June 8, 2018

Vakaus vaakalaudalla: Ajatuksia turvallisuuspoliitikkamme suunnasta (Equilibrium in the Balance: Thoughts on the Direction of Our Security Policy)


Edited by Timo Hakkarainen. Helsinki: Into Kustannus Oy, 2017. 287 pp.

Reviewed by Margus Laidre, Estonian Ambassador to Finland since 2014

During uncertain times like these, people’s attention turns more than ever to so-called “hard security”. However, what a country and its people specifically mean by this has a different emphasis based on their fate and experience of the past. Since the end of the Cold War, the main question related to Finland’s security policy has been whether to join NATO. So far, broadly speaking, we can summarise the discussion as follows: while it was thought, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that joining NATO had lost its original meaning, the viewpoint today is that now is not the best moment. At the same time, recent Finnish governments have kept open the so-called NATO option—the possibility of becoming a member if developments in foreign and security policy beyond Finnish borders force the country into it.

Finland’s relationship with NATO has received increased, not to say emotional and at times painful, attention in Estonia. The focus has been mainly on the arguments in favour of joining the Alliance, but I think it is more important to look at how the people against it explain their position. This book, which was published last year, provides a good opportunity to get this kind of insight. It is a collaboration between 18 authors whose common denominator is that they are former experts in their field (politicians, diplomats, journalists, researchers and military officers) united by a critical attitude towards the possibility of Finland joining NATO.

According to the editor, Timo Hakkarainen, the book was born out of the need for a wider debate on Finnish safety policy (this term is in my opinion more apposite in the Finnish context than “security policy”). He states that the authors present viewpoints the media does not talk about. Hakkarainen says that the voice of those in favour of Finland joining NATO has been heard so much that it seems it was the Finns’ only choice. However, not everything is as the advocates of NATO membership want to pass off as the truth (pages 7 and 9). It should be said that this claim clearly comes across as a bit left-field, because over the last four years—during which I have had the privilege to observe what is happening in Finland thanks to my work in the diplomatic service—this issue has been publicly addressed in detail from both sides.

The common question posed by nearly all the authors is how Moscow would react if Finland nevertheless decided to submit its application to join NATO, and this is further explored in the discussion about whether present-day Russia poses a threat to Finland. The authors try to convince the reader that Russia is no threat to Finland as long as Helsinki steers clear of military alliances.

The first to feature in the book are Matti Klinge, professor emeritus, and Heikki Talvitie, a former ambassador, who take a longer look at history. Klinge begins with the grand title “Russia Does Not Forget the Past” and states that the Gulf of Finland is the key to Finland’s geostrategic position and also the only thing that interests larger nations in relation to it. He considers it a great loss that the Finnish people do not know how to appreciate the Baltic Sea region from the point of view of others, especially Russia (page 20). Esko Seppänen, a politician representing Finland’s Left Alliance in the European Parliament, also recalls history and is nostalgic about the Finno-Soviet Treaty of 1948 (the YYA Treaty) that was intended to further friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance between the parties. According to him, “after signing the treaty, Finland lived next door to the Soviet Union as if it had stood behind the Almighty’s back: goods were moving, people felt happy, life was peaceful and safe. Now these years are called the era of Finlandisation” (page 153).

Maarit Feldt-Ranta, a Social Democratic member of the Finnish parliament, is the first author to state the rule of thumb that is almost always brought up when questions related to Finnish safety policy are discussed. She writes that Sweden would not be a problematic member state from NATO’s point of view, but Finland’s eastern border—more than 1,300 km long—does raise questions for the organisation. At the same time, considering the current NATO presence, protecting the Baltic countries is not realistic (pages 44–5). Thus, NATO wants to see Sweden and Finland among its members if only because it would be better to protect the Baltic states thanks to and through them. Stockholm and Helsinki, however, have a far more important task—to maintain the stability in Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea region as a militarily and politically independent buffer zone. Heikki Talvitie agrees with this, stating that, when Sweden and Finland stay militarily independent, an area large enough to act as a buffer between Russia and NATO is formed as a result of their cooperation. And that is the way to promote stability on the Baltic Sea (page 82).

