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The View from Finland: ‘The Russian Garrisons Have Been Emptied. They Don’t Have Anything’

Vazha Tavberidze

RFE/RL, May 26, 2022

“… now the Baltic Sea will practically become a lake [belonging to] NATO. Russia has a couple of 100 kilometers of shoreline in the Baltic Sea, which is 98 percent surrounded by NATO countries. So Russia’s ability to have any military operations there will be practically zero.”

After decades of neutrality, Finland has now formally applied to join NATO. The decision now lies with the parliaments of NATO countries, which need to ratify Finland’s application.

RFE/RL’s Georgian Service spoke to Major General Pekka Toveri, the former intelligence chief of the Finnish General Staff, and Colonel Petteri Kajanmaa, director of the Department of Military Skills at the National Defense College, about Finland’s changing security outlook, the potential stumbling blocks ahead, and why so-called “Finlandization” was never a good model for Ukraine.

The Path To NATO

RFE/RL: There might be possible stumbling blocks along the way to Finland’s NATO accession. Turkey, Hungary, even the Croatian president, seem to be unwilling to commit. How do you intend to deal with that? Can the United States persuade them?

Pekka Toveri: The Croatian president, as I understand, has a special relationship with the Russians, but the Croatian government has a totally different view and the president is not the one who determines things. Turkey might be more interesting and challenging. There’s been discussion between the Finnish political leadership and Turkey already beforehand about this thing. And I think what [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan wants to do now is get some face time in this issue — in what in Finland we call “night milking,” meaning he wants to see what he can get out of this….

I don’t think Hungary is such a big problem. You have to remember that the biggest NATO countries, barring the U.K., are also the biggest EU countries and Hungary is getting a lot of money from the EU. So I don’t think that [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban is willing to risk that and gain the hatred of both NATO and the EU by [making] things difficult for Finland.

RFE/RL: The U.K. has said it would “provide support” if Finland and Sweden were attacked. What does the pact entail exactly? How much support are we talking about and in what manner?

It’s all [Putin’s] fault…. We had a balance [of power] in this area, and it was Putin who decided to change that balance.”

Toveri: It’s not a security guarantee. It’s not a government-to-government agreement ratified by parliament. It’s an assurance, meaning that if we would be attacked, [we could have] military support which would then be decided between Finland and the U.K. [U.K. Prime Minister Boris] Johnson would probably have to go to parliament and ask them to give him the powers to provide such support…. It would depend on the situation, what Russia would do, what’s available, what’s needed.

Finland’s Changing Security

RFE/RL: How would Finland’s NATO membership change the security paradigm in the region, especially with regards to Russia?

Toveri: From Russia’s point of view, it’s a big [problem] because now the Baltic Sea will practically become a lake [belonging to] NATO. Russia has a couple of 100 kilometers of shoreline in the Baltic Sea, which is 98 percent surrounded by NATO countries. So Russia’s ability to have any military operations there will be practically zero.

Petteri Kajanmaa: Finland has always had a good relationship with Russia. During the Cold War and ever since, we tried to create such a relationship [so] that we wouldn’t have any arguments between each other. [But] that might change now, because of the Russian point of view [according to which] NATO is the enemy, or at least on the opposing side.

If Finland joins NATO, then we are on the enemy side, so to say. So, it will change the basic relationship. All those basic security policy instruments, which we had in Europe, [were] ruined at that moment when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin decided to launch his military operation [against Ukraine on February 24].

RFE/RL: Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said if the Russians aren’t pleased, then they should look in the mirror. To what extent does President Vladimir Putin have himself to blame for this outcome?

Toveri: It’s all his fault. For years, Russia has said Finland shouldn’t join NATO, but it’s Finland’s decision, [and that has] been good enough for Finland…. But then in December [2021], when President Putin said that Finland can’t join NATO and if Finland joins NATO there would be consequences, that was a direct threat, trying to force Finland’s hand.

[Russia could stop] selling us gas. But Russian energy is a very small part of Finnish energy consumption. It might hurt for a couple of weeks…but it’s not going to cripple our economy in any way.”

