A Very Brief Attempt at Explaining the Finnish Election Results

The Centre Party (Kesk, agrarian centrists) under the leadership of Juha Sipilä won by far. Sipilä, an IT-millionaire and Laestadian, will be the next prime minister, and will form the next government.

The party is deeply divided on the issue of Russia, with an old-school movement in the party being markedly pro-Russian, to the point of Finlandization. These individuals did not score well in the elections, but Sipilä has given them some cautious support recently. On the other hand, there is also a pro-EU/Western movement within the party, led by international political heavyweight Olli Rehn.

The populist Finns Party (PS) under Timo Soini lost ground, but rose to the second largest party as others lost more. Leader Timo Soini, something as rare as a Finnish Catholic, has staunchly denied that the party is xenophobic, and although there certainly are members in the party that hold and express such views, the party as a whole seems more interested in making a big fuzz about Swedish-speakers, economic support to Greece, and the economy as a whole. They have often been compared to the Swedish Democrats in Sweden, though Soini repeatedly has slammed this as inaccurate. Has traditionally been anti-EU and -NATO, but since the Russo-Ukrainian wars have started, it has seemingly softened up its NATO-stance. What is certain is that unlike several other European right-wing populists, they do not like Russia.

The National Coalition Party (Kok, middle-right conservative liberals) was the ruling party under Alexander Stubb, and was predicted to be heading for a disastrous election. They lost quite a number of seats, but still came in as third largest party, only one seat behind PS, and can be seen as having done better (or less worse) than anticipated. The party is decidedly pro-EU, and the only openly(?) pro-NATO party amongst the four big parties.

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) under former union boss Antti Rinne had a minor disaster on election day, and was far outpaced by not only Kesk, but also by PS and Kok. While the party leadership is centre-left, party strongman Erkki Tuomioja leads a strong and vocal group of party members that are somewhat farther left (and closer to Russia) than the official party line. Tuomioja has also clashed publicly with a number of officers and researchers, and leaked e-mails indicates he wasn’t too popular amongst the people surrounding the outgoing prime minister.

Minor parties includes former defence minister Carl Haglund’s Swedish-speaking Swedish People’s Party of Finland (SFP/RKP), the victorious Green League (Vihr), the not-so-victorious Left Alliance (Vas), and the slightly-more-victorious-than-the-left-alliance Christian Democrats (KD).

The problem with analyzing what this means for Finland in the next four years is that no-one knows what the government will look like.

The Centre Party can choose to form a government with PS and Kok, something that might seem like a logical move. This could be said to be directly in support of what the people wanted on election day, and Sipilä could then force the populists to take some responsibility (while secretly hoping that they fail miserably, and that PS would be demoted back to a minor party in the next round of elections). The main problem with this is that having three strong parties means that if PS and Kok were in agreement, they could try and go against the prime minister’s party in individual questions, making the coalition hard to rule. Add to this the fact that he would have the ex-prime minister as one of his lesser ministers, and one can easily see problems, even before one starts to question whether they can agree on how the country should be handled.

SDP was widely promoted as the most likely candidate to join a coalition before the election, as it is the major party that currently stands closest to Kesk ideologically. However, due to its extremely weak performance on election day, this now seems less likely, with the party possibly choosing to go take four years off from responsibility to try and bolster its ranks until the next election. The strong point is that bringing SDP into the government might provide for better relations between the government and the labor unions.

Another opportunity is trying to create a coalition of two major parties and a number of minor. Of the minor parties, both RKP/SFP and Vihr would probably have a hard time sitting in the same government as Soini and his PS. RKP/SFP has sat in every single government since the 1970s, and are usually happy to be included as long as they can defend the status quo in the Finnish language policy. This has been a rather cheap political price to pay for whoever has been the prime minister at any given time, but the appearance of PS might change this. The main problem for the Greens is probably that Sipilä has emphasized trust, something which the Greens can have a hard time supplying, having ditched the former government half a year before the current elections…

Vas on the other hand faces the same problem as SDP. In fact, the joint Finnish left (in this case SDP+Vas) is on record-low levels at around 25%, and would probably have a hard time at the negotiating table. Vas have also been arguing a rather different economic policy than the rest of the parties throughout the election process, and might have a hard time sitting in the same coalition as Kok (or anybody else, for that matter).

This leaves KD, which might fit well in with all of the top-three parties in some sort of a conservative coalition, but their main problem is that they are the smallest party in the parliament, only bringing five seats to the table.

The National Security View

The parties that are in top are all positive to a strong Finnish Defence Force. Or rather, that has been the official policy before the elections. So far, this has not shown in any meaningful way. None of the parties are pushing for a public referendum on NATO, but all major parties would like to “keep the door open”.

If we get a coalition with three major conservative parties joining force, we might see a push for more money. However, the more likely way is unfortunately a slight raise in defence spendings, touted as a big increase, followed by a reduction in training hours, major surface vessels, and fighters. This will then be accompanied by a paragraph stating that “Finland will not currently strive for a full membership in NATO, but will continue its current co-operation, and keeps the possibility open to join at a later date.”