The thriving military cooperation between Finland and Sweden carries the risk of creating false expectations that lack a real basis should an actual crisis occur. Right now, however, we are looking at an interesting paradox: while Swedish opponents of NATO are convinced that, in the event of conflict, NATO would come to its rescue, Finns, including those supporting NATO, are rather doubtful whether they could really count on NATO when times get rough.1

Gustav Hägglund, Commander of the Finnish Defence Forces from 1994 to 2001, says with military directness that the expansion of NATO at the end of the Cold War was a mistake. He admits that he thought NATO would dissolve after the fall of the Soviet Union. Hägglund also strongly criticises the EU: “What kind of a weird bunch is it that cannot even protect itself nor defend the lives of its citizens, but is wholly dependent on somebody else’s umbrella?” (page 91). He receives support from Pekka Visuri, a political scientist and retired colonel in the Finnish Army, according to whom it has recently been asked why 500 million rich Western Europeans need the help of 300 million Americans against the clearly poorer 140 million Russians. The EU still has two million men under arms and its joint defence expenditure is 200 billion euro. Russia, on the other hand, has 800,000 men in its military forces and half of those are scattered across other parts of the world, not pointing at Europe (page 217).

NATO’s security guarantees are talked about in Finland but, according to Hägglund, in reality such a thing has never existed. The North Atlantic Treaty does not guarantee anyone’s security; its idea lies in promising to provide the kind of aid that the helpers themselves deem necessary and possible. The general reminds us that the help NATO provides might not be military in nature. “Aid can be whatever—even carrots. The helpers determine what type of aid they will send” (page 92). Hägglund claims to be proud of the fact that Finland is currently the only country in Europe that can protect itself. NATO membership would lower the Finns’ defence willingness, as has happened in Europe where people think they don’t have to lift a finger because the Americans will take care of security. The general brings out that several small European NATO members have participated in the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the hope that the Americans would owe them a debt of gratitude, which could be used to ask for a favour in return when they come under attack. Hägglund mentions Estonia as an example and considers this kind of behaviour logical for a country that does not believe it is able to protect itself in a crisis.

According to the former commander, the possible scenario of Finland joining NATO would have a negative impact on the relationship between Helsinki and Moscow: “Russia’s reaction would be strong. Instead of being friends, we would become enemies.” Russia feels cornered. And a cornered animal barks first and then bites: “It happened this way in Georgia and now in Ukraine. The question was about Russia’s counteractions. Russia did not create that situation singlehandedly.” Hägglund compares Ukraine with Hungary in 1956, when the Americans urged Hungarians to fight back hard. And when they did and got their teeth knocked out, the Yankees told them: “You are on your own!”. A somewhat similar situation is happening now in Ukraine (page 99).

Another senior officer in the Finnish Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Markku Nikkilä, who joined the reserve in August 2016, is similarly outspoken. He starts with a question he considers of interest to the Finnish public: what is the task of NATO’s permanent units in Poland and the Baltic states? He answers: “The task of those soldiers is to die there. If you do not get beaten up hard enough and lead coffins are not shipped back home, other member states will not make rapid political decisions to send help” (page 146). According to Nikkilä, the units in the Baltic states cannot prevent anything from happening in the event that the force Russia has at its disposal starts moving from the east. Russia is capable of occupying its neighbouring areas quickly but, at the same time, this would set off a massive counterattack. The whole philosophy of NATO is based on the assumption that nobody is crazy enough to try and test this early warning system.

According to Nikkilä, Finland has followed Sweden’s lead over the past 10–15 years and started to build a “spider’s web-like network”, which means developing a military network through bilateral and multilateral agreements. The stronger the net, the Finnish general believes, the less the need to join a military union. He thinks that joining NATO would be beneficial in only one respect: it would increase the threshold for the use of military force. Since Finland is not a member state, the said threshold is certainly lower. The general thinks that since 1995, when Finland acceded to the EU, the Finns have been unequivocally considered a part of the West. At the same time, Finns would be foolish if they did not maintain contacts with Russia. Nikkilä raises a warning finger by saying that, “If, contrary to common sense, a conflict should break out in the Baltic Sea region between Russia and the US, thinking that we would not be affected is absurd”.

Seppo Kääriäinen, a long-serving member of the Finnish parliament and Minister of Defence from 2003 to 2007, states that the first level of security is smart foreign policy. A small country, in particular, must have the skill to read correctly what is happening in the world. Healthy relationships with your neighbours and an active balancing policy are the keywords that have guaranteed success for Finland. It would be wise to continue in such a way that Finland does not become party to a military conflict and its territory is not used for hostilities against other countries.

