Pekka Visuri talks about security policy in neutral Finland
Finland and Ukraine, both squeezed between the East and the West, have much in common historically and geopolitically. Located on the crossroads of civilizations, Finland made good use of its location to establish fruitful cooperation with its neighbours and build a modern security and defence system as a neutral and non-aligned country. Pekka Visuri, Senior Researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, the University of Helsinki, spoke with The Ukrainian Week about Finland’s experience of effective tightrope walking in security between the West and the East, after his visit to Ukraine to lecture at the Ye Bookstore in Kyiv.
UW: How deeply did the 1960-1980s changes of "becoming more Finnish", or "finlandization", affect security policy in modern Finland? Does your country still look at Russia when making decisions on security issues?
The term “finlandization” is wrong for describing Finnish policy during the Cold War, if it used with a negative meaning. It was first used in German internal debates in 1970s as a warning Germans would be “finlandized” if the country became neutral between East and West. It is useful to remember that Germany was a divided and occupied land. Finland was not occupied and divided, but after the war in 1945, Finland naturally fell under Soviet influence. From that starting point, Finland, step by step, acquired more freedom of action. This was a “policy of neutrality” which was a success story in the Cold War. Finland was a part of the Nordic group of countries and a member of the EFTA free trade zone from the 1960s onwards and entered a free trade treaty with the European Economic Community in 1974.
Finland's policy of balancing the interests and influence of Eastern and Western powers during the Cold War was successful, and that is why the Finns had a good experience with their policy of neutrality. Today, the Finns are part of the European Union and must first look to Brussels. It is our “second capital”, really. I think that with regard to both Moscow and Washington, there is a good balance in Finland's current security policy. Berlin, too, is very important for Finland, and Germany is a big stabilizing factor in the Baltic region.
UW: The issue of Finland's joining NATO is still very complicated. Where does that debate stand within the Finnish political and military establishment today?
I see no problem with NATO in Finland's security policy. It is officially stated that Finland has good cooperative relations with NATO but has no need to apply for membership in the alliance. The most important thing for Finland is membership in the EU, and both Finland and Sweden together create a buffer zone between Russia and NATO, and all parties today are enjoying the benefits of this long lasting stability in Northern Europe and especially in the Baltic region.
A 60 per cent majority of Finns agree on the policy of military non-alliance, and only some 20 per cent favour joining NATO. There are no big discussions on this issue. Also the Finnish military follows the obligations set by the political leadership, and decisions in security policy are understood to be clearly political issues.
The Finnish defence doctrine dates from the Cold War based on an independent territorial defence system with a rather large reserve army of some 300,000 soldiers and a good air force with over 60 American-made F-18 Hornets. So, the Finnish military system is rather exceptional in today’s Europe, but it has a good place in security policy reasoning which, on the other hand, is based on the geostrategic situation between Russia and the Western, US-influenced military alliance. Because of these reasons, the military doctrine is quite defensive, and foreign tasks for the military are secondary.
In Europe today, we also have a much easier military political situation in the North than was the case during the Cold War. Economic problems in financing the defence forces in the future are naturally challenging, but these issues can be assessed within the framework of a stable security and political environment in Finland, and so they are not overwhelming. The Finnish military is undergoing reforms which aim to maintain a small force (of about 20,000 persons) with modernized armaments, and obligatory military service for men. This enables Finland to keep a large reserve for a land force.
UW: In recent years Putin's Russia has been persistently trying to restore its political, cultural and economic dominance across post-Soviet territory. For example, the Kremlin exerts military pressure on the Baltic States and launched a war with Georgia in 2008. How do you see the prospects for post-Soviet countries in maintaining peace given that NATO is not strong enough and is itself enduring a crisis today while Russia is growing more aggressive?