As a whole, the Finnish National Security policy is slowly starting to look like it is modeled after the Swedish, and unfortunately the current round of elections does not seem to change that.

An interesting point, is that both PS and Kok at least in theory openly support the idea that Finland should abandon the Ottawa Treaty and reacquire anti-personnel landmines. In practice, it is highly doubtful if they are prepared to pay the diplomatic price this would cost internationally, but at least on paper there exist a possibility.

Yes, in Finland you can actually be the second largest party and use the slogan “Landmines back, FOR FCKS SAKE!” in marketing.

FIN Helicopter Unit

Sweden is currently the framework nation for the European Union’s rapid reaction forces’ Nordic Battle Group 15 (NBG15). As the battlegroup is a prioritized project in Sweden, symbolizing the “new” generation of security policy, wherein the defence forces were to be employed largely for different humanitarian tasks abroad, the fact that the battlegroups have never been activated for a “proper” mission is something of an embarrassment for certain parts of the political spectrum there. As such, there are now persistent rumors that Sweden is pushing for sending the forces abroad, preferably to some suitable African conflict. The fact that South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Libya have all been mentioned, underlines two important facts, namely that there have never been any shortage of “suitable conflicts” for the battlegroups, and that for the current political campaign the priority seems to be on getting to employ the battlegroup, rather than having started by identifying a proper need, and then activating the battlegroup to fill this need.

On the internet, the debate has been raging on in Swedish security and foreign policy circles on both twitter and blogs, with Patrik Oksanen (who also have included selected tweets by others), former FM Carl Bildt, Johan Wiktorin, and Reservofficer, all posting well written analyses of the situation. I will here focus on lifting the issue of possible Finnish participation.

NBG15 OOB
Order of Battle for NBG15. Source: Swedish Defence Forces.

When looking at the order of battle for NBG15 as a whole, it is clear that Finland is supplying a rather small but specialized piece of the puzzle, in the form of the unimaginatively named FIN Helicopter Unit, part of the Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW). This consists of four NH90 tactical transport helicopters with medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) as their main task, together with a maintenance and support organization. In total it consists of four helicopter, 13 ground vehicles, and slightly fewer than 70 servicemen.

FIN chopper unit
Composition of FIN Helicopter Unit. Note that the Finnish Defence Force gives total manpower at around 70. Source: Swedish Defence Forces.

International operations of different kinds are one of the three main tasks prescribed by the law to be handled by the Finnish Defence Forces. However, it has something of a special status, as the operations are manned on a completely voluntary basis as they appear. Last Saturday, January the 3rd, Brigadier general Petri Hulkko wrote a column in Finnish regional newspaper Itä-Savo, where he called for making international missions mandatory for contracted soldiers. This created some stir, with Upseeriliitto (the Finnish Officer’s Union) stating that other solutions are readily available, and noting that supply/demand-issues are rarely satisfactory solved by legislation. However, a number of individual officers also spoke out in favour of Hulkko’s proposal.

This debate serves as the backdrop for today’s article published by Helsingin Sanomat, where it is noted that one in five of the allocated personnel of the helicopter unit have expressed that they are not willing to participate in a foreign deployment. The problem is that unlike traditional “Show of flag” missions that employs large numbers of people to maintain a visible presence, positions such as helicopter mechanic demand proper qualifications, and cannot easily be filled by volunteering reservists or civilian contractors. This puts the whole participation of FIN Helicopter Unit in a possible deployment of NBG15 in doubt, which would not only cause considerable embarrassment for the Finnish political leadership, but also add to the logistical problems of the battle group as a whole.

NH 90 7
The FIN Helicopter Unit fading away into the sunset? Source: Author.

Finnish Assistance and Russian Media

Note: After a few posts mainly made up of news, headlines and specifications, this post will feature opinions.

Finnish Assistance

As I hinted at earlier, I strongly believe that Finland should offer its support to Sweden in light of current activities. For a small country situated next to an authoritarian greater power, it is crucial that international laws and principles are respected. This includes respecting the territory of foreign countries, both air, land and sea. If our close neighbors, in whose ability to protect their own territory we (according to PM Stubb at a press conference today) trust, says that they strongly suspect a foreign underwater incursion, that should be all the info we need to have a high government official issue a strongly worded condemnation aimed at whoever it is that is behind the incursion. After this, we can start thinking about offering concrete steps to help solve the issue, as it is in our own interest to know who it is that conducts illegal operations in the Baltic Sea. It would be naïve to believe that a string of successful missions directed against Sweden would not put Finland at risk for similar incursions. Thus, we do not need to argue about whether or not we are morally obliged to offer help to the Swedish authorities, as even if one would believe that we weren’t, we should still do so out of respect for our own security needs.

MHC Katanpää (’40), leadship of a class of three new mine countermeasure vessels. The brand new vessel has some of the most advanced sensors currently available in the Baltic Sea for finding underwater items, and could be of great assistance to the Swedish operation. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI.

It might be that Sweden believes that our direct support is not needed, but the offering of assistance would in itself be a powerful signal. If the Finnish government believes it is a too strong signal, more indirect means are available. Yesterday would have been a good opportunity to send out a naval vessel to escort Professor Logachev on its way through the Gulf of Finland. It could have been done at a respectful distance, and as part of a “normal” cruise. This would have given credible deniability in case Russia would have reacted, while still sending a message of support to our western neighbors. Also to note is that as Russia has repeatedly stated that they do not have a submarine in the search area, the Finnish government could credibly state that any participation is directed against our easterly neighbor. However, it must be said that with the Swedish government taking such a low-key approach to the whole incident, it might be out of place for Finland to take the lead in condemning it. If this is the case, I hope that Stubb at their meeting today expressed to Löfven that he has our support if the Swedish government would decide to change their current stance. There are currently only two non-NATO countries aside from Russia bordering the Baltic Sea. While it is a cliché, the cause of Sweden is indeed very much our own as well. And vice versa.

Russian Media

The Red October-incident continues, and today Russian media and psychological operations were activated on a larger scale, with the information originating from TASS. The story was simple: there is no Russian submarine in Swedish waters, but instead the Swedish authorities should “request explanations from the Dutch Navy command”, as it was claimed that it was the Walrus-class submarine HNLMS Bruinvis which would have been spotted while conducting an emergency surfacing drill. This was rapidly debunked by the Dutch Navy, which denied that their submarine would have been in Swedish waters after finishing the joint exercise Northern Archer earlier last week. As it was clear that the Bruinvis had been moored openly in Tallinn during a large part of the weekend, the Russian claim was easily shown as being completely unfounded.

HNLMS Bruinvis, photo taken by Mika Peltola on Saturday (18102014) morning at 8 AM in port of Tallinn.
HNLMS Bruinvis, photo taken by Mika Peltola on Saturday (18102014) morning at 8 AM in the port of Tallinn.

As a side not, TASS has also posted an article with the headline “Sweden’s search for unknown submarine raises tensions in Baltic region”. One could be forgiven to think it was Sweden who has practiced air strikes against neighboring countries… This brings up an important point, which has become increasingly clear since the start of the invasion of Crimea earlier this year: Russian media and officials cannot be trusted to objectively tell the truth. Instead, there has been a number of cases were Russian authorities, including Vladimir Putin, has told outright lies, which have been repeated by Russian media without any kind of critical analysis. The list includes such clear-cut cases as the statement that there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea (later confirmed by Putin himself) and that a Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack plane would have shot down MH17 (when the Russian aircraft manufacturer themselves state that the plane can’t reach the altitude MH17 flew on). HeadlinesThis is in line with what experts in the west has stated about the Russian view of the use of media in psychological warfare [1], [2], [3], and this can in turn be connected to an increasing number of reports about the systematic use of social media to spread fabricated stories [4 see also list of recommended reading at end of source]. Bottomline: unfortunately, due to the above mentioned recent events and a long negative trend with regards to freedom of press in Russia, western media must stop its use of Russian media and authorities as a source of equal value to their western counterparts. To go back to the story above, YLE quoted the Russian Defence Ministry stating that the Swedes should be looking for the Bruinvis, and then quoted the negative answer by Dutch authorities in a way that gives both the sources the same value. In my opinion, this is clearly not in line with good journalistic conduct. A journalist should indeed strive to present both sides of a story, but not all sources are created equal, and a failure to properly explain this gives the casual reader a tilted view of the story.

Swedish Politics for Foreigners

Yesterday Sweden held general elections, the outcome of which will have a huge impact on the security situation in Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea region in particular. I will here briefly present the outcome from the viewpoint of how the change in government (and in the opposition) likely will affect the foreign and security politics of Sweden. I will write this from a Finnish point of view, and as such I apologize to my other international readers if the comparisons with Finnish politics add little to the value of the text. But enough of an introduction, and to the point:

For the better part of the 20th century the Social Democratic Party (S) has reigned supreme, with the wartime coalition governments during WWII and a Centrist-led government after the election of 1976 as the most memorable exceptions. However, the party has in fact not had an own majority since the election of 1968 (when it got 50.1 % of the vote). This has led to the fact that almost all Swedish governments have been de factio minority governments.

Support for the Social Democratic Party over the years. Source: Wikpedia.

Compared to Finnish politics, the Swedish political spectrum stretches further left. The Swedish Green Party (MP) e.g. lacks a chairperson, and instead has two spokespersons (one man and one woman), and while the debate in Finland goes on about how to increase the total amount of work hours, the Swedish Leftist Party (V) is instead pushing for a 6 hour workday (with wages staying the same).

To shake up the political field, four centrist-right parties, the Moderate Party (M, centrist-right conservative, corresponding to Kokoomus in Finland), the Liberal People’s Party (FP, a liberal party), the Centre Party (C, the party has agrarian roots, but currently describes itself with terms such as “eco-humanism” and “green social-liberal”), and the Christian Democrats (KD, centrist-right conservative), formed the Alliance, and effectively formed a government before the election of 2006 was held. By presenting a clear alternative, they managed to get into power, and also in winning the following election held in 2010.

The original leaders of the Alliance in 2006. From left: Fredrik Reinfeldt (M), Maud Olofsson (C), Göran Hägglund (KD), Lars Leijonborg (FP). Source: Wikimedia Commons/Henrik Sendelbach

This naturally created a green-leftist block, with the opposition made up of S, V and MP being forced to collaborate if they wanted to get back into power. However, a third force appaered when in the elections of 2010 the Sweden Democrats (SD) got into the parliament with 5.7 % of the votes.

SD is easily brushed away as yet another of the populist parties that rides on the wave of widespread discontent that has followed in the footsteps of the current economic crises. However, it is noteworthy that while e.g. the Finns Party also has an anti-immigration policy and a far-right/nationalistic wing, its roots in the agrarian populist movement is remarkably different from those of SD, where key people during the 80’s and early 90’s had their roots in racist and even neo-nazi parties and organizations. Since the mid 90’s, the party has consciously tried to become more respectable through banning the more radical members and moderating its message. Still, the response from the other parties has been an absolute ‘No’ to any talk about cooperating with the “rasist” Sweden Democrats, even as they in 2010 became the balancing party that by choosing side could swing the parliament in favor of either the right or the left block.

From a point of security politics, all parties have taken part in a monumental series of budget cuts that has seen the Swedish Defence Forces decline in strength, with conscription being abandoned in 2010. In the meantime, politicians have publicly maintained that the current force is able to perform its mission, by being better equipped and trained than the earlier mass army. In practice, a large number of deficits in material as well as a low level of exercises and a constant lack of personnel made the Swedish Chief of Defence famously state in an interview made in late 2012 that the current force was able to fight an attacker with a limited goal “for about a week”, before it would be in such a state it was no longer an effective fighting force.

Of the current parties, S and the Alliance maintains that the defence forces are getting more money and is/will be able to meet set goals (this is disputed by a number of other voices in the debate, including both current and ex-active service personnel, as well as civilians). V, MP and ultra-feministic Feminist Initiative (FI) are on the other hand decidedly against NATO, arms export and defence forces in general. SD is the only party that as a whole has demanded large increases in defence funding, but is also anti-NATO and questions has been raised about the connections between the party and the Kremlin.

Before this last election, a number of questions were raised:

  • Would the Alliance be able to bounce back from years of low approval ratings?
  • Would FI be able to get into the parliament?
  • Would MP or SD be third largest party (around 10 % was the number mentioned for both parties), after S and M?
  • Would MP and S be able to form a government, or would V be needed?
  • If a green-leftist three-party government was formed, how stable would it be?
  • Would the Alliance hold if they lost the elections, and S invited one or two of the minor parties to join in a coalition?

As is well-known by now, the Alliance lost, FI missed out on a spot in the parliament, and SD beat MP by a mile (13 % vs 7 %), and so far the Alliance seems to be holding. Noteworthy is the fact that the left block actually did not increase by any considerable number, S gained one seat, MP lost one, and V gained two, but their victory came from the fact that M crashed, losing 23 seats. In the meantime, SD gained 29. However, contrary to expectations, S has already stated that V will not be included in the government, leaving the government with 137 seats out of 349, well short of the 175 needed to gain majority.

Before our Finnish readers shout “Early elections!”, bear in mind what was stated earlier about the fact that almost all Swedish governments (including the last one) has been minority ones. However, this time the advent of the Alliance and the refusal to cooperate with SD leaves little room to maneuver for S, and only time will tell if a red-green government will last the full four years or not (bearing in mind that it is not even formed yet).

What does this mean for Northern Europe then? Firstly, any drastic change in Swedish security politics is unlikely. I find it hard to believe that any major surge in defence spending will take place, let alone that Sweden would apply for a NATO-membership. This means that the security hole that President Niinistö spoke about last year is not about to be filled anytime soon, at least not by Sweden. Secondly, as a more general remark, Sweden now apparently lacks the kind of solid leadership that is needed to react to a fast changing world. This is not a good thing from the viewpoint of Finland, the Baltic countries, or Poland.

Finnish Security Politics for Foreigners

To move the scope back to Finland, I believe it is appropriate to give my foreign readers a brief overview of the battle over the Finnish defence budget and the NATO-debate.

For a number of years, Finnish politics have had three major parties: the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the Centre Party (Kesk, agrarian centrists) and the National Coalition Party (Kok, middle-right conservative liberals). For the last governments, the usual modus operandi has been that the largest party receives support from one of the other three major parties, with the third leading the opposition. Then some of the smaller parties join the government, with the rest joining the opposition. This way a stable majority government is formed.

In the last round of parliamentary elections held in 2011, the populist Finns Party (PS) gained ground, and rose to the position of third largest party, meaning that we suddenly had four major parties. Both the Centre Party and the Finns Party decided to go into opposition, but Jyrki Katainen (Kok) managed to the social democrats and all minor parties onboard, leading to a six-party government. Trying to please everybody made for quite a number of compromises, but the coalition has been surprisingly stable. This situation lasted until the beginning of 2014.

During this year, we have had a number of changes. First, the Left Alliance (Vas.) jumped over to the opposition. According to their own statement this was due to decision to cut social welfare programs, but cynics noted that the timing coincided with the running up to this spring’s European elections.

