By Carson Webb
Finland’s seemingly clear relationship towards nuclear weapons is being questioned as the Russia-Ukraine conflict intensifies near its border. Finland has prioritized the peaceful use of nuclear energy by enforcing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which has been in effect since March 1970. Finland is also working towards a greener disposal system for nuclear waste, as it is the first nation to place spent nuclear fuel back into its bedrock. It has even started new plans for 2025 to send spent nuclear fuel to a cave complex, which will remain in effect for the next hundred years—demonstrating its commitment to the responsible use of nuclear energy.
On top of signing the NPT, Finland was also the first country to sign a comprehensive nuclear material safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), helping create the general safeguard agreement model. So why did Finland, which is aggressively against proliferation, so harshly protest the signing and ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons? Considering how highly the Finnish population values the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the Finnish government acting against the majority causes a pause in the strength of its commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. How and when Finland distributes work [enforcing the NPT, creating safeguards for the IAEA, etc.], paired with experienced and resolved crises, play a critical role in Finland’s relation to nuclear weapons and the likelihood of proliferation, all of which is supported by nuclear weapon realism, latency, and taboo theories.
Nuclear taboo, the fear of nuclear weapons stemming into non-use behavior, explains most of Finland’s behavior toward nuclear weapons, but its apprehension towards the TPNW does not correlate with this theory. Finland can’t decide what it wants to support and when it will support it. Co-coordinator of the Finland network of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Kati Juva, released a statement saying, “As the tensions in the international geopolitical climate have increased, so has the risk of nuclear war. The only way to avoid a catastrophe is to completely ban and destroy nuclear weapons.” This statement alone has a nuclear taboo influence, and with the risk of nuclear war, other countries might also take on this approach if countries like Finland (or Sweden) use their influence.
The same goes for nuclear latency, a country possessing technologies, facilities, materials, expertise, resources, and other capabilities necessary for developing nuclear weapons without full operational weaponization. While many look to nuclear latency as an excuse for nuclear proliferation, it is combated with nuclear realism, which theorizes that because Finland can go nuclear, it will/should go nuclear.
Still, Finland does not fit into either theory’s line of view, which makes Finland an interesting case. Fifty-plus years of hardline non-proliferation efforts do not match boycotting the TPNW. Finland understands that nuclear weapons are a threat that demands attention, but with the risk of nuclear war from Russia, the Finnish government seems disconnected from its domestic audience as it supports the boycotting of the TPNW by refusing to sign and ratify it.
A survey done in 2019 by ICAN showed that 84 percent of Finnish voters supported Finland joining the TPNW, with only 8 percent saying no and 8 percent not having an opinion. The huge majority favoring the signing of the TPNW creates room for speculation on whether the government will turn away from its rigid approach toward not banning nuclear weapons under this nuclear climate.
For a state like Finland with grandiose opinions on nuclear disarmament, signing the TPNW would give them more credibility on the international stage, even if a total ban on nuclear weapons will be difficult to gain traction with more weighty states as long as the threat of nuclear war looms. Yet, Finland, despite saying no in 2017 to a ban, will still never procure nuclear weapons under current conditions.
With a NATO alliance secured, despite having met the requirements to “go nuclear” [possession of technologies, facilities, materials, expertise, resources and other capabilities necessary], Finland will opt out of procuring a nuclear arsenal. The motivating factor behind a nuclear Finland was the lack of security against a Russian and allies attack; pressure from Russia to not go nuclear and pressure from NATO members to place nuclear weapons on Finnish territory created a tense, “will they won’t they” situation. It was unlikely that Finland wouldn’t receive membership considering the current climate, but now with full membership as of April 4th, 2023, it is extremely unlikely for it to seek out a nuclear arsenal. It will continue to rely on the nuclear umbrella of its allies as nuclear armament/nuclear proliferation does not fit Finnish beliefs on nuclear weapons.
Carson Webb is a Political Science and Global Security student at the University of Mississippi, whose focus is on International Conflict and Cooperation.