News2019.04.24 15:35

Why Finland feels more secure outside NATO

Andrius Balčiūnas, 2019.04.24 15:35

While the Baltic countries stake their security on NATO, their northern neighbour Finland, which has a 1,340-kilometre border with Russia, neither is nor intends to become a member. If it did, Moscow's reaction would threaten to upset any gains Finland could expect from NATO membership, says Charly Salonius-Pasternak, senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA).

In an interview with, Salonius-Pasternak discusses Finland's security strategies outside and alongside NATO and explains why the Finns tend to overestimate their defence capacity.

Finland has a history of successfully defending itself during World War Two. How does this narrative affect its response to new threats today?

Is World War Two alive in the public consciousness? Yes. In many ways, some of which are useful, some of which are harmful. Useful in the sense that there is an understanding that it is worthwhile to try to defend your country, even if the odds seem bad.

Then there are also some harmful myths. One of which is that Finland has always been left alone and always had to fight by itself. Historically, it simply isn't true. Have there been large militaries sent to help Finland? No, but in the Winter War Sweden sent a third of its air force, allowed all officers to go and help defend Finland as volunteers.

Then, in the summer of 1944, when the Soviet Union started a mass attack which was to end in an invasion of Finland, the Finnish president and Hitler made an agreement. The Finns made it only on the personal level, which is why it was broken a little later, but this agreement allowed significant and important military aid to be given to Finland. Without it, the Finnish history might have been different.

So the argument that Finland has always been left alone, never given assistance, is counter-productive, because it's a myth. I understand why that little part [about Hitler] was left out during the Cold War. But because it was left out, there emerged a myth that no one's ever helped us.

It also has generated this idea of having credible independent national defence. Of course, you can do the math, Finland doesn't have as many weapon systems as it probably should. So the idea of what is credible defence in this era of modern weapons isn’t very good.

So I'd say [WW2 history] has this positive emotional national pride element, but it has a negative one in terms of probably an over-strong sense of how well Finland could do in an extended war against Russia.

Is there much public support for strengthening the armed forces?

There is and there always will be a gap between what the professionals do daily and what the public knows or can be told. That's natural.

But there is a sense that because defending the country is valuable, it should also be invested in. There are these two big projects which are funded outside the defence budget, but if you included them and counted the defence budget the way NATO does, you're well over two percent of the GDP.

And this has across-the-board political support. In 2017, when the last government debated the defence white paper, there was a sentence or two that the air fleet would be replaced in full. The airforce had said they needed 64 fighters. The Left Alliance said: Yes, we have to modernize, but we’ll only accept 60 fighters. So effectively, the most anti-militaristic party agrees with the air force. That doesn't happen anywhere else in Europe, I think.

Finland is not a NATO member, but conducts joint exercises with the alliance and Sweden. Is that enough as far as defence cooperation goes or would Finland consider joinin NATO?

When the public is asked about what they think about deeper defence cooperation with Sweden, the Nordic countries, EU countries, NATO, the US, it goes like this: With the Nordic countries and Sweden, 94-95 percent think it's a good thing. And that’s as good as it gets, you wouldn't have 95 percent of Finns say that free alcohol is good.

When you go to the EU, it's around 80, for NATO it's between 50 and 60 percent, and the US, around 50 percent.

Do I think the public or even parts of the parliament realise how deep the cooperation already is? Not at all. They have no idea what Finland and Sweden are doing or even what they and NATO are doing. I'd venture to say it came somewhat as a surprise to most of the people last fall when in the Trident Juncture exercise Finland and Sweden together practised to defend Norway. Not under some crisis management scenario, but actual Article 5 defence where Finland and Sweden defended Norway.

Doing this publicly would have been inconceivable even five years. So I think there's a gap which is perhaps growing because of the speed with which the cooperation between Finland and Sweden and NATO is increasing. It takes years or a decade for the public to recognize that there's been a shift.

In terms of joining NATO, since the mid-1990s, the percentage of the population who think Finland should not join NATO has been 60-70 percent and the percentage of those who think Finland should join NATO, between 20 and 30 percent. And that hasn't changed much. It changed a little bit after Georgia, after Ukraine, it went down during the Iraq war. It tracks with what the Finns think about the US president, for instance.

Then there is Sweden, where in fact the opposition was nearly 80 percent and support was 10 percent. And in Sweden, they've crossed now. The last measurement is about 40-40.