Down to five parties, and against the backdrop of an ever more unstable Europe, both the National Coalition Party and the Social Democratic Party changed leaders. In the case of the National Coalition Party, former Prime Minister Katainen stepped down, and in a three-way race Alexander Stubb beat his competition to become the new party leader and Prime Minister. Stubb maintains a people-friendly image, being an avid tweeter and sports enthusiast, to the point that he received criticism for being too “common”.

For the Social Democratic Party the shift was markedly different. Here, the outgoing Minister of Finance Jutta Urpilainen did not leave voluntarily, but was defeated by Antti Rinne at the party congress. SDP has bled voters both left and right, and the election of Urpilainen back in 2008 was seen as a move to modernize the party, as she was both the first female leader and the youngest in the history of the party. Six years later, this apparently was all forgotten, as Rinne is more of an archetypical social democrat, being a 51 year old male with a background as a labour union boss.

The fact that the two largest parties had changed leadership, as well as to resolve the issue about what to do with the portfolios left by the leftist, lead to a brief round of negotiations dubbed “mini-coalition formation”. The result was more or less that status quo continues, and a declaration that what is best for Finland is a stable political landscape up until the next parliamentary elections, to be held in 2015.

While this settled everything on paper, it was rather clear that Rinne would have to try something to make his impact felt, or else he would go into the coming elections with the image that he had only followed the trail created by Urpilainen four years earlier. The budget discussion of the coming autumn was mentioned as his best (and perhaps only) chance of making a real statement.

And right they were, as Rinne came out with a bang, having drafted a larger-than-agreed-upon budget proposal. This immediately drew fire from the other ministers, mainly defence minister Carl Haglund of the Swedish-speaking Swedish People’s Party of Finland (SFP/RKP) and Minister of Economic Affairs Jan Vapavuori (Kok). This quickly developed into a round of political battle-royale, with Rinne countering with the argument that all, including Haglund and Vapavuori, were free to make their own proposals. A senior MP from SDP was happy to further explain that of course Haglund and Vapavuori were free to make cuts in the pensions and benefits of the poorer parts of the population if they felt that was appropriate. Vapavuori in turn stated that the government is unable to function properly if agreed terms and conditions aren’t held. PM Stubb noted that “some” are more aroused by the coming elections than other, while Haglund critiqued Rinne for the way things had been handled, stating that changes of these magnitudes were not to be taken by a single minister.

The total sums involved are rather small, compared to the budget as a whole. Still, they are large enough to force the other coalition partners to protest, or leave it to Rinne to seemingly dictate how the country is lead. If they attack his proposal, the hope on the SDP-side is probably that the right will be seen as austerity fanatics who only care about money and not the elderly.

In this, Rinne’s further cuts in the defence budget has received relatively little attention, in spite of the fact that our new Chief of Defence, General Jarmo “Charles” Lindberg, has pushed for more money to the defence forces, or else, changes to the mission of the defence force (defending the whole country), our stance with regards to NATO, and/or general conscription has to be taken into consideration.

NATO has been something of a hot topic in Finnish politics since the end of the Cold War. It has usually been seen as something of a proverbial third rail: touch it and die (politically). This has radically changed since the Crimean crises this spring, with both Stubb and Haglund now openly supporting Finland joining the alliance. Of perhaps greater interest is the fact that first vice-chairman (and docent of military history) Jussi Niinistö of the usually stubbornly independent Finns Party in late July demanded an investigation about the pros and cons of a Finnish NATO-membership. The SDP on the other hand seems to try and steer away from the whole issue, with foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja immediately shooting down Niinistö’s proposal, and Rinne stating that the rise in support for NATO-membership amongst the Finnish public “doesn’t change anything”.

Finnish support for a membership has risen during the war in Ukraine, but it is still at only 26% (up from 17% last November). However, polls have also shown that a majority of Finns would support a membership, if the political leadership was in favor. This is something that Stubb has taken up, saying that what is needed is strong political leadership to guide Finland into NATO. Currently, Stubb seems to be the next prime minister, meaning that the program of our next government will be a key document to watch.

For a more detailed analysis on the legal aspects (ie. who can decide if Finland should pursue a NATO-membership), read James Mashiri’s “NATO-medlemskap kräver folkomröstning”. However, while his argumentation might be technically correct, I believe two things strongly points to another path. First and foremostly, Finland has a strong tradition of relying on indirect democracy as opposed to direct elections. This is also seen in the polls about NATO quoted above. Secondly, if the abovementioned provides the will, the way might be provided by the fact that Finland lacks a constitutional court, meaning that political decision that are of dubious legality can be passed as long as the Constitutional Law Committee, made up of MP’s, are in agreement with the government. Do note that I am NOT saying that the Finnish government has a free card to pass whatever laws they want, but the burden of proof certainly feels lower as the laws are only judged by the ones who created them (this is completely my own interpretation of how the political/juridical system works, it might be that I have misunderstood it, as I am by no means a law expert).

As an ending note, the notion that Finn’s does not feel threatened by Russia has been raised in the Swedish debate. This is not correct, as a poll by state broadcasting company YLE showed this month, with 56% saying that the developments in Russia creates a threat towards Finland, see Swedish article on YLE here: Putins Ryssland skrämmer finländarna.

