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

The Spirit of Sälen: Sauli Niinistö’s views

Sauli Niinistö, the President of the Republic, opened the annual session of the Finnish parliament this week. His opening speech is available in full length here: swe / fin.

Finnish domestic politics is quite turbulent at the moment, with e.g. a large-scale, structural reform on municipalities. However Niinistö begins, not in Finland, but with “The Arab spring, Syria, and now Ukraine”. In all countries, a seemingly strong regime has been confronted by the opposition. In a fast changing world, what seemed unthinkable a week ago, or even yesterday, is suddenly a reality. What lasting effects these uprisings will have is still open, but unfortunately one of the common factors in all cases so far have been that extremist movements are trying to use the situation for their own purposes.

The president also points out that another common fact in all countries is that there is no “Enlightened despotism”, sooner or later, people have had enough of living under oppressive rulers.

On the underlying causes, the president notes that we, in Europe as well as elsewhere, have the large differences between the ‘have’ and ‘have nots’. He also warned against excess borrowing, and the damaging effect on public morale and social stability even minor sins can have if it is felt that the leaders of the society doesn’t care to follow the same rules as the common people.

Towards the end it gets really interesting. Niinistö spoke about what he calls the “Spirit of Sälen”. This, he explains, is the recognition by politicians and officers in both Finland and Sweden that as countries, we have common interests in the fields of national security and defence-related questions, and that we want to meet these together. New areas for co-operation are charted out by the defence ministers of both countries, and our aim is to handle these questions through the EU in coordination with each other. Also, the evolution of our respective partnerships with NATO is largely coordinated, and we strive for a common pace in this field as well.

“No cooperation can take the place of a nation’s own defence forces, and neither is that the purpose. However, through cooperation a nation’s defence is strengthened.”

The president also noted the need to meet the growing cyber-threat, and that updated legislation is needed. On the discussion on what level of funding is needed in order to maintain a credible defence, Niinistö stated that it is important that the discussion continues up until the coming parliamentary elections (April 2015), so that a solid base of information then is available for the new cabinet.

Interesting to note is also the continued emphasize on defence cooperation with Sweden, and the echoing of General Puheloinen’s views that NATO-membership would not make further cuts in the Finnish defence forces possible. Finally, the president used rather strong language with regards to Ukarine, by calling it an uprising and mentioning it together with countries such as Libya, Egypt and Syria. The intended audience was probably the Finnish parliament, in an effort to try to urge Finnish politicians (and in the long run the EU) to take a firmer stance on the issue.

To wrap it up, I think it is safe to say that the renaissance of the national security debate Sweden has seen in the last year is starting to ‘leak over’ into Finnish politics. Perhaps 2014 will be the year the Finnish defence discussion will reach a new level, and not just be the questions of Yes or No to NATO and general conscription. Although far from certain, re-adjusting the defence spending after 2015 back to level needed seems politically possible.

Japanese (self-) defense forces in Djibouti

It is well known that a number of different units and vessels from several nations are deployed to the area surrounding Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. Of the “major players”, one of the less well known is Japan, which has set up a continuing presence under the “Japanese Facility for Counter-Piracy Mission in Djibouti”.

JS Samidare (DD-106) Wikimedia Commons/USN

The unit made it to the news earlier this year when they played an important part in the interception of a dhow used by Somali pirates. Although the interception and boarding of the dhow was carried out by the Operation Atalanta flagship FS Siroco (L 9012), the dhow was, according to the official homepage of the EU NAVFOR, initially located by  a Japanese maritime patrol aircraft and a helicopter from the Japanese vessel JS Samidare (DD-106), which operates in associated support to the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF/CTF 151).

The Japanese maritime patrol aircraft mentioned was one of the sizeable fleet of P-3C Orion’s operated by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s air arm, while the helicopter was a SH-60 Seahawk (of the J- or K-version). In keeping with Japanese customs, both are manufactured locally, by Kawasaki and Mitsubishi respectively. As mentioned, the Seahawk’s operate from the Japanese Murasame-class destroyer JS Samidare (eng. ‘Spring rain’). The rather modern outfit of the Japanese units in the area is somewhat in contrast to the French, who apparently sent an aging Alouette III-helicopter to the scene.

The intercepted dhow with the French boarding team and an Aéronavale Alouette III hovering nearby. © eunavfor.eu

The job apparently went well, and the NAVFOR has published some nice pictures of the boarding on their homepage. More interesting than the raid itself, however, is the presence of Japanese fixed-wing assets in the area.

As an effect of WWII, Japan has an anti-militaristic constitution, with the famous article 9 stating that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained“. Still, the use of “Self-defense forces” as opposed to simply “Defense forces” in the name does not hide the fact that Japan has a well-equipped defense force. A more concrete effect has been the reluctance to participate in operations abroad, with the first Japanese peace-keeping deployment taking place only back in 1992, when a non-combatant force was sent to Cambodia as part of the UNTAC. However, during the last twenty years, a rapid shift in policy has taken place, and in recent years the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gone so far as to publicly call for Article 9 to be removed.

