New Security and Defence Designs – The Case of Finland

(Em Português : aqui )

Many things have happened in only a little more than a year. In my home country Finland a very basic foundation of your security policy has been shattered. Finlands is not any more a neutral country, not even an unaligned one, but a NATO member. That is a situation that very few finns would have thought even possible only 2 years ago but now it is a reality and a self evident fact that no one really calls into question.

Finland and Portugal are both small countries at opposite ends of the European continent. We are both neighbours to a bigger country. We are both little brothers to that bigger neighbour. BUt in one aspect we differ very much.

Where Portugal has the Atlantic along its border Finland has Russia. That has had a profound impact on our sense of security and our approach to foreign policy.

When the former Finnish defence minster Häkämies was asked some 15 years ago what Finland’s biggest security challenge is, he said that there are three challenges.

“They are Russia, Russia and Russia.”

15 years ago that statement raised a lot of eyebrows. It even created some criticism especially from the left side of the political spectrum in Finland.

Today that is viewed as a blunt statement of facts. That is our challenge, and as far as security goes, the only military threat one we have.

I will talk about the situation today, but to approach that point I want to go some time back in history. I’ll talk about the background story of Finland’s  development, how our sense of security was formed, what historical facts and happenings has lead to our approach. How we gradually have released ourselves from our post war trauma, how Finland has approached the west – because it has been a slow and not totally easy process.

I will talk about our security concept and how it differs from other countries’ security solutions. I’ll talk about the  thinking behind it.

And at the end I will discuss the reasons that eventually drove Finland and hopefully also Sweden to become nato members. What the war in Ukraine means for Europe and the world and how it challenges our view of where we are in the world. How should security be viewed in Europe, what is our biggest threat and how can we come out of this crisis with a firmer grasp on reality.

Because it is fair to say, dear friends, that we Europeans have been more than naive for too long a time.

There are moments in time that define a nation. For Finland it is easy to see what that occasion was.

I will come to the war in Ukraine later in this talk, but there are reasons why the war has resonated so strongly with the Finnish population.

On the 30th of November 1939 Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union in a war that was supposed to be very short and swift. Shostakovich had already written a musical piece that was to be performed in Helsinki a few days after the attack. Stalin thought that the Red army would be able to march unchallenged to our capital and that the Soviets would be welcomed as liberators and friends.

Much like Putin thought he would be welcomed in Kiev after only three days of fighting.

He did not receive that welcome.

Finland fought for 105 days in what is called The Winter War. Finland was the only country that fought against the Soviets that wasn’t invaded and conquered.

Finland  had to secede some territory, but the losses on the Soviet side were so dramatic that Stalin agreed to strike a peace deal with us Finns.

The winter war learnt us Finns that Russia is a threat, that it can’t be trusted, that it has imperial ambitions and that we have to – and are able to – defend ourselves. Alliances are good but in the end every country has to take care of itself. It is a question of economy, defence, production, education, and most of all cooperation.

That lesson has been the foundation for the Finnish security thinking ever since.

After the war Finland went through some very hard times. We were independent, but we were clearly under Soviet influence. There was a pragmatic need to have good relations with our neighbour in the east and it wasn’t totally without benefits. Finland had a lot of bilateral business relations with the USSR but on the other hand we had limited freedom of movement in the international sphere.

We balanced between the west and the east, slowly nudging us in a westward direction.

When NATO was formed in 1949 it was clear that Finland would not become a member. But neither did Sweden. Sweden stayed outside of NATO because of its long history of neutrality but also out of loyalty to Finland. Had we been left alone on the side of the soviet bear, history could have turned out differently.

But slowly we inched ourself westwards. First Finland became a member of the Nordic council in 1955. IN 1961 Finland struck a free trade deal with EFTA. In 1973 we signed a free trade deal with the EC and in 1986 we joined EFTA.