The Consequences of Crimea for the NPT

One thing that has been mentioned but seldom actually discussed during the Crimean crisis is the fact that 20 years ago, Ukraine hosted the third largest stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons, next only to Russia and the USA. As has been stated a number of times by different media, they transferred their warheads (and some carriers) back to Russia for dismantling, and in exchange received written promises that Russia would “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine [and] to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.”[1]

The problem here is that the obvious lesson seems to be that being nice doesn’t work in the real world.

It is difficult to say whether keeping a nuclear stockpile would have worked as a deterrent against the Russian invasion of Crimea, and if Ukraine would have met the economic and technical requirements to maintain such a deterrent. However, what we do know is that the written assurances did not work, so it is no far-fetched guess that in Ukraine today at least some of its leaders asks themselves if it was a mistake.

I don’t believe Ukraine will ditch the NPT to develop a new arsenal due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is how Russia would react to such a decision. However, there are a number of places in the world where this might have implications.

That nuclear weapons are restricted to certain countries is not a law of nature. In fact, quite a number of countries studied whether or not they should acquire their own weapons in the early part of the Cold War, but in the end, the costs and technical difficulties meant that only a handful of countries actually created operational weapons, and in the meantime nuclear weapons had received a fairly bad reputation amongst civilians, something which further restricted their use. However, this is in no way an irreversible process, as e.g. North Korea has shown.

If it is felt that the NPT does not work, countries that feels threatened by their neighbors (especially if the neighbors are armed with WMD’s), might very well start to look into the possibility of acquiring their own. Especially in the Far East, where China has both a sizeable nuclear stockpile and is starting to flex its muscles more aggressively, countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan/ROC may feel that the added security of a nuclear shield is worth the worsening diplomatic relation such a move would create. This will not happen in the near future, but I believe it is not impossible in the medium term. Japan is struggling with worsening demographics and an uncertain economy which might hamper its planned expansion of its conventional forces. South Korea has the latest nuclear state as its neighbor and is quarrelling with China about its sea borders. Taiwan is always looking for ways to stop a Chinese assault, and while China rapidly is expanding the PLAN, the US is a far from certain ally. In all cases, having a nuclear deterrent might be just the solution the politicians are looking for.

And Ukraine being invaded by the country it gave its weapons too, might be just the spark needed for a new nuclear arms race to start.

Edit: Over at KKRVA a nice analysis partly about the same subject can be found in Swedish under the title Ukraina – Tre döende patienter.

Belbek and what’s there

Most have probably already seen or at least heard of one of the more stunning videos to appear yesterday, namely that of Col Yuri Mamchur, commander of 204th TABr, leading his unarmed men towards the Russian soldiers firing over their heads. Col Mamchur achieved his goal, and managed to negotiate some kind of an agreement with the Russian forces occupying Belbek air force base (Sevastopol). The whole unit was earlier erroeneously reported to have defected to the ‘Crimean authorities’, but apparently it remains loyal to Kiev and defiant towards the Russians.

I was a bit too trigger happy, and gladly shouted out that there are Su-27’s at the base, having misidentified the tails appearing in the video of the march, and not checked the Ukrainian air force OOB. It is MiG-29’s that the 204th TABr operates. Sorry about that.

Ukraine inherited a sizeable fleet of MiG-29’s of different variants, but today most of the earlier versions are gone, with as far as I can tell, all remaining operational aircraft being of the MiG-29S 9.13 or MiG-29UB 9.51 (two-seat trainer) variants, with a tiny number of upgraded MiG-29MU1 slowly becoming operational. One of the later is apparently at Belbek, although not yet in operational use.

MiG-29’s at Belbek in 2011. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Antropomant.

From this page with pictures as well as video from Belbek, quite a number of MiG’s can be seen. How many of these are truly operational, and how many are in different states of long time storage/disrepair is hard to say, but I counted to 29 airframes (25 in the video, and a further 4 have been seen standing in the QRA-area in earlier photos), with at least 2 being two-seaters. Along with the MiG’s, three Aero L-39 can be seen in seemingly pristine condition with a digital three-tone grey/white scheme, meaning that they are probably of the upgraded L-39M1 version.

Exactly what aircraft are at Belbek at the moment is hard to say. RT gives the numbers as 45 MiG-29 fighter jets and 4 L-39, with only four fighters and one training aircraft currently operational, but I wouldn’t give RT much credit as an objective source normally, and even less so in this conflict. CombatAir reports that it “Seems the squadron had 11 operational Fulcrum C [sic] and UBs […] in 2013″.

It is equally hard to judge what kind of a loss it would be for the Ukrainian air force if the Russians decides to either destroy or take home as a war prize the aircrafts currently being held at the base. If most of the MiG-29’s are indeed in such a sorry state that some reports indicate, the loss of the four (or three?) L-39’s from the already small fleet of refurbished trainers might prove to be an even bigger blow.

As an interesting note, according to this source, 204th TABr traces its roots back to the 62nd Fighter Aviation Regiment of the Soviet air force, and had no less than six Heroes of the Soviet Union during WWII (this source doesn’t give a stragiht connection, but confirms the 62nd IAP’s presence at Belbek up until 1992).