This is where the Japanese Facility for Counter-Piracy Mission in Djibouti comes in. Even if the word ‘Base’ is avoided (apparently due to article 9) it is very clear that with the creation of the facility back in 2011, for the first time since WWII, Japan has set up a military base in foreign territory. The counter-piracy operation consists of a destroyer, Orion’s operating from the base, and the Japanese Special Boarding Unit (the navy’s elite unit modeled after SBS and the SEAL). In itself, the base is rather unspectacular, both France and the USA have armed forces based in Djibouti, but its symbolic value is high enough for Abe to visit it in August last year.

The thing to remember is that all this is happening against the backdrop of rising tensions in the Far East. The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute that flared up last year is still simmering, and only this week China and Malaysia had a quarrel over a Chinese report on a naval maneuver that was supposedly held in disputed waters at the James Shoal in the South China Sea. Both South Korea and China have been eyeing the rising Japanese self-esteem with worry, while South Korea and Japan share a common mistrust against the growing Chinese ambitions (supported by a rapidly growing modern navy). It remains to be seen whether South Korea and Japan will find each other as allies due to their common fear of China, or if the memory of the Japanese occupation still is too fresh. Rising energy prices and a stalling Japanese economy might easily tip the country into trying to tighten their grip of disputed oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea, something that naturally could lead to clashes with China as it aspires to become a ‘true’ superpower.

Puheloinen and NATO

The Finnish Chief of Defence*, General Ari Puheloinen, held the opening speech at the 208th National Defence Courset his week (20.1). The speech was widely reported in Swedish media with the headline: “Finnish C-in-C says no to NATO”. To put this statement into context, a recent study (14.01) showed that a majority of the Finnish officers supported the idea of Finland joining the alliance, with the higher-ranking officers (Colonels and above) being more in favor than the lower ranks.

The speech is found in its entirety on the Finnish Defence Forces home page in the form it was given (mostly in Finnish, with a brief ending paragraph in Swedish).

Puheloinen begins by talking about the defence cuts that are taking place, and the consequences they have had to date. He praises “his” personnel, and talks about the need to reform the defence forces as the organization changes. He also takes care to point out that the number of Generals is being lowered correspondingly, and that Finland has a rather low ratio of higher officers compared to other countries.

After this more or less expected introduction, he restates his point from a national defence course held back in 2012: If the defence budget is not raised by 2015, Finland will no longer have a credible defence by 2020. This is where he mentions NATO, once in the whole speech. “Being a member of NATO would not solve this challenge.” (fi. “Naton jäsenyys ei ratkaisisi tätä haastetta.”), after which he moves on and continues to note that neither will collaboration amongst the Nordic countries. However, Puheloinen states, we should still cooperate even if we didn’t experience financial troubles, as it has several benefits. The Finnish-Swedish relationship has received much attention recently, and is brought up as a prime example of this kind of work. In Puheloinen’s view, it is important that it is based on common needs and interests, and that both the contribution and benefits are shared equally by both participants. In spite of our differences, he strongly believes that fitting areas of collaboration will be found.

However, he also warns against expecting that all joint projects will bring financial savings, and cautions that although joint procurements are often brought forward as possible examples of collaboration, they are in fact amongst the hardest to coordinate (for an excellent summary of recent joint procurements by the Swedish armed forces, read this excellent post by Skipper).

To sum it all up, he ends by noting that “Through collaboration between Finland and Sweden it is possible to achieve good results, but it will require time, patience, being ready to move forward one small step at a time, and being prepared to make compromises.”

I noted with delight that he also brings up the importance of reservists, and that the training of these will again be brought up to the “appropriate” level.

I believe that interpreting Puheloinen’s statement as being a no to NATO is to read too much into the single sentence. Rather, I believe it is a reminder to our politicians that joining NATO will not make the need for defence spendings go away. I personally think it is a good speech. Puheloinen manages to take up several current issues in a short time, and he continues his custom of honestly and clearly speaking about the needs of the defence forces, in spite of the no doubt considerable political pressure to accept further cuts.

*Contrary to what some Swedish sources stated, Gen Puheloinen is in fact not the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces, a position held by the President of Finland.


To begin with I must say that I am positively surprised by the amount of interest this blog has stirred during these few days. I hope you will keep finding my post interesting. No small part in the number of views is thanks to James Mashiri over at Random thoughts, a warm “Thank you” to James. And do go check out his blog if you haven’t already, it is one of the best out there  dealing with Finnish defense questions.

The big thing happening in Europe right now is obviously the development in Ukraine, which every day is looking more like an attempted revolution and less like a demonstration. The situation is a prime example of the problematic situation when a, more or less, democratically elected government acts in undemocratic ways. To make matters worse, the easy solution, early elections, would apparently only result in more or less the same result as the last one (and even if the opposition would win, a western-style, non-corrupt government is far from guaranteed), meaning that a kind of a stalemate is born. The situation is not unlike what e.g. Thailand and Egypt are experiencing, but also Turkey seems to be heading in the same direction. Ukraine, settled on the frontier between EU and Russia, is however very important for the future of Europe and the EU, meaning that we as Europeans cannot afford to ignore the developments there. The situation is receiving surprisingly little coverage in mainstream media. A more thorough analysis of the situation would be needed, however, I am willingly admitting that my knowledge of the country and its internal politics is way to meager to be the one to write this analysis.

If someone knows of a good round-up of the current situation, and the likely outcomes, please let me know, I would very much like to dig deeper into this.