[And then] we saw with the aggression against Ukraine that Putin is blatantly willing to use force against even other Slavic nations. That’s what our president means when he says: “You should look in the mirror.” It’s your fault, not our fault. We had a balance [of power] in this area, and it was Putin who decided to change that balance.

RFE/RL: Did Putin’s December statement tip the scales in NATO’s favor in the minds of the Finnish government and society?

Kajanmaa: I think, from the politicians’ point of view, they realized at that moment that someone else was trying to decide on behalf of Finland and that’s not acceptable. It’s not President Putin who says what Finland can and cannot do.

Flag of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Wikipedia)

RFE/RL: Is there a sense of concern in Finnish society? A sense of: “We are going into NATO. What is Russia going to do now?”

Kajanmaa: Yes, it’s [clear] that it’s one of the biggest topics [of discussion]. Our citizens thought that if we have really good cooperation with Russia, then we wouldn’t have to fear them. But now the Russians have showed that it doesn’t matter. They had some sort of a good relationship with Ukraine before 2014, and now the situation is what it is — and that’s why our citizens have changed their minds.

What Threat Does Russia Pose to Finland?

RFE/RL: The Kremlin has threatened Finland with “military and political consequences.” Is that an empty threat? What can Russia actually do?

Toveri: I’d say that [Russia’s] possibilities are somewhat limited currently. Traditionally, Russia has used political, economic, and military pressure — and power. Well, there’s no political power anymore. They don’t have this leverage [in Finland]. Their economic power is very small, because even before the war, our trade with Russia was something like 5 percent of the total trade in Finland. And now it’s maybe half of that and still going down. So there’s not much they can stop. [They could stop] selling us gas. But Russian energy is a very small part of Finnish energy consumption. It might hurt for a couple of weeks for southern areas of industry to replace the Russian gas, but it’s not going to cripple our economy in any way.

U.S. Marines participate in a military exercise called Cold Response 2022, gathering around 30,000 troops from NATO member countries, plus Finland and Sweden, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, near Bjerkvik in the Arctic Circle in Norway on March 24.

Then [regarding] military power, [Putin’s] forces are tied up in Ukraine…. Barring nuclear weapons, in conventional terms, they don’t have anything with which they could seriously threaten Finland’s independence and existence in such a way that they could force our hand, especially now that the United Kingdom and some other NATO countries will give us some assurances of military support if we are attacked.

Kajanmaa: Of course, Russia can harm [Finland] and they are trying to put pressure on our decision-makers…. Of course, they will try to threaten our politicians and our citizens with the consequences — that’s the first one, so using information warfare. And secondly, they might try to deploy more military units close to our border and maybe some military instruments as well.

We are pretty sure that they won’t launch any kind of military operation because first, they don’t have the capabilities and they don’t have any reason to do that.Right now, they don’t have enough troops to do that because they are busy in Ukraine. But after the Ukraine war, they might build some new garrison areas and bases closer to the Finnish border, but it’s not that easy. Of course, they can move missile defenses and so on, weapons systems close to our border. It’s more or less threatening. It’s not nothing, but it’s not as serious as it sounds.

We are pretty sure that [Russia] won’t launch any kind of military operation because, first, they don’t have the capabilities, and they don’t have any reason to do that.”

RFE/RL: Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer land border with Russia. Is that not a cause of concern if Russia is making mischief?

Toveri: The thing is that 90 percent of that border is wilderness, it’s just forest…no road, no network, no anything. Attacking with land forces across the border is mostly impossible…. They don’t have any land force [to do that]; 80 percent of their combat-capable land forces are in Ukraine. The garrisons next to the Finnish border have been emptied…. They don’t have anything.

Of course, they could look to air attacks over that long border, but our air defenses and air force are in pretty good condition, and we’ve seen the quality of the Russian Air Force in Ukraine — it’s really not too impressive. So it would be a very big risk for Russia to try something like that.