Edit: Apparently, the situation has changed during the writing of this post, and Belbek is now in Russian hands. Will be interesting to follow how this develops from here.

After the Invasion – The Road Forward for Ukraine

Apparently all key points on the Crimean peninsula have been taken over by Russian forces, which now effectively control the area. Any major counter-movement by the Ukrainian armed forces seems to have been curiously absent, which raises questions about the loyalty of the Ukrainian armed forces as a whole and the upper echelons in particular.

My personal opinion is that there seems to have been a window of opportunity to try to retake the major airfields yesterday (280214) morning, when they were function despite the presence of lightly armed soldiers on their grounds. By e.g. having a company or two board regular flights a counter-coup might have been stage by the Ukrainian army. A determined response at this early stage might (keyword) have unsettled the Russians enough to force a peaceful withdrawal. I believe that, as the “enemy” force apparently consisted of relatively few soldiers with only their personal weapons, such an operation could be launched simply by sending of a properly sized unit with their own personal equipment to establish a bridgehead and buy some time to start thinking about the next step. This also means that next to no logistical planning would have had to be done at beforehand, as the unit would operate in a functioning civilian society with (relatively) abundant food and water supplies, hopefully without even needing to fire their weapons. Naturally, if the Russian response would have been to start an all-out counter-attack, the bridgehead would most probably swiftly have been overrun. This does not seem to have been the probable Russian response judged on their operations so far, but fear of similar losses might have been what made the Ukrainian HQ opt against any swift and unsecure troop movements at this early stage. Now, this window is decidedly shut after only a few hours, and the major options for Kiev seems to be either to accept the fait accompli, or to go in with a major force, knowing that this might very well lead to war.

Lars Gyllenhaal amongst others have pointed out that the last time unrest on the Crimean peninsula sparked a major conflict, this conflict spread to both the Baltic Sea and the Arctic, with Finland suffering coastal raids and Sweden harboring fleet detachments from belligerents Britain and France at Gotland. This time around, as stated in my last post, I don’t believe France, Italy or Great Britain (or Turkey for that matter) are prepared to go to war for Crimea. Neither do I believe in Russia trying to seize the whole of Ukraine. Crimea is important strategically, and has a historical significance to Russia (as do Kiev). The rest of Ukraine is interesting, but the situation is not urgent. A similar path as the one taken with Georgia might prove very successful. By capturing part of their territory and proclaiming it an independent state (possibly with a referendum about whether to join the Russian federation or not), they will not only secure the territory in question (and thus safeguard Sevastopol), but also provide the Kiev-government (and other potential troublemakers, like the Baltic states) with a constant reminder about what happens if they get too far out of line.

A few disturbing facts are perfectly clear from this:

1)      Russia is perfectly capable of and has the political willpower to execute a strategic coup against a neighboring state

2)      As has been repeatedly stated by NATO officials before: NATO protects their member states, and their member states only

3)      The “outdated” Cold war-scenarios in which a sovereign country suddenly attacks another sovereign country aren’t outdated at all, but can happen in Europe this very day

Let us hope that the politicians in both Finland and Sweden admit these basic facts, and that we can have an open and serious discussion about what conclusions should be drawn from these points.

WESTERN RED LINE ON UKRAINE

I noticed calls on Twitter for a US-imposed ‘Red Line’ with regards to Ukraine, to try and stop Russia from excessively meddling in Ukrainian affairs, ‘or else…’

A similar outspoken policy proved rather successful (?) with regards to forcing Assad to dismantle his arsenal of chemical weapons, and it is tempting to believe that something similar could be useful to protect Ukraine from an armed incursion by Russian troops. However, after dwelling on the idea for a while, it is easy to see why it wouldn’t work in this case.

To begin with, Russia is not Syria and Putin is not Assad. Assad knows that he controls a country that is best described as a (minor) regional power. Sure, he can meddle in Lebanese affairs, but when the big players put their foot down, it is best to at least listen to what they have to say.

Russia is one of these big players, and few things apparently annoy the Kremlin more than being reminded that they play second violin on the world stage. Having the US trying to tell them what they can or can’t do in their own backyard is not something they will accept easily.

Which brings us up to the main point: Drawing up the red line would in itself be easy enough, but in order for a threat to work, there has to be the aforementioned ‘or else…’

And that is something the West is lacking in this case.

Economic actions, going after the money of Russian leaders or imposing trade restrictions, might seem to be a possibility. However, the long-term impact on Russia would be rather small, while the possible impact on Europe could be far larger if Russia decides to cut energy sales and/or impose trade restrictions the other way, something Lithuania got to experience this summer. While the loss in energy exports might be a sting in the short term, there are probably other takers for the Russian oil, and it is hard to believe that the ‘common people’ of Europe are prepared to freeze for Ukraine due to Russian natural gas deliveries being cut. Bottom line: Europe needs Russia (at least) as much as Russia needs Europe.

With regards to diplomatic efforts, there are precious few things that Russia wants from the West. WTO membership used to be such a thing, but since 2012 Russia already is a full member. Forcing (or, most probably, trying to force) high-ranking officials before international or Ukrainian courts would be somewhat irritating, but little less. Ask Omar al-Bashir if you disagree.