Finnish defence capability must be maintained at such a level that it would create a preventive threshold for anyone with hostile intentions against Finland. Kääriäinen suggests that the price of such action must be raised so high for the opposing forces that any aggression against Finland would not be worthwhile.

Jarmo Virmavirta, who is familiar to the Estonian media and public, starts with a reminder of the cooperation between the Finnish daily newspaper Turun Sanomat and the Estonian daily Edasi at the end of the 1980s. Mart Kadastik, Aimar Jugaste, Vahur Kalmre and Siim Kallas receive honourable mentions. Virmavirta suggests that recommending that Finland joins NATO and uses the same kind of economic policy as Estonia overlooks the fact that Estonians did not have any political choice in the matter. Referring to Mart Laar, he states that, as a poor and defenceless country, Estonia took what was on the table (pages 234–5). Finland, however, follows the path of Paasikivi, Kekkonen and Koivisto. All those presidents, among whose ranks he conditionally also lists Sauli Niinistö, have had the skill to place Russia in the right spot on the political map, which in essence means remaining realistic in their cooperation with Moscow.

Virmavirta says that, in the eyes of these presidents, Finland has always been part of the West, without having to bang the drum too loudly about it. That is self-evident, although the meaning might not be clear to everyone; no Finnish head of state has been prepared to take Finland into NATO so that the country becomes part of the West (page 242). It must be added here that “belonging to the West” is still a bit of a painful topic for many Finns; it is surprising to hear how often the public appearances of both politicians and statesmen include the phrase “Finland belongs to the West”. If this was as obvious for the public as Virmavirta claims, why loudly repeat something that is already taken for granted?

According to Virmavirta, the Finns are aware that the West is not willing to help Finland without self-interest. At the end of the 1940s, when people were afraid of a communist coup d’état, a group of patriotic Finns visited the US Embassy in Helsinki to ask for help. The response from Washington was that US aid was not available, but they did give some good advice: try to get along with your big neighbour. In Virmavirta’s view, this advice is a suitable guideline for following the Paasikivi-Kekkonen line to this day. Finland must never offer its territory for action against Russia, not to mention joining an anti-Russian military union (page 243).

Erkki Tuomioja, a long-serving foreign minister, finishes the book with a piece titled “The Basis of Finnish Security”. He admits that, while Finland reached an unhealthy situation in which Russia was given the opportunity to interfere with its internal affairs towards the end of the Cold War and president Kekkonen’s time in office, this had less to do with pressure from Moscow and more with the opportunism of Finlandisation-era politicians.

For a large proportion of Finns, NATO membership is not an inevitable step from the point of view of the country’s safety, nor does it increase security. Belonging to military unions is a sure way of becoming a target for military action, if deterrence should fail at NATO’s borders. In an increasingly codependent world, the arguments in favour of NATO membership are diminishing where Russia is involved. Finland poses no security threat to any other country, nor does it give reason to be considered as such. Security guarantees arising from NATO’s Article 5 would not strengthen Finnish security and, suggests Tuomioja, “we are not planning to participate in the performance of any obligations proceeding from it” (page 275). Finland’s long border with Russia is the calmest in the world and the only border with Russia with no problems.

However, Finland is prepared to help other EU member states in the event of an attack, based on the Lisbon Treaty—which, however, does not automatically mean committing itself to potential military action. Thus, according to Tuomioja, the helpers choose the means of helping that suit them, which means they’ll act in a way that Hägglund previously accused NATO of when he said that aid can come in the form of carrots.

Yrsa Grüne, an observer of Finnish security policy, summarises the book very fittingly by saying that the windscreen and the view ahead should be wider than the scene in the rear-view mirror of history. In reality, the situation is even more complicated because the future is an equation with multiple variables, and only a part of the whole calculation directly depends on us. The road that has got us this far might not take us any further. Claiming to stay true to our current course does not mean that the world around us continues on the same path. That is why it is wise to follow the principle of audiatur et altera pars: listen to the other side. That is worth remembering on both shores of the Baltic Sea. One thing is clear: Finland’s safety-policy choices are made by Finns themselves and nobody else.

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1 Yrsa Grüne, “På jakt efter Nato-linjen”. Hufvudstadsbladet, 9 January 2018.

Filed under: Paper issue