This all happened during a time where the Finnish approach by many was seen as overly pragmatic. The term “finlandisierung”, “finlandisation”, was coined.

We balanced for our survival, trying to uphold friendly relationships with the USSR while at the same time developing into a market-oriented western country.

I clearly remember how we were kind of ashamed about this “finlandisation” epithet. When I came to Angra as an 17 year old young boy in 1987 I had thought about it a lot and had all kinds of answers ready in my head in case somebody would ask me.

Well, nobody did.

And the era of finlandisation ended sooner than many would have thought.

The crash of the Soviet Union changed history. It did not End it, as Francis Fukuyama thought in his 1992 book, but it changed it.

And that also lead Finland to take the final steps needed to become fully integrated in the Western European context.

We became EU members in 1995 after a fairly tight national referendum. For me, for many Finns, it was a big emotional step. And ever since Finland has been one of the most EU-positive countries in the union. Even if we for a big part of our membership has been a net contributor economically.

But lets go back to security. These are the events that has formed our security concept. Rely on yourself, be ready, be prepared.

Finland has a population of 5,5 million. We have a wartime army strength of 270 thousand soldiers and a reserve of almost a million. We have the biggest artillery in Europe. We have a more powerful armed force than most European countries.

And this is not a new development. We have had a conscription based military during our whole existence. National defence is a national task, you could even call it a mission.

Every young man – and many women – is supposed to serve. And most do it. And it’s is not only a way of teaching military skills or upholding a military readiness, it is also a way of creating national unity.

I often say that the Finnish superpower is trust. A trust in society. Things are fairly easy in Finland. You seldom need a lot of paper work, the promise you make carries a lot of weight.

And I believe  that the shared military service has a lot to do with that.

When a whole class of young people is going through a shared experience, military service, it creates a bond that builds trust. And that trust later on carries into life and  society and makes it easy to agree on many things.

So did the history end with the Cold War? No.

While most European states implemented fundamental transformations of their armed forces in the wake of the Cold War—moving from large- scale warfighting capabilities toward small all-volunteer forces the Finnish approach to defense changed little. Being situated next to a military great power, Russia, the logic for our military defense did not change in the early 1990s, even when the Soviet Union collapsed. Though the Western framework for international security changed remarkably in the 1990s and after, Finland continued to procure main battle tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, fighter interceptors, ground-based air defense missile systems, and other military systems required by a defensive “big war approach.”

We prepared for a situation that most countries thought would never come. We prepared for the situation Ukraine is facing now  – and bought up tanks that the Netherlands didn’t think they’d need any more or cannons Germany wanted to get rid of.

In the middle of the biggest economic crisis Finland ever has had, the depression of the early nineties, we bought a significant amount of F/A 18s from the US. We were ridiculed for living in the old world but thought they might come handy some day. While at the same time hoping they wouldn’t.

The guiding principle in the military defense realm has been that quick U- turns are not possible. Military transformation takes about 30 years. Getting rid of existing capabilities is possible in a few years—building new ones takes years and decades. This is something several countries now has realised.

Today, as during the Cold War, the Finnish defense system is based on the principle that “even the biggest bear will not eat a porcupine.” It is not about matching the level of military capability around Finland’s vicinity; it is about making any potential military operation against Finland so costly that even attempting it does not seem an attractive option. Increasing international cooperation in the field of defense— with Sweden, for example—supports this logic.

I talked earlier about trust. An essential aspect and of a defense capability is the citizens’ will to defend the country. Every effort is made to ensure this will remains high. More than 80 percent of the adult population agrees that Finland should be defended militarily against an attack in all situations, even those in which success is not certain. This among the highest numbers in Europe. I think it is only surpassed by the number of Ukraine.

In other countries the result is significantly lower. As a 2015 Gallup International’s global survey concluded, “61% of those polled across 64 countries would be willing to fight for their country, while 27% would not. However, there are significant variations by region. Willingness to is lowest in Western Europe there it is 25%.”

