Spring/Summer 2015
Number 28

Finland’s Balancing Act

Charly Salonius-Pasternak

HELSINKI—Today, the chorus of voices concerned about the increased instability of the Baltic Sea region can be heard clearly in Finland. According to recent polling, the percentage of Finns concerned about Russia has increased from 42 percent to 75 percent during the past year, largely as a function of Moscow’s aggressive foreign policy toward Ukraine. Yet on the whole, Finnish officials—and Finnish society at large—are not as alarmed about Russia’s actions as their neighbors.

For a country that is geographically located next to two of Russia’s strategically important areas (St. Petersburg and adjacent energy export facilities, and the Koala Peninsula/Murmansk), which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with the revanchist state, and which fought Russia twice during World War II, Finland’s official attitude may seem strange. However, it reflects a quiet confidence that the country is today well positioned to withstand potential Russian threats.

Like many other countries, over the past two decades Finland has hoped that Russia would continue on its own path toward some kind of liberal democracy. Even in early 2014, when Russia launched its “hybrid war” against Ukraine, many in the political establishment in Helsinki still hoped that backsliding would turn out to be temporary, or at least that its impacts on Russian foreign policy and its neighbors would be limited. By summer 2014, however, Finnish politicians were forced to acknowledge that Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and military behavior had become the new normal.

This new normal, entailing the illegal annexation of Crimea and continuing war in parts of Eastern Ukraine, has also forced Finland to break new ground in its foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis Russia. In stark contrast to its neutrality during the Cold War, Finland now finds itself an active player in an unfolding regional power struggle.

To appreciate Finnish views regarding Russia, it is necessary to understand that for most Finns, there is no problem holding two seemingly contradictory thoughts in one’s head. First, that Russia is and will remain a neighbor with whom it is worthwhile to trade, deepen cultural, athletic, societal, tourist-travel ties. Second, that Russia is the only potential existential threat to Finland and the Finnish people.

Economically Russia is one of Finland’s top three trading partners (along with Sweden and Germany). Interaction in the tourism and service industries is particularly robust, with millions of Russian tourists visiting annually. Moreover, Finland imports all of its natural gas and over 90 percent of its oil and coal from Russia, meaning that around half of the country’s energy use is dependent on Russia. Nevertheless, domestic reserves and the availability of foreign suppliers help limit Russia’s energy leverage over the Finnish polity.

Militarily, meanwhile, Russia’s improved strategic capabilities—and its growing willingness to consider military means as an element of its foreign policy—have jumpstarted Finnish efforts to fix specific weaknesses in an otherwise historically robust defense. With strong political backing and popular support, the Finnish Defense Forces continue to concentrate on training and equipping a large reservist-based military, recently downsized to a wartime strength of 230,000 soldiers. This “old-fashioned” conscript to reserve model enables Finland to better address the modern Russian approach to warfare; for example, hundreds of top cyber professionals can simply be ordered to report to duty in the event of a crisis. Meanwhile, an air force using American F/A-18 jets with state of the art weapons, including the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), and a small but very modern navy combine to form a not-insignificant deterrent.

The fundamental reason for the lack of alarmism in Finland, however, is trust in the concept of comprehensive societal security. Finland has continued to invest in security of supply, with the private and public sectors cooperating extensively to ensure that everything from drugs to food to energy continues to be available even during extended crises. More profoundly, Finland’s universal literacy, economic equality, freedom of the press, multi-party democracy and trust in the rule of law provide a generally inhospitable environment for anyone seeking to foment violent uprisings or cause fear. This “deep security” ultimately makes Finland quite resilient against—although not immune to—Russian threats.

This general confidence does not mean that Finnish officials or the population at large do not take the increasing aggressiveness and unpredictability of Russia seriously. Finns have first-hand experience of how life changes when revolutions and war envelop Russia. In recent polls, nearly half of the Finns think the military situation in general is more threatening (46 percent in 2014, as compared to 21 percent in 2013), and 63 percent think Russia’s recent actions have negatively impacted Finnish security. Perhaps most ominously, the percentage of citizens who think Finland is likely to be threatened militarily during the next decade has increased from 7 percent to 21 percent in one year.

The axiom that “if you want peace, prepare for war” is one that is now taken very seriously, precisely because of Russia’s potential to threaten Finland. As always, the ultimate decision regarding war will not be made in Helsinki. Yet today’s Finns—like their forbears—believe their country is worth defending. But, like previous generations, they hope that that day will never come.

Charly Salonius-Pasternak is a Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs.