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Finland, Sweden considering NATO not surprising given historical context

Media Contact

Becka Bowyer

Key decision-makers in Finland and Sweden are set to announce their positions on NATO membership this week – an expansion would leave Russia surrounded by NATO countries.

Cristina Florea

Assistant professor of history

Cristina Florea is an assistant professor at Cornell University and historian of Central and Eastern Europe.

Florea says:

“Finland and Sweden’s announcement that they would consider joining NATO, thus ending decades of neutrality, marks an important turning point but is not entirely surprising from a historical perspective. The war in Ukraine echoes Finland’s own war with the Soviet Union in 1939-1940. Then, as now, a small state was attacked by its larger neighbor, who forced it to give up territories it insisted were crucial to the Soviet Union’s security.   

“Then, as now, the larger power started a war against the smaller one with the conviction that victory was guaranteed only to discover that the Finns, though smaller and less well equipped militarily, could withstand Soviet attacks for months on end.

“Although by 1940, Finland was forced to give up territories to the Soviets, the Winter War of 1939-40 in many ways took the world by surprise. It revealed the Soviets, who at that time had the largest army in the world, to be amateurish and weak – embarrassing Joseph Stalin hugely.

“It was a formative experience for the Finns, who remained understandably wary of their eastern neighbor. Finland chose neutrality in 1948, largely because of Soviet pressures. Ironically, it is now Russia’s actions in Ukraine that will likely change that. This is yet another instance in which Putin’s conspiratorial outlook on the world – namely, his anxieties about NATO’s expansion – becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

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