The numbers are high not because we Finns don’t now what national defence is and what it might mean in practice, but because we do.

General conscription is also a major factor reinforcing the strength of Finnish society. . In addition to providing a required manpower pool of resources to the wartime defense forces, general conscription strengthens the entire society and its resilience during crises. Having a purpose in the society—and being ready to sacrifice time and effort—is a key unifying element. Practically every household in Finland has one or several citizen-soldiers in their midst. I have 5 children – 4 sons and a daughter. My middle son, Alvar, just came out of military service and will continue with an ordinary life studying economics.

I am an officer in the reserve. Most Finns have designated wartime units and designated tasks in case of a crisis.

But security is not only a military matter. The Finnish security doctrine is formed around a concept called the Comprehensive security model. It is built around military defence but above all around the concept that the whole of society has a task in case of a crisis.

We have national defence courses that are attended by most top business executives and civil servants. That means that both businesses and civil society know what builds security. Everybody has a task. Everybody knows what they can and should do in the case of a crisis.

Societal cohesion also has an impact Educated people with jobs and possibilities for a decent life have few or no incentives for anti-societal behaviour. This is particularly true when peoples’ absolute welfare is related to a sense of justice and the just distribution of wealth and welfare within society. That’s why equality of opportunity can’t be overlooked.

When you feel that you have a place in society you want to contribute. When you feel that you receive something you want to give. That is also at the core of the Finnish – or Nordic – model.

And especially today, when attacks can come in various ways, when hybrid warfare can hurt you as much as conventional warfare education is key.

Because Russia has extensive information warfare programs. We know what they did in the 2016 US election. We know what they did in the Brexit referendum. Many right – or left wing radical European parties have shady ties to RUssia. In this reality education is paramount and especially media literacy.

Even if Finland has been the target of extensive information operations from Russia the impact has been modest at best. An educated population can tell true from fake and is more resilient in the face of hybrid attacks.

But lets go back to the present day.

Many of us thought that Russia was a changed country. The good will that poured into Russia in the nineties and still well into this millennium was significant. Yes, maybe we took things for granted, and yes, maybe all the consultation the Russian government received in the 90s wasn’t top notch but still things could have gone in a very different direction.

In its attempt to secure power in the late 90s the circle around Yeltsin did some critical mistakes that really undermined the Russian political system.

And most of all – it underestimated Putin and thought he was a puppet that they could handle. He obviously wasn’t.

Putin is not a democrat. He is a nostalgic imperialist who doesn’t scoff at using even the most harsh of measures in order to achieve his goals.

He didn’t hesitate to level Groznyi. He didn’t hesitate to invade Georgia. He didn’t hesitate in removing his opponents from the playing field whether they are called Lebedev, Politkovskaya or Navalnyi. He didn’t hesitate to invade Crimea, to lie on international or national TV and now he didn’t hesitate to invade Ukraine thus causing the biggest threat to international security since the second word war.

For us it is difficult to see the rationale behind it. For a nostalgic imperialist the rationale is probably very simple. What other things has he caused?

The invasion of Ukraine lead to many things. It was a war that supposedly was motivated by a need to stop countries from joining NATO.

So far it has achieved several things, none of which provably were intended. It has very likely destroyed the economic future for Russia for several decades. It has plummeted the international status of Russia. When your only support in the UN comes from Belarus, Eritrea, Syria, Nicaragua and North Korea you know you have a problem.

The war caused two non-aligned countries, Finland and Sweden, to become NATO members. Well, Sweden is still waiting for Erdogan and Orban to get their act together, but eventually Sweden will enter.

Instead of stopping countries from joining NATO Putin has more than doubled Russia’s border with NATO. That is quite an achievement.

Because NATO wasn’t really on Finland’s radar. We have actually effectively tried to avoid a NATO debate. We rather talked about Nordic cooperation, because it was easier. We rather talked about the defence component of the EUropean Union, because that seemed friendlier.