Engaging Russian forces inside Ukrainian with air strikes and/or ground forces would incur losses far higher than anything seen in the NATO-led peace enforcing operations of the last decades. Also, there is scant hope for this idea to get popular support in Western Europe or the US. Most people would probably say that Ukraine is not worth even a limited conflict between the old Cold War adversaries (although diehard pessimists will probably point out that was what they said about the Sudetenland in 1938 as well).

A potential ‘middle way’ would be a Western ‘peace keeping force’ entering Ukraine to secure parts of the country if Russian troops entered Crimea in force. This would work on the assumption that Russia would not risk an all-out war, and so would settle for the areas not controlled by western units. Although this sounds good in theory, in practice, it might prove excessively difficult.

Due to legitimacy, Russia would have to make a first move, and as have been proven time after time, occupying strategic points in a country can be a very swift affair, especially if the armed forces are having an exercise going. The window of opportunity for a counter will thus be very short. Few countries, if any, have troops in a high enough state of alert and the logistics needed to get them to Ukraine in time. Poland could be one, with e.g. the 21st Podhale Rifle Brigade (mountaineers) being based in Rzeszów close to the Ukrainian border. The 21st Podhale has also taken part in the joint Polish-Ukrainian peacekeeping unit POLUKRBAT, meaning they could be suited for the ‘hearts and minds’-part of the mission as well. Chances are that even if a similar operation were to take place successfully, this would lead to a split of the country along the by now well-known Northwest-Southeast split.

This last case is the only one I could even remotely imagine to be both effective and within the realms of reality. Still, I find it hard to believe that NATO could come up with the political backing needed for a broad alliance. A bilateral Ukrainian-Polish pact might just be possible, I am not well-versed enough in Polish politics to determine if this is the case or not, but it is anyone’s guess whether the leaders of the former Warpac states will try and appease Russia or try to fight fire with fire.

To sum it up: A US or Western red line on Ukraine would, most probably, be little more than an easily seen through bluff. Putin would know this, and in the worst case it could even be seen as a provocative move by the Kremlin and become a catalyst for Russia deliberately crossing the line.

On Politics and Officers

Lt (N) James Mashiri has on his blog ‘Random Thoughts’ given a reply to the anti-conscription campaign Ohi On (lit. “It’s over”, Finnish military slang for ending active conscription service)*, which accused certain members of the Finnish Defence Forces of stepping out of line (and possibly breaking Finnish law) by voicing the opinion that general conscription is preferable to the alternatives.

Mashiri’s answers can be found in Finnish (pts. 1 and 2) and Swedish (pts. 1 and 2) on his blog, but in a nutshell he notes that the laws regarding expressing political opinions as a (professional) soldier have been revoked 15 years ago, and that strengthening the morale of those serving is amongst the missions of the armed forces.

The notion that the army should be devoid of politics has deep roots in Finland, mainly due to the unfortunate civil war of 1918. To its defence, it has worked rather well, Finland being one of the very few European states emerging after WWI, which was a democracy throughout the inter-war years. However, the definition of “politics” is in itself problematic.

What would it mean if a soldier would not be allowed to voice political opinions? At the end of the day, isn’t (almost) everything in our society connected to politics? Could he/she not state that more money should be spent on infrastructure? Or that the educational system needs more teachers? I believe most people would argue that, as these have nothing to do with the soldier’s line of work, they could be voiced freely.

Is it the case then, that a soldier can comment on things not related to defence matters, but not on his/her area of expertise? This seems equally strange. Especially as, as Mashiri already noted, the defence forces are tax-funded, and are there to provide the citizens with certain services. If something is wrong, or if something is about to shift to the worse, who is to raise the alert, if not the people working with the issues every day?

Were goes the line then? Can a soldier voice an opinion about grand-strategic questions (NATO naturally comes to mind)? Or, in the other end of the spectrum, about specific systems/routines? I believe that the answer to the first question is yes, as long as it is clearly stated that the opionion is a personal opinion only (as I do not believe that the defence forces as a whole could express an official line on issues of this complexity). On the second question, we come down to more issues such as security, and if specific details about how the defence forces operate should at all be debated in public. However, if that is the case, then I believe the answer is yes here too.

Having now given an opinion on general politics, I will now turn to party politics, which I personally believe is a different beast altogether. I have been present when a conscript (Sergeant) has commented election results in front of his subordinated company (made up of younger conscripts). Did it disturb me? No. Was I objective? Of course not. I had also voted, and as it happened, I shared the opinion of the speaker. It is not difficult to understand that someone in the other end of the political spectrum might have felt differently, and been at unease by the comments of his superior.

Bottom line: Having your superior tell you that voting on a certain party is preferable, is quite different from having you superior in a public forum state his/her personal opinion that we need better roads, or that conscription gives us a better chance at defending our territory.

My personal opinion is that the first is to be avoided, but that the second is both perfectly acceptable, and in some cases even desirable.

*It remains a bit unclear to me whether this was the official stance of the campaign, or just the personal opinion of one of its private backers