I don’t believe the situation is so threatening. The Russian leadership has a long tradition of sound strategic thinking, and they know very well the real power relations in the World and especially in Europe. Geopolitics clearly favours the European Union with its 500 million people to Russia’s 143 million, and economic power (GDP) five times higher than Russia's economy. With many problems in the south and east, the Russian leaders have no reason to make troubles in the west. And accordingly, Germany, the leading power in the EU, is trying to enhance cooperative policies with Russia for good reason. The Caucasian areas and Central Asia are in a quite different situation than European areas are. There are no signs, in foreseeable future, of fundamental changes in this overall geopolitical landscape.
UW: How have defence doctrines changed in Europe since the end of World War Two?
There were fundamental changes in military posturing in Europe after the world wars and the Cold War. There are no more mass armies, because there is no need to be ready to fight each other in Europe in the traditional sense. Also, technological developments favour small high-tech intervention forces over traditional mass armies. After the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Western countries have no desire to intervene with any large military force outside of Europe.
Still, Finland has a territorial defence doctrine which is rather exceptional in Europe. I think it is reasonable for Finland in the future, too.
UW: When economic crises develop, countries prefer to reduce their defence budgets. Even the USA is now considering defence spending cuts. How do you see changes in the security architecture of the West in recent years?
The trend is quite clear to reduce military forces in Western countries, but the starting level has been very high. The United States today spends almost half of the world’s military outlays and its Western European allies together account for about 20 per cent. So, the “West” still spends about 60-70 per cent of world’s total on military costs. This is too high a level of consumption and should be reduced.
Reduction is not so important for the defensive power of Western countries, but intervention capacity might be reduced. Consequently, we may not see another Iraq war, like in 1991 and 2003. Western leaders will be very careful in employing military force for intervening outside of Europe. American strategic interests are concentrating clearly in the Asia-Pacific area.
UW: Do you think Ukraine can be neutral in one of the most important geopolitical zones in Europe? Is there any alternative for a doctrine of collective defence in our chaotic and changing world?
I see no big problems for Ukraine being militarily neutral if the people wish it. There can be, however, some problems in keeping the situation stable because of the economic and political aftermath of the Cold War and the Soviet legacy, but things are not as difficult as they were after the wars in 1918 and 1945. The world is changing and is sometimes turbulent, but it is not inevitably chaotic. I think that “rimlands” of Russia — Finland and Ukraine — have good chances of getting through future changes in the world in general, if their internal economic and political situations remain stable.
UW: Ukraine and Finland have long shared similar national threats from the East. What do you see in common in Ukraine's and Finland's history?
I see some parallels from history as they were borderlands or buffers between Russia and Western powers. Especially the battle of Poltava in 1709 was crucial. Many Finnish soldiers also perished serving in that Swedish army, and at the same time Finland became occupied by Russian troops. After the Great Northern war (1700-1721), the Russian Empire was built and it advanced a lot towards the west. Then, the both Finland and Ukraine were in the Russian Empire or at least in the Russian zone of influence for over 200 years.
Finland became independent in 1917, and the German zone of influence reached east for a while in 1918, but eventually the German Empire also collapsed.
The Second World War was very disastrous for both Finland and Ukraine. First, Finland clashed with Ukrainian troops during the Winter War of 1939-1940, when the 44th Division from the Military District of Kiev attacked in Suomussalmi, in Northern Finland, and was totally destroyed by Finnish troops in January 1940. During the later phases of the war, both countries were battlefields terribly destroyed by the war.
Pekka Visuri is Senior Researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, the University of Helsinki, and a retired Colonel. Mr. Visuri worked at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and National Defence University for 15 years. He is an expert in security policy and strategy, and political history, and was involved in drafting defence projects for the Baltic region.
Mr. Visuri published a number of books, including The Guideline to Finnish Security and Defence Policy in 2003; Finland and the Crises in 2003; Finland in the Cold War in 2006; Between the East and the West: Finnish Defence Policy Under Urho Kekkonen in 2010; and Finland and the New Crises co-written with Timo Hellenberg in 2011.