No such change in Finland. This means that for politicians it wouldn’t be clever to push for NATO membership. There are only two parties, the National Coalition and the Swedish People’s Party, that say in their platforms that Finland should join NATO. Everyone else thinks it should be an option, no one thinks the door should be closed, but even those people who might have been outspoken before, fundamentally have taken the Finnish president’s [Sauli Niinistö] line: NATO’s presence and the Baltic states’ membership increases security and stability in the region, but Finland’s NATO membership would in fact destabilise the region right now. And therefore it makes no sense for Finland to seek NATO membership.

Does that not give the appearance of pandering to Russia?

In 2007, I was heading a project looking at NATO's change from collective defence to a more of a crisis management organisation, but even then we did a little analysis on this and our conclusion was that Russia would be likely to use a whole range of tools, including military ones, to try to ensure that Finland doesn't join NATO. I don't think this has changed, in fact, this conclusion holds stronger.

Both when you ask politicians and when you look at opinion polls, Russia appears to be both a reason to join NATO and not to join. Join because it would help our defence if Russia ever attacked Finland. Not to join because it would antagonise Russia without genuinely providing a lot more defensive capability. It’s a paradox, but this is simply how the population and most politicians approach it.

Have you noticed any disinformation campaigns directed against Finland?

I wouldn’t say you see that much of Russian public disinformation, regarding NATO membership. Partially because there’s no need. Why waste resource?

More broadly, much of the time Finland is just caught in the crossfire. There is some stuff that you can see in Sweden or in the Baltics or in Western Europe. There are also some specific things about Finland and in those cases some of it is clumsy, but some of it actually betrays a fairly subtle understanding of the Finnish identity and how Finns understand history.

Some years ago, there was a whole effort to generate this issue regarding Russian children. Stories about the Finnish government taking children from Finnish-Russian families and giving them to the Finnish partner; if you travel from Saint Petersburg to Finland, the Finnish authorities will just take your children; there is a concentration camp in northern Lapland for Russian children. All sorts of crazy things.

At first the Finnish authorities thought: this is so insane that we are not even responding to it. And then a lot of people who studied it said: You have to respond, because otherwise some crazy story about a camp for Russian children in Lapland will stick no matter how insane it sounds. So the Finnish authorities eventually became quite good at directly responding, bringing in Russian journalists to explain things. That, for instance, Finnish authorities cannot talk about child cases to protect the children, not because they are dodging the question. So explaining just the basics of how Finland works seemed to have an effect on both the Russian authorities and some journalists, even those working for what I would call state media.

So it hasn't gone away, but it's not as big a problem as it is in some other countries.

How has Finland adapted to a changing security environment?

Historically, the Finnish authorities and society, the private sector, have cooperated quite well. But, certainly, it’s gotten much more intense since 2014. More cooperation, really frequent exercises and training among the police, customs, border guard, military, the Red Cross. And it goes down to daycare. Because if you all of a sudden call in lots of border guards or the military, what do you do with their kids? You can’t expect people to just leave kids at home for a week or a month.

Related to that is going through the laws. It’s really boring, unsexy, but seeing where the legal loopholes that someone can take advantage of are is important. The defence minister called it the green non-insignia men legislation. Going through the legislation made clear that there were some instances where it would have been slightly problematic for the Finnish authorities to do something in that situation. You might say that, well, if there’s a crisis, you just ignore the laws; no, if you ignore the laws, then you get a lot of other serious issues.

And third, military readiness. Frequently there is a sense that these hybrid green men [in Ukraine] are magical. But it really worked because of the massive conventional military bulk build up on the eastern borders of Ukraine. That is to say that our military has to be fast enough that so that [Russia] cannot easily achieve these faits accomplis of taking a small piece of territory. And if they’re gonna do it, they need to do it now with such large volume that our intelligence gathering system should be able to detect it.

Does Finland support deeper military cooperation among EU member states?

Yes, it's been particularly the Finnish president's pet project for years and years. Partially because Finland does not belong to NATO and it’s not like he doesn’t realize that for most of Europe, NATO is the hard defence solution.

Then you do other things through the EU. There is an interesting debate about this article 42.7 of the EU treaty on common defence. Of course, there is no common defence organisation, because most of Europe has solved it through NATO. But nonetheless, the Finnish government has been trying to figure out what it would mean in concrete terms. France used the article after its terror attacks in 2015 and one of the things Finland had to do was to change its laws so it could provide the kind of assistance that France wanted or needed.

So Finland has been trying to figure out: If Finland were attacked, what would be the mechanisms for Finland to get bilateral assistance.

Yes, EU defence cooperation is important, but I think it is important within this broader framework of cooperating with NATO as an EU member with the idea that you don't know what kind of crisis it is going to be. You don’t know whose interests will be involved, but if you cooperate with as many different groups as possible, the likelihood of getting assistance from somewhere increases. That is how I think the Finnish-EU cooperation should also be seen.

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