Prepared for self-defence, Finland still works to solidify its partnerships with the Euro-Atlantic community

25 June 2018

Brussels / Helsinki, 25 June 2018 - As the Baltic Sea security environment heats up, the Finns know they are ready to defend themselves if necessary, a cohort of the Finland’s political and defence decision makers told a delegation from the Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Defence and Security Cooperation (DSCTC) led by DSCTC Chairman and NATO PA Vice-President Lord Campbell of Pittenweem (UK) and NATO PA President Paolo Alli (Italy) during a recent visit to Helsinki. While a strong message of independence and self-reliance pervaded the DSCTC visit, it was also clear Finland views itself as a valuable security partner in the Euro-Atlantic community. With clear deference for its history, Finland is forging ahead as a dynamic contributor to regional and global security.

“We do not feel particularly unsafe here in Finland, but we are seeing increased military activity in the Baltic Sea, especially since Crimea. We continue to promote better dialogue between NATO and Russia, but we are also realistic in our assessments of the evolutions of the security environment in this region,” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö told the delegation. 

Dramatic shifts in the Baltic Sea region would have profound consequences for Finland. A full 80-90% of Finland’s imports and exports are shipped through the Baltic Sea, as such the nation places significant importance on unencumbered sea lanes of communication. Security of supply into Helsinki is part and parcel of the nation’s comprehensive security. As officials at the National Emergency Supply Agency put it quite clearly: “A functioning economy, secure infrastructure, and national defence all combine to secure the vital needs of the population; all three must work in harmony.” Still, as Chief of Defence Staff Lieutenant General Timo Kivinen noted, “any military crisis in the region would put Finland directly in the middle,” which is focusing the nation’s leaders’ attention today. 

Finland shares a 1,340km land border with Russia and Russia’s posture in the region has changed significantly in recent years, Finnish defence officials told the delegation. Increased force structure in the Kola Peninsula, the build-up of anti-access/area denial systems in the Saint Petersburg region, and large-scale snap exercises in the Arctic and Baltic Sea regions are forcing the Finnish government to conclude the significant shift in the security environment means the early warning period in crisis times has greatly shortened, requiring new levels of force and civilian readiness.

“We have a long history of war against Russia.” Juuka Juusti Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence of Finland told members of the DSCTC. “We believe it has taught us a lot about the Russians. We did not believe the world had changed two decades ago the way many other states in Europe had. As a result, we have been preparing for the future better than most nations in Europe.” 

As a result, the delegation learned, Finland is working to increase the strength and readiness of its forces. Finland has already increased their wartime mobilisation forces from 230,000 to 280,000 today; hypothetically even scalable to over 900,000 in the event all trained conscripts are called upon to defend the nation. The last decade Finland has focused on strengthening the mobility and firepower of its land forces. As a result, Finland now has one of the biggest field artilleries and tank forces in Western Europe. The Ministry of Defence’s next focus will be the Navy, followed by the Air Force in relatively rapid succession. Precision strike capabilities will be essential to all services. Throughout, the Finnish Defence Forces have maintained focus on developing state-of-the-art cyber and communication systems. 

Despite these very large potential wartime force numbers for a nation of just 5.5 million, the peace time defence force structure is relatively small, standing at just 21,300, with an additional 21,000 and 18,000 immediately available conscripts and reservists respectively. As the commander of the Kaarti Jaeger Regiment told the delegation, the maintenance of a strong conscription system in Finland is “a means to keep younger generations focused on defence of the nation as a priority.” In addition to national pride and duty, the commander added about the conscription system: “If you want to maintain your passport, you have to serve in Finland.”

In addition to self-reliance, Finland is increasing its international defence cooperation at the bi-lateral and multilateral levels. Finland and Sweden have a special level of bi-lateral defence cooperation: As the nation’s recently published defence white paper notes, for example, there will be no limits for defence cooperation between the two in the event of an attack by a third party. In addition, Finland has developed its bi-lateral defence cooperation with the United States, which began in earnest, officials noted, with Finland’s acquisition of the Boeing F-18 multirole combat fighter back in the 1990s.

Finland also views its defence cooperation with the EU and NATO to be essential. “When Finland joined the EU in 1995, it was the end of Finnish neutrality as it had been understood for most of the 20th century,” an official from the Finnish Foreign Ministry told the delegation. Finland has always been very supportive of European defence cooperation and views a stronger European Defence posture as a benefit for all European states – whether in NATO or not. Still, as defence officials cautioned, a stronger EU on defence and security, such as through the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) initiative, must be done with an understanding of the key role NATO plays as the cornerstone of broader European security and with the understanding that each participating nation only has a single set of armed forces upon which to draw.

As the European security environment has shifted over the last several years, the paradigm of NATO-Finland relations has changed as well, officials noted. Finland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace initiative in 1994, but in response to rising tensions in Europe Finland was identified as an Enhanced Partnership partner in 2014. As defence officials made clear, Finland adds significant capabilities, particularly in terms of territorial defence, and is an important player when considering the regional balance of forces. 

When thinking about its relationship with NATO, Mr. Juusti put it succinctly: “Finland must be at least a reliable Partner with NATO as NATO Allies themselves are within the Alliance.” By way of example, Finland will surpass the 2% GDP in defense spending benchmark by the early 2020s. Still, officials were quick to note that a strong partnership with NATO does not mean Finland has plans to seek NATO membership any time soon. Public support to join the Alliance is only about 25%, but there is strong and clear public support for continued close cooperation with NATO. 

As Ilkka Kanerva, Head of the NATO PA delegation to Finland told the delegation: “The possibility of NATO membership is a good card for Finland to have in its hand, but not to play it.” Still, as many officials and analysts hinted to the delegation throughout the visit, future Finnish membership of NATO cannot be counted out.

The delegation from the NATO PA Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Defence and Security Cooperation consisted of 20 NATO member state and partner parliamentarians from 11 different nations. A full report of the Sub-Committee’s visit to Estonia and Finland, which took place on 11-15 June 2018, will be made available on the NATO PA website.