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.”
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.
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).