
On Wednesday, much discussion in the Helsinki parliament centered around the changes the country will see if it becomes part of the defensive bloc, given Finland’s 830-mile shared border with Russia.
“I think Nato’s basic idea is this common and shared security that gets activated in a time of crisis, in a time of conflict you get help from the other members,” said Haavisto, adding that Finland intends to maintain conscription and its reserve of 280,000 soldiers.
“But in the time of peace, I cannot see a major change in our defense … Russia is and will always be our neighbour. We have always appreciated a peaceful border, we would like to keep it that way.”