I’d say that the most vulnerable thing is our communications, because Finland is logistically an island and almost 90 percent of our trade goes on Western sea lines of communications. And if you go down south…that is where the major Baltic Sea forces of Russia are, at Kaliningrad, close to Poland. But again, that’s where the assurances given by some of the NATO countries are important because NATO has an overwhelming maritime force in the Baltic Sea. So I think that they could help there.

Kajanmaa: Of course, we will double, more than double, NATO’s border with Russia and we know exactly what’s behind that border, mostly forested areas. They do have some bases and military installations there. Of course, they can do something, but we know where and we can control that and we are prepared for that every day.

They can fly over Finnish airspace. They can move troops very close to the border. They can arrange military exercises, move those long-range missile units close to the border. And [they can do] what happened in 2015 — they can push refugees from Russia to Finland…. But, actually, we are not worried because our society — and, of course, our officials — are ready for those kinds of actions.

We are pretty sure that they won’t launch any kind of military operation because, first, they don’t have the capabilities, and they don’t have any reason to do that.

How NATO Could Change Finland’s Military

RFE/RL: Putin says he won’t object to membership per se, but that it’s NATO infrastructure he is worried about. What NATO military infrastructure do you expect to be introduced in Finland, in terms of bases, air-defense systems, for example?

Toveri: That is a difficult question to answer. I think that it would totally depend on the situation. First of all, I doubt that there would be separate NATO bases in Finland. If there would be air force or navy units arriving, they would probably use existing Finnish bases that could maybe be enlarged a bit if needed. Same goes for army units.

Instead of major units, I could see maybe the need for certain capabilities that we don’t have ourselves just now, such as long-distance air defense/ballistic missile-defense units. Overall I don’t think that there would be a need to permanently base NATO units in Finland, but [instead] to improve our capability to receive temporary reinforcement if needed.

RFE/RL: I know Finland very closely cooperates with NATO, in NATO’s Partnership For Peace program and has taken part in NATO missions. Does Finland becoming a NATO member also mean you are going to increase the numbers of your professional army?

Kajanmaa: It depends on how we negotiate with NATO. We don’t know what NATO wants us to give them. Of course, we will participate in the Baltic Sea maritime surveillance. We will participate most probably in Baltic air surveillance activities. We will cooperate with Sweden and Norway in the northern part.

So we will establish the northern flank of NATO in the future, and I think there are enough tasks for the Finnish defense forces. I don’t see any reason why Finland should send, for example, one brigade to Greece because we have our own threats here and vice versa. I don’t think that any Greek or Italian units will be seen in Finland because it’s a different part of NATO. But all that is a matter of the negotiation process with NATO.

RFE/RL: Would NATO membership change in any way Finland’s conscription system?

Toveri: No, I don’t expect any changes. We have a big country to defend with a small population. We’ve seen in Finland that the most important part of our defenses is building willingness to defend the country among the population. That comes through general conscription because, that way, every family more or less is tied up in the [country’s] defense.

And we’ve seen that when the Cold War ended, many countries [abandoned] the conscription system and went for a professional force [and in those countries] the willingness to defend the country went down drastically…. And that means we still need the conscription system, for sure — even as a NATO member, the responsibility to defend Finland lies 99 percent with the Finns. We can’t lower our guard.

RFE/RL: Prior to the war, a model was offered to settle the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and this was unofficially dubbed “Finlandization.” With Finland joining NATO now, is that model dead?

Kajanmaa: I have never been fond of that idea, that we use Finlandization as a model for Ukraine or anyone else. [Finlandization was from] the Cold War. It was our survival mechanism. We were between East and West and the Soviet Union was a totally different player than Russia is now. We tried to choose our way of, like I said, survival during that time.

For Ukraine, they are not ready for that kind of work with Russia, because they want to be independent. They are heading West and all those [with] Soviet heritage have already moved, except Belarus, to the West, to Europe, so Ukraine wants to follow that and Finlandization does not help that process.

Note: These two interviews were conducted separately. The interviews have been abridged and edited for clarity

Vazha Tavberidze is a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow working with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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