Thanks to our history NATO was a more difficult subject.

My party was one of only two parties out of nine in parliament who had been positive towards a membership. Now all parties support it.

Support hovered around 20 percent for decades. When Russia invaded Georgia it didn’t move. When Russia invaded Crimea it didn’t move. When I two years ago called for a membership process when it was evident that Russia had something going on it didn’t move.

But when Russian tanks started marching towards Kiev the Finnish people had had enough. Support immediately went over 50% and is now at a steady 80%.

We Finns are pragmatic people. We can be stubborn, but when the situation changes we can change our minds. We thought for too long that you can deal with the Russians. When Putin showed his true face, to quote our President: “when his mask fell off”, we adopted to that reality. And the rest is history. In parliament 187 members voted for a membership and only 6 against. That is an enormous majority.

It was of course of paramount importance that Sweden also joined nato. That lead to some intense shuttling back and forth between Sweden and Finland in March and April of 2022. We Finns had to convince Sweden to change their position. And it wasn’t totally easy.

For Sweden being neutral is an integral part of their national identity. They have ABBA, IKEA, meat balls and neutrality. Parting with that was difficult and the Swedish PM Andersson was very reluctant at first.

Tage Erlander who was a prime minister in Sweden when NATO was formed, said in his memoirs that Sweden stayed out of NATO to an extent out of solidarity with Finland. No we Finns had, out of solidarity, to gently push Sweden into NATO.

And we succeeded, of which I am happy.

WIth Finland and Sweden as member NATO gains some significant capabilities. These countries are strong democracies, two of the more capable military powers in Europe and have  significant defense industries.

Neither of them is a burden and both  can  take care of their defensive reponsibilities.

Considering that, it is sad to see the extent to which a political game has been played around the ratification process. An alliance that essentially depends on the “three musketeers principle”, one for all, all for one, that can’t swiftly ratify the membership of two candidates that absolutely strengthen the alliance has a problem.

So let’s hope the promise Erdogan made in Vilnius a few weeks ago holds.

But in the meantime the war goes on. And it has exposed a lot of problems we had refused to see until now.

Europe has been all to dependent on the US for its defence. We have dismantled our defence industry and our readiness. Most countries have dismantled their conscription based systems and turned towards all voluntary forces that are small and more suitable for small limited tasks than defending Europe.

During this year Europe has helped Ukraine in many ways. Also militarily. It has also been a revelation in the negative sense that we do not have the adequate stockpiles. We have howitzers, but not enough ammunition. We might have planes, but few have tanks,

I was one of two Finnidh parlamentarians that started the European Leopard-initiative that lead to several European countries shipping Leopard 1 and 2 tanks to Ukraine. While we have plentiful numbers of these modern tanks in Europe only a few of the are in shape to be rolled out if there was to be a crisis.

Our readiness has been abysmally bad.

NATO does now cover a big part of the EU. It is not worthwhile building parallel structures. But even if we have NATO every country has to carry its own weight. There are very few things a think DOnald Trump deserves credit for, but bringing up the NATO 2% – rule is one of them. Every country should spend at least 2% of its GDP on defence for us to have credible capacities, living next door to Russia.

And taking a page from the Finnish comprehensive defence toolkit: Security is a broad concept. We realised last year what energy dependence means.

A reliance on fossil fuels and resources that are in the hands of authoritarian dictators lead to dependencies that can be catastrophic. We cannot close our eyes to democracy deficits when dealing with countries  and must take a critical look at our dependencies in general.

And as this summers forest fires have showed us time an again. Security is also an environmental issue. A world in which climate change rages in not secure for anybody. But that is a discussion for a differentiaali discussion. 

Thank you for listening, and I am happy to take any questions a you might have.


(Käännös Portigaliksi pidetystä puheesta konferenssissa ”Novos Desafios de Segurança e Defesa” 2.8.2023)

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