Russia’s Friend? – Finnish Defence in Crises

Lt(N) James Mashiri made an interesting post in Swedish as well as Finnish (but so far not available in English), arguing that the differences between Finnish and Swedish security policies are far greater than usually admitted, and that this can be seen in the way Russia is handling the different countries. In brief, Sweden maintains its sovereignty, and has for a long time been a de facto member of the NATO-sphere, even if not included under the protection of Article 5. Finland is still stuck in the mindset that we should be mindful of our big neighbor, and not make unnecessary trouble by irritating the Russians. The effect has been that Russia has acknowledge Sweden as an enemy, which can be seen in the offensive operations conducted against Sweden both in the air and under the surface. On the other hand, Russia tries to make Finland stay non-aligned through the use of energy deals, trade, and other traditional means of soft power. This post is based on two comments I wrote on the Swedish post, where I give my view on the issue.

The driving forces behind countries’ foreign and security policies are complex mechanisms, especially where it comes to democracies where quite radical fluctuations may occur depending on the parties that are part of the government and their respective power at any given moment. Such a shift can be seen in the current Swedish government which have opted for a very different policy than their predecessors on a number of important issues, including their relationship with the US and NATO. However, broadly speaking, there can be two, not necessary mutually exclusive, interpretations of the different ways Russia respond to Finland and Sweden. One is that Sweden’s choices represent a greater threat to Russia, including through its (historically?) stronger ties to the United States compared with the corresponding Finnish-US ties. According to this, the Russian aggressive actions against Sweden are founded on a greater respect for Swedish foreign and security policy. The alternative is that Finland, which also have cultivated a warm relationship with the United States during the better part of the past two decades, has been “left alone” because we have both tried to maintain a modernized version of the good neighbor policy of the Cold War, partially decoupled from the security policy (which is a rather naïve way to manage the field of security policy), and, crucially, have maintained a defense force of the size needed to dissuade e.g. submarine and air space violations. The truth most probably includes a bit of both explanations, as well as a number of further factors.

In the specific context of raw numbers, it is clear that the size of the reserve component of the armed forces cannot be considered a significant factor in the case of submarine violations or aircraft navigating “poorly”, especially if the reserve is not trained properly. However, Finland has not reduced the number of qualified surface units in the same way as Sweden, the prime example being that four Helsinki-class missile boats were replaced by four missile boats Hamina-class. Added to this comes the fact that the Finnish waters north of the Archipelago Sea are both difficult to navigate, shallow, and not interesting in the same way as other parts of the Finnish shoreline, and we have a situation where (at least on paper) it is possible to cover the potential targets for underwater activity (Åland being a special case). In practice this would mean that either 5OHJLV or 7OHJLV (Ohjuslaivue, the two units fielding the surface combatants of the Finnish Navy) supported by lighter units and 4MILV (Miinalaivue, the unit that will field all three Katanpää-class mine countermeasure vessel) are activated for an anti-submarine warfare operation in either the Archipelago Sea or the Gulf of Finland, while the other unit is able to conduct surveillance in the other area simultaneously. The current level of expertise maintained by the Finnish Navy for the anti-submarine mission, and what underwater sensors we have that can provide information about possible violations is a question, which neither can nor should be answered by an OSINT analysis.

F-18C Hornet of the Finnish Air Force. Source: Author.

The example of forward-basing of F-18C Hornets for the QRA-mission to civilian airfields along the southern coast this summer points to an important principle: territorial violations and intelligence operations are made so that they provide the maximum profit in return for the smallest possible risk. If it’s relatively safe to “make a mistake in navigation” with submarines, aircrafts, or even small infantry units, these provide an attractive option, and hence they will be employed. If the risk of detection or capture is significant, more discreet options are likely to be used. This is the reasons why both the number and the quality of the units within the Navy, Air Force and the Border Guards play a crucial role in the assertion of our territorial integrity. Similarly, a country like Finland does not have the luxury to make large cuts in the number of wartime units if we are to maintain the principles that the whole country will be defended while remaining non-aligned (this has been noted e.g. by our former Chief of Defence).

A military alliance with Sweden cannot remedy this particular problem, as no major Swedish units will likely be available for the defense of Finnish territory in light of the current force structure of the Swedish Armed Forces. The increased combat efficiency of the individual soldier, which seemingly allows for a diminished number of men to solve a certain task, must also be balanced against the “new” phenomenon of the fragmented battlefield and the appearance of “little green men”. These in turn require that a larger number of potential target areas must be defended, which raises the number of units needed compared to a traditional continuous front line. To counter light infantry units that have been airlanded or otherwise inserted behind the main front line in key locations, the new volunteer Provincial Forces (fi. Maakuntajoukot) gives the opportunity to get friendly troops in place quickly to regain the initiative. However, channeling some of the most motivated and best-trained reservists away from the “real” wartime units is not without its own problems, and currently the time needed to mobilize these units is too long to respond to a Crimean scenario successfully, mainly as there is no network of decentralized arms storages.

Another interesting question is whether the Swedish and Finnish stances on NATO really are connected in an absolute way. As noted, the Finnish and Swedish political choices of the past decades have not always been taken jointly and synchronized to the extent that is being portrayed in the NATO-debate. Especially in our respective relations to Russia and its superpower ambitions these differences seems to crystallize, which is a natural effect of the significant differences that exist in our history.

As for the assertion of sovereignty, Mashiri pointed out an important issue. In the Finnish desire not to provoke, we have given up some of our sovereignty. Sweden is more or less doing the opposite, where their well-meaning and far-reaching policy has caused animosity, sometimes unjustly, in a number of different corners of the world. As noted earlier, the Finnish view also seems to be that security policy is reduced to purely a matter of how the armed defence of the country in case of a traditional war is to be handled, and thus this becomes decoupled from foreign policy. An excellent example is the EU, which wasn’t perceived (isn’t?) seen as having any major implications for our security policy. Similarly, NATO is all too often reduced to a question of how we should manage our territorial defence, and is then handled in a similar manner to e.g. the questions of what number of brigades the Army needs, or which aircraft that will be our next fighter. Only when our politicians openly admits that defence policy should be based on security policy, and that security policy in turn must be an integral part of foreign policy as a whole, and when this is combined with an honest discussion about the role of Russia in all of these fields, only then can we have a discussion about NATO that neither simplifies nor is stuck in repeat.

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