Is Finland About to Betray the Baltic States?

During last week, a speech by the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, has received a considerable amount of press and social media coverage. “Finland won’t fight for it Baltic neighbours” the headlines have screamed, with even normally cool-headed people asking what he means, and why he would have gone and said so something like that. Is he trying to say that Finland wants to stay out of a possible war between NATO and Russia?

It seems apparent that most people have only read the quote itself, and not the speech as a whole. To give a bit of background, the speech was held to a gathering of ambassadors, which is a yearly event in Finland, and is available in Finnish and Swedish on the official homepage (note that the Swedish version include some slightly strange translations in key passages), and is too long for me to translate in its full length here. However, a short recap is in order:

The Second World War ended 70 years ago, and the Cold War that followed was a conflict, but at least it over time developed its own set of rules. The times after that promised eternal summer (although he notes that we Finns never really trusted that promise), which proved to be wrong. Today, the international community is being reshaped, and the current day is marked by towering threats and great uncertainty.

After this, he moves on to Ukraine, Russia, the Middle East, the migrant crises, Greece, the Euro, and nationalism, until he eventually comes to the Finnish philosopher J.V. Snellman. Snellman represents a realist view on foreign politics, and in the quote used by Niininstö, he notes that while young people dream of nations working for the good of humanity, in  reality all nations first and foremost look after themselves. This, the President notes, does not mean that we should strive towards non-alignment or nationalistic narrow-mindedness, but accept reality and plan according to it.

Towards the end, he notes that our security rests on four pillars: national defence, Finland’s integration into the geopolitical West, bilateral relations to Russia, and the international order. The strength of each of these differs with time, and currently we are seeing that three of the pillars are getting weaker.

President Niinistö argues that we have to strengthen all pillars we can, and deeper cooperation in the fields of defence and security with Sweden and our partners in NATO is one of his core points.

Still, he says, while sometimes it is argued that Finland has a share in the responsibility of defending the Baltic countries, this is not the case:

“I have had to be rather precise in this question. For the simple reason that Finland is not in a position where we can provide to others such military security guarantees, which we don’t have ourselves. We are not a superpower that has spare ‘ammunition’ to hand out.”

Own translation.

This question, he notes, is directly connected to the military security guarantees of the European Union (through the Treaty of Lisbon). Some say this is a dead letter, while others say that it makes it our responsibly to defend other EU countries, including the Baltic countries.

“One shouldn’t unnecessarily inflate the importance of the EU military security guarantees. But this does not mean that one shouldn’t try and strengthen them.”

What then does the Treaty of Lisbon say in its (in)famous 42nd article? Paragraph 7 is the passage in question:

“7. 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. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.

Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.”

Article 51 of the UN Charter in turn says.

“Article 51

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.“

In other words: The Treaty of Lisbon states that if a member is attacked, the other states shall aid and assist “by all means in their power”, and shall report to the UN Security Council what actions have been taken.

What President Niinistö has said, is that if Russia was to invade a Baltic country, it is not in our power to participate militarily in its defence. This boils down to some straightforward facts: Finland is a large country (64th largest in the world), with a small population (114th most populous), meaning we are one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world (201st in population density). We also have a land border with Russia that is longer than the current border between NATO-countries and Russia taken together. To defend ourselves, we will need more or less all of the 230,000 soldiers we plan to mobilize in case of war. As we can’t be sure of foreign assistance, we can’t promise to come to the aid of others.

However, Niinistö does not state that Finland won’t aid our neighbours, if we have the opportunity to do so. This might include supplies, vehicles, materials, or even troops, but it is all dependent on how the situation would develop. In the case of a NATO-Russian conflict that Finland gets dragged into, Finnish naval and air units would almost certainly be integrated into the NATO+1 alliance’s grander schemes, and receive missions aimed at safeguarding Estonia and parts of Latvia, while the Norwegian Air Force would help secure our northern flank.

Noteworthy here is the reaction from the Baltic countries themselves, which have been rather unspectacular. Estonia’s permanent representative to the North Atlantic Council, Ambassador Lauri Lepik, is apparently also a follower of the realist school of foreign politics, and commented the news on twitter:

The only other high-ranking politician from any of the Baltic countries I’ve seen commenting on the issue is Lithuanian Minister of Defence, Juozas Olekas, who in a radio show said that Lithuania, in turn, has no direct obligation to defend Finland, but if something was to happen, he believed Lithuania and the other NATO countries would try to assist in some way.

“With Finland, Sweden, and other non-NATO countries, especially the other EU countries, we are developing our military co-operation, but we have no direct defense commitment. I think we would try to support Finland in some way, where it is relevant. But it is not part of our direct defensive commitment.”

