Strategic depth and Alliances

“American newspaper – the concept of strategic depth: Finland could withdraw to Sweden if attacked”

That is the headline chosen by Finnish news source Verkkouutiset when retelling Jane’s Defence Weekly’s recent story that the Swedish Air Force has been working on a concept of enabling Finnish fighters to operate from Swedish bases in times of crises. The idea is both extremely radical, and blatantly obvious, a combination uncomfortably common in Finnish national security.

In short, the interviewed officer was colonel Magnus Liljegren, responsible for the production of Swedish air units and equipment at the Swedish Defence Forces’ general staff (designated C PROD FLYG in the Swedish Defence Forces). The colonel stated that “Finland is absolutely our top priority partner right now […] they are looking to us in order to increase their operational depth. If they need to withdraw they can move into our country and use our bases.” (full article over at JDW).

Three different fighters from three different countries of the NORDEFCO (Nordic defense cooperation) overflying Turku airport. Source: Own picture

From a strictly military perspective, this is an obvious solution. With the increased range of modern air defence and surveillance systems the Finnish air space is more or less contested throughout from the start of a conflict. There are significant benefits coming from operating from Kallax compared to Oulunsalo, not to mention Kuopio-Rissala.

Side note: if Finnish fighters were planning to use Swedish bases, there’s really only one contender that makes sense for HX. The  benefits of deploying to a base that already has everything you need to operate your aircraft in combat compared to having to bring your logistics train with you is huge. I haven’t seen any indication this would have been a marketing stunt (and I don’t believe it is), but we really should sort this out before 2021 if there’s a chance we would like to run along with the concept.

At the same time, it would be an unprecedented political step. I highly doubt there is a Finnish politician ready to sign the paper saying we would join in the fray if Russian troops suddenly appeared on Gotland. Likewise, if we are supposed to use Swedish bases when attacked, that would mean that Sweden would join in a conflict they might not (yet) be part of.

While that might be a hard sell to the voters, it would in fact make sense. If Finland would react to a Crimea-like coup aimed towards Gotland by mobilising the reserve and dispatching air and sea units to throw out the attackers by force and protect shipping around the island, there is in my opinion a higher likelihood that the conflict would stay local and limited in time. The reasoning behind this is the markedly higher deterrence value of the Finnish Defence Forces once mobilised and dispersed compared to their peacetime stance, as well as the increased striking power of the combined Finnish-Swedish forces. For Sweden, the situation is similar. In effect, Finland shields the northern part of Sweden from direct aggression, allowing the numerically small Swedish Army to concentrate their two brigades in the southern parts of the country, something that would also provide Finland with a measure of flanking support. The strength of the defence forces operating together is also larger than the sum of them individually, as the relatively small sizes of both countries means that some capabilities are found only in one of them, and that their combined size can reach quantitative thresholds (‘critical mass’) in areas where this would not be possible individually, both geographic and capability wise.

What is interesting is that the whole issue has been completely overshadowed by the rather similar quarrel over Finland’s response if Estonia was to be attacked. The whole thing started when Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a long report stating that a major split had developed between the president (and government) and the parliament. President Sauli Niinistö (yes, we have three different Niinistös in Finnish politics, all representing different parties) of the centre-right National Coalition Party (fi. Kokoomus sv. Samlingspartiet) represents the more “allowing” line, found in the recent Government Defence Report published in February:

“Finland will actively and extensively strengthen its international defence cooperation and other networking as well as develop the abilities to provide and receive international assistance.

[…]

Finland, as a Member State of the European Union, could not remain an outsider should threats to security emerge in its vicinity or elsewhere in Europe. […] Finland will not allow the use of its territory for hostile purposes against other states. On the basis of the Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy this does not limit Finland’s prospects to provide and receive international assistance or to intensify defence cooperation.”

This is not an uncontroversial view in Finnish politics. Former foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja has apparently been able to gather enough support to get a majority of the parliament behind a strongly worded statement arguing for a reduction in Finnish participation in NATO-exercises and a ban on any Finnish military aid to Estonia in case the country would be attacked. Tuomioja represents the left flank of the Finnish Social Democrat Party, and the veteran politician has not only been able to enlist the support of his party (currently the largest opposition party), but also of the Left Alliance (fi. Vasemmistoliitto sv. Vänsterförbundet) and part of the MP’s from the ruling Centre Party (fi. Keskusta sv. Centerpartiet). The rebellion has deep roots in Finnish post-war history, when the Centre Party was the ideological home of Finlandisation, and the party has still a significant amount of people longing for the ‘good old days’ when we enjoyed a special relationship with the Soviet Union (i.e. not being able to have an independent foreign policy despite not being occupied or a Soviet satellite). While the situation during the Cold War might have called for some careful maneuvering, it surpasses my understanding why Finland in today’s world would strive to stand on the edge between western democracies and a Russian autocracy. This is especially strange considering that both Russia and our European allies consider us an integral part of the ‘West’, NATO-membership or not.

The report in Iltalehti caused considerable buzz. Niinistö and Tuomioja sternly denied there being any open issues between the two, while Yle in turn reported that the argument wasn’t as much between the president and the parliament, as it was between the government and the parliament. Anyhow, Finland has once again managed to make a complete mess of what our current policy vis-a-vis helping Estonia would be, and our southern brothers only made the embarrassment worse when Estonian MoD Margus Tsahkna went to the press (and Twitter) to assure us that we need not worry, Estonia will come to Finland’s aid in case we need help…

The youth organisation of the Finns Party (fi. Perussuomalaiset, sv. Sannfinländarna) in turn took the opportunity to suggest a joint Finnish-Estonian volunteer corps, ready to come to the aid of whichever country would be attacked (original presser in Finnish, blog post on the issue in English). While wordings such as “Failure to provide assistance would be a cold statement to our brothers and sisters. Finnish-Ugrian culture is best defended by the Finno-Ugric peoples themselves” are not necessarily ones I personally would use, the contrast to the careful language found amongst the more pro-Russian politicians is stark. While there to a certain extent do exist a left-right fault line in Finnish politics when it comes to Russia, there are also significant inner-party fault lines, as well as a difference between different generations.

The presser also highlights the difference between the staunchly anti-Kremlin line of the Finns Party, and the pro-Kremlin narrative of many of Europe’s populist parties. This was painstakingly obvious when one of the leading national security voices of the Swedish Democrat’s party started advocating for Sweden to declare their intention not to give assistance to the Baltic countries, using an imaginary Finnish “decision not to help” as justification.

Daniel Vikström: So when Russia threatens and invades its neighbors to secure its geostrategic interests, we should be humble about this?
Mikael Jansson: Finland has declared that it cannot assist the Baltic countries if they are attacked, Sweden should do the same. That is NATO’s task #defencepolicy

Added to this all, Finland ratified the Treaty of Lisbon nine years ago. The Treaty famously include clause 42.7, the so called solidarity clause.

If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

That an “obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power” would include direct military contribution would seem a no-brainer, not to mention the current talking point of whether NATO fighters could use Finnish airspace to defend Estonia in case the country was attacked.

The range of a number of modern Russian weapons systems if based in Tallinn. Courtesy of Petri Mäkelä

To sum it up, even if we skip any moral responsibility to help our neighbours, Finland has a number of self-serving reasons to intervene, or at least allow other countries to intervene (we don’t really want invading smaller countries to be an accepted part of international politics, and Russian weapons stationed on Gotland or in Estonia would be really bad for us). In addition, we have actually signed an international agreement promising to do so. That the prime minister apparently has seen a covert rebellion in his party over this is deeply worrying.

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