Former Finnish President Tarja Halonen has apologised for comparing NATO to the Warsaw Pact by saying that the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania “were used to a collective security arrangement during the Soviet era”.
While support for joining NATO has surged in Finland, Halonen made the remarks this week in an interview with the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) to justify Finland’s decision not to join NATO during her Presidency at the same time as the Baltic nations.
Her comments prompted both bafflement and sharp criticism from across the political spectrum in Finland and the Baltic nations.
Sofi Oksanen, a popular Finnish writer with Estonian heritage, summed it up by tweeting: “WTF? It was not a security system. It was an occupation.”
Estonian Ambassador to Finland Sven Sakkov responded in the Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat that “the inclusion of the Baltic states in the collective security system of the Soviet Union is a misrepresentation. The occupation of Estonia was brutal and inhumane. The comments of former President Tarja Halonen are very unfortunate.”
Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrink Ilves, whose Presidency overlapped with President Halonen’s, was also scathing. He tweeted in response to President Halonen that “to completely trash your own legacy in your own lifetime is one genuine accomplishment.”
President Halonen later tweeted her apology.
“The expression I used in yesterday’s Yle interview about the historical relationship of the Baltic States to collective security arrangements was bad, and it has offended many. I apologise for my failed expression,” said President Halonen, adding a clarification that “the countries occupied by the Soviet Union did not really have their own choices and real security before 1991.”
Soviet ‘security’ was anything but
Estonia and Soviet Russia signed the Treaty of Tartu in 1920 in which both countries agreed under international law to respect each other’s territorial sovereignty in perpetuity.
However, the Soviet Union reneged on this in 1939 when it signed a ‘non-aggression pact’ with Nazi Germany in which both totalitarian powers agreed to divide up the independent nations of Europe between them into their own spheres of influence and invade them, resulting in the outbreak of the second world war, which ended in the illegal occupation of the Baltic nations for a further half century. Finland was also considered a Baltic nation prior to the war, but was able to remain independent through fierce resistance.
The Soviet Union signed the Warsaw Pact in 1955 with communist-controlled Central and Eastern European nations. In theory, this pact committed them to mutual defence and the non-intervention in the internal affairs of each member country based on respect for their sovereignty – ignoring the fact that nations like Estonia had already had theirs denied within the Soviet Union.
In reality, the Warsaw Pact is unique as a military alliance that only attacked its own members. It invaded Hungary in 1956 to crush its pro-democracy movement and remove its newly created Government. Similarly, it invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to halt reforms that would have led to greater economic and political freedoms. The justification for these attacks became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine in which the Soviet Union claimed it had a right to intervene wherever it thought communism was threatened, which is quite different to the original stated aim of respecting sovereignty. This also became the primary justification for the Soviet Union’s failed invasion of Afghanistan.
While no longer communist, modern Russia now leads a ‘defensive alliance’ known as the Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO), which has echoes of the same contradictions as the Warsaw Pact in that it has functioned to maintain autocratic rule among its members against internal opposition. At the start of this year, CSTO deployed what it called a ‘peace keeping force’ to quell protests in Kazakhstan.
Estonia’s path to NATO
Estonia was formally invited to join NATO in 2002 and became a full member in 2004, along with its fellow Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
To join NATO, applicant nations must meet strict requirements based on having a functioning democratic political system, a market economy, fair treatment of minority populations, a commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully, an ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations, and a commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutions.
Estonia’s democratic leaders had been working towards NATO accession since the full restoration of independence, backed by a large majority of public support at the time, which has remained consistently high to this day. In the most recent study of public opinions last year, a clear majority of Estonia’s population supports NATO membership, welcomes the presence of allied NATO forces in Estonia, supports Estonia’s NATO commitments, such as defence spending and security assistance abroad, trusts NATO’s commitment to defend Estonia, and believes NATO membership makes Estonia a safer place to live.
Estonia has been one of the few NATO countries to consistently meet the alliance’s goal for members to spend more than 2% of GDP on defence. Estonia’s defence budget is currently rising to more than 2.5% to ensure it can adequately defend itself and support its commitments to the entire NATO alliance.
Although relatively small in terms of population and GDP, Estonia not only pulls its weight but provides specialist support to the alliance particularly in cybersecurity. On its own initiative, Estonia established the NATO Cooperation Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in 2008.
Yet membership of NATO following the restoration of independence was never a forgone conclusion for Estonia and its fellow Baltic nations.
As this analysis by War on the Rocks recalls, there was previously substantial doubts among existing members of the alliance about whether nations once considered part of Russia’s sphere of influence should join – even though Russia itself had no significant opposition at the time. As the article notes, the real credit for the Baltic nations joining NATO should go to the Baltic nations themselves who campaigned hard for it to happen, ensured they met all membership requirements while developing as modern, democratic states, and took the opportunity when it was ready.
NATO expansion in modern Kremlin propaganda
The right of all sovereign nations to choose their own security arrangements, including by freely joining defensive alliances like NATO, is enshrined in international law and included in agreements that Russia has signed.
Despite this, the Kremlin has increasingly pointed to the decision of countries to join NATO of their own free will as justification for its own wars of aggression towards non-NATO nations. Ukraine, for example, was committed to neutrality when Russia first invaded it in 2014.
This propaganda seeks to deny the agency of countries like Estonia. Yet Estonia is not a NATO protectorate, nor does it belong to a NATO sphere. Estonia is NATO and it made the decision freely to join as is its sovereign right. The idea that this antagonised Russia is a modern grievance manufactured in order to justify atrocities elsewhere. Far from seeking to “encircle Russia” as the Kremlin now suggests, NATO has long sought a constructive relationship with Russia in the hope it would be a reliable international partner.
The comments by President Halonen and others in the western media play into this grievance narrative, often inadvertently, and make a false comparison between a defensive alliance like NATO made up of sovereign nations exercising their right under international law to defend themselves and a ‘defensive alliance’ like the Warsaw Pact that attacked its own members and does not deserve the name.
Cover photo adapted from “Tarja Halonen” by Janwikifoto under Creative Commons License.