How will Finland’s new president shape their relationship with NATO?

A major Nordic power will soon have a new leader, as Alexander Stubb narrowly defeated his opponent in a runoff race to be elected Finland’s next president. Most of the executive power in Finland lies with the prime minister, but the presidency, unlike in most European nations, is not purely ceremonial; the president is in charge of foreign policy, national security affairs and military defense. This makes Stubb’s election all the more consequential for a major reason: Finland’s relationship with NATO.

Finland is the newest nation to join the North Atlantic Alliance, having acceded into the group less than a year ago following a concerted effort from current Finnish president Sauli Niinistö. However, its membership is a crucial one for the European Union and all Western allies given Finland’s proximity and shared border with Russia, whose war against Ukraine has nearly reached the two-year mark.

While Stubb, who formerly served as Finland’s prime minister, is a member of the center-right coalition and his opponent, Pekka Haavisto, ran as an independent, they largely agreed on foreign policy. This was particularly true when it came to handling Russia and expanding Finland’s global influence through NATO. Once Stubb takes office, how will his presidency affect Finland’s partnership with the world’s key military alliance?

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Stubb’s campaign was “built on promises to make the most of his country’s new membership of NATO and back Ukraine in its war with shared neighbor Russia,” Anne Kauranen said for Reuters. Before the runoff election, Stubb told the outlet that “very important that we in Europe take care of our own defense,” and said he agreed with Niinistö that the world needs a “more European NATO.”

If not for the situation in Russia, the presidential election would have “gained little notice beyond the borders of the northern European country,” Erika Solomon and Johanna Lemola said for The New York Times. However, Finland shares the single-longest land border with Russia — 830 miles — and how Finland deals with Russian aggression has “taken on special interest to its European and American allies as the geopolitical order shifts,” Solomon and Lemola said. When Finland joined NATO in April 2023, it represented a “sharp break from its decades of nonalignment, and the risks and responsibilities of the country’s new place in the world” have been brought to the forefront.

As the head of state, Stubb will also command Finland’s military, and many Finnish news outlets have “pointed out how Europe’s security is at stake as never before since World War II, due to Russia’s invasion,” Jari Tanner said for The Associated Press. With tensions rising, Stubb has made it clear that his priorities include “maintaining a hardline toward Moscow and Russia’s current leadership, strengthening security ties with Washington, and the need to help Ukraine both militarily and at a civilian level,” Tanner said.

As Stubb takes office, he will “become a president of difficult times, possibly even a wartime president,” Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat said in an op-ed, per the AP. And while Stubb has tried to promote peace through NATO, he is seen as slightly “more hawkish” than Haavisto toward Russia, Charlie Duxbury said for Politico. Notably, Haavisto “opposed the presence of nuclear weapons on Finnish territory while Stubb said it might be necessary under certain circumstances,” Duxbury said, and also “appeared more open than Haavisto to allowing a Finnish military presence on the country’s strategically important Baltic Sea archipelago of Åland.”

What next?

Stubb will be inaugurated as president on March 1. Some noted that Russia will likely try and ramp up its aggression under the new Finnish administration in an attempt to hold Stubb’s feet to the fire right away. “The authorities should be aware that there is a good chance that Russia is going to try and test Finland in some way,” Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said to the Swedish newspaper Expressen

One person who seemed happy with the electoral results was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who congratulated Stubb on his victory. “Ukraine and Finland, in solidarity with other partners, are strengthening the security of entire Europe and each nation on our continent,” Zelenskyy wrote on X. “I look forward to advancing our relations and our shared vision of a free, united, and well-defended Europe.”

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