This interview was then naturally turned into a Sputnik propaganda-piece, under the headline: “Tiny Baltic State Takes Offense at Finland Over Much-Feared Russian Threat”

The bottom line is that it seems that it is mostly non-Baltic western media that has taken offense. In the Finnish defence debate the concensus seems to be that most agree on the issue, but opinions differ about whether the President should express it publicly. In my personal opinion, the speech, and especially the passage about the Baltic States, is somewhat muddled, and not one of Niininstö’s best. Still, there is nothing new to get excited over, which is also seen in the way the Baltic States have acknowledged the statement.

Ending note: the Finnish stance on a responsibility to defend its neighbours is different compared to Sweden’s, which unilaterally has declared that they will come to the aid of others, and expect others to come to their aid (point 4.4).

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The Pacific Narrative

After the latest round of G7 talks, the leaders of the countries in this exclusive club declared that lifting the sanctions imposed upon Russia won’t happen unless Russia exits Ukraine, and that they are ready “to strengthen sanctions if the situation makes that necessary” [Guardian].

Sanctions are West’s preferred weapon to combat an increasingly aggressive Russia, while making sure that they won’t do anything that could escalate the situation into all-out war. Thus, we should all be able to sleep soundly in our beds, with the exception of the Ukrainians (and possibly Moldavians), right?

The war in the Pacific is far less known than it deserves to be here in the Northern Europe, and the narrative usually starts with a sudden Japanese strike on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Seldom is the Japanese reasoning behind why they decided to launch an all-out war with a global power developed. In light of recent development in Europe, I think a short recap of the events involving Japan stretching a further ten years back is in order1.

In 1931 a large number of incidents of various severities took place in China (which was rapidly disintegrating in what we today would call a failed state), culminating in what was effectively a Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Japan then declared Manchuria independent as the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Japan entered into the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, the fear of communism being one of the main reasons why Japan ventured into China to begin with. Another step towards more hostile relations with the west was the Japanese withdrawal from naval limitation treaties in the same year, and in particular the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which many in Japan had felt was a “humiliation” by the USA and the United Kingdom, given that it only allowed Japan a ratio of 3:5 in capital ships and tonnage compared to the British Royal Navy and the US Navy (it should be noted though that both Italy and France had accepted a yet smaller ratio of capital ships of 1.75:5 compared to the RN and USN).

With Japanese-US relations in a slow but steady decline, the accidental (?) bombing of the US gunboat USS Panay in 1937 only made things worse. The same year the Japanese army had launched a full-scale invasion into China, and the US administration was not happy about it. For their part, the Japanese did not appreciate western aid to Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang.

Things then took another turn for the worse in 1938 when Japan concluded the occupation of Eastern China, and followed it up by declaring a “New Order in East Asia” (東亜新秩序 Tōa Shin Chitsujo). The major western powers of the day, USA, the United Kingdom, and France, all declared their opposition to this new order. In response to the aggressive Japanese foreign politics in general and towards China in particular, the US withdrew from a number of bilateral US-Japanese trade agreements in the summer of 1939. This came as a surprise and a serious bow for Japan, which with limited amounts of raw materials was reliant on foreign trade for its prosperity.

Still, this did not deter the Japanese, as events in Europe forced Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands to focus their attention closer to home. Thus, in June 1940, the Japanese Foreign Minister Arita declared the need for a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” (大東亞共榮圏 Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken), and then Japan moved to implement it by invading French Indochina the same autumn in what was one of the least bloody wars South East Asia would experience during the 20th century.

Now things started to escalate quickly. In July 1941 USA declared an embargo on exports of scrap metal and oil, which lead to vocal Japanese protests. Unrelenting, Washington moved on, freezing Japanese assets in the country. A series of more or less sincere negotiations followed, in which Washington demanded that Japan withdraw from conquered territories, while the Japanese standpoint was that for an agreement to be reached, USA needed to “show understanding” regarding the national needs of Japan, and “see the realities” of the region such as they were. In November, USA officially demanded that Japan withdraw to the borders prior to the invasion of Manchuria ten years earlier (at least that was the Japanese interpretation, whether or not Washington meant Manchukuo to be included is debatable). Giving up ten years of land grabs was not on the Japanese agenda, and by that time a large force from the Imperial Japanese Navy had already set sail for Hawaii.


1The following account is largely based upon Albert Axell & Hideaki Kase: “Kamikaze – Japan’s Suicide Gods”, which is a book I’d not recommend in itself. It seems to be largely written to defend Japanese behaviour prior to and during the war in general and Kamikaze-tactics in particular, something it tries to do by e.g. comparing Kamikaze pilots with British CAM-pilots. Still, despite these less than impressive arguments, the book can provide some valuable insights.

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.