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Why Finland joining NATO is a major setback for Russia

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Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist

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The addition of Finland as the 31st member country of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) doubles the alliance’s border in northeastern Europe and provides a significant setback to Russia and Vladimir Putin. During the ceremony in Brussels on April 4 that officially welcomed Finland into the NATO ranks, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the new member “will strengthen our collective defense and enhance our ability to respond to security challenges in the Euro-Atlantic area.” Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan says Finland’s complicated history with Russia kept the nation from joining NATO for a long time. He says the war in Ukraine was a signal to the Finns that the time to join was now.

Excerpted from Peter’s April 4 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

Today’s video comes to you from Mt. Cook National Park in New Zealand.

Finland got the green light and has officially become NATO’s newest member. While the Finns are breathing a sigh of relief, we must consider how this could change the scope of the war.

Finland and Russia have some history together. From the Winter War to Finlandization, the resulting baggage of this intertwined past delayed the Finns from joining NATO. Finland could operate independently from Russia for years, with the caveat of Moscow running all security decisions, making NATO a big no-no.

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has signaled to the Finns that this is a war for survival, which puts a bright red target on Finland’s back. Finland might not have removed that target by joining NATO, but it’s not quite as red as before. Now it’s Sweden’s turn…

Hey everyone, Peter Zeihan coming to you from New Zealand’s Mount Cook National Park. That is the mountain in question just behind me just got back from it. Today is the fourth of April, which means that when you see this in your time, Finland will now have joined as NATO’s newest member and I think it’s worth spending a couple of minutes talking about what that means. Some of the folks who were concerned about Finland joining said, this is going to add roughly a thousand kilometers of border between NATO and Russia. But that’s really not the way to look at it because it’s not a border zone. Basically, the Finnish border zone is completely empty and unpopulated.

The type of military incursion you would see in that area, which has no infrastructure, would be limited to special forces going after reindeer. And if there’s one thing that we’ve seen in the Ukrainian War to this point, Russian special forces are not nearly as special as we all thought. As a rule, once you leave the Russian military, you either become a full-time civilian or you join a group like Wagner and Wagner is already completely committed to Ukraine. In fact, the Russians are literally running out of veterans that they can tap. Anyone with skills that are military-appropriate has pretty much already been committed to the cause. And the Russians are even liquidating some of their positions abroad and elsewhere in the country in order to support the Ukrainian war effort. So we’re seeing air defense troops from the Far East, and even peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh being relocated back to Ukraine.

So the Russians simply don’t have the force structure that’s necessary to launch an assault on that front at all. And if you look back historically, if anything, it’s the Finns that might get a little punchy now that they’ve got a security guarantee from a couple of nuclear powers. A couple … three sorry, I always forget about France. Anyway, if you look back to the Winter War, which was fought in 1940-1941, it’s one of the many sideshows that happened in World War II, the Russians with poor logistics and poor leadership and poor training — sound familiar? —  poured across the border thinking they could do a decisive knockout punch and occupy all of Finland in a matter of months.

Again, sound familiar? It didn’t go that way. And the Finns proved that with a generation of intensive training to prepare for one thing, a Russian invasion, you can actually get pretty good. And over the course of the Winter War, the Finns regularly inflicted a 40-to-one casualty ratio on the attacking Russians, and it ultimately ended in an armistice and a peace treaty. Technically, the peace treaty was very bad for Finland. But once the snows melt, then the Russian forces were able to act like Russian forces and use heavy wave tactics. And so the Finns realized that they had to settle before the spring really locked in. And because of that, they gave up territory that was home to about a fifth of their population at the time.

Which brings us to the final point of why NATO membership with Finland is actually a great thing. That … territory that the Finns gave up is called the Karelian Isthmus. It’s a sliver of territory … just to the northwest of St. Petersburg, sandwiched between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Lagoda. And as you approach St. Petersburg, it narrows. It is relatively rugged, it is heavily forested, there’s a bunch of swamps, a huge number of lakes, and very, very limited infrastructure. So if we did see a renewed conflict between Finland and Moscow, regardless of who started it, the Finns would be able to use very, very short-range fighters and bombers and even artillery to destroy that infrastructure to forestall any Russian advance. So all this raises the question of why Finland has not been in NATO until now.

I mean, it’s from a defensive point of view, it’s a pretty slam-dunk case. And it has to do with that same Winter War. The Finns knew that if they were standing alone against Stalin, and they even fear today after seeing what they have in Ukraine, that if they’re standing alone against today’s Russia, that in the end, they wouldn’t have a chance. Finland’s a country of just a few million people versus Russia’s 130 million plus. And so even if you get those 40-to-one casualty ratios, eventually you simply run out of people before the Russians do. And so “Finlandization” is the term that took place during the Cold War.

The idea that Finland could be independent, it could be a democracy, and have whatever economic system it wanted; but all security decisions had to be run by Moscow and Moscow had a full veto. So NATO membership was completely off the table. But the Russia of today is nothing like the Russia of 1946. And so Finland now thinks that if we’ve got a Russia that is in its dying days because of its demographic collapse, and it’s willing to lash out at any territory that it thinks that it needs to survive, the Finns know that Finland is on that list, and best to get the security guarantee of cover from the United States, from Germany, from France, from Britain and all the rest now. The next step, of course will be Swedish membership. That’s going to take at least a few more weeks, but now that the Finns are in, it’s really only a matter of time. Alright, talk to you guys later. Bye.

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