Finland Will Serve as a Strong Anchor of NATO’s New Northeastern Flank, Parliamentarians Learn During Milestone Visit

29 September 2023

Finland’s first-class military, whole-of-nation defence concept, unique geographic position and firm commitment to shared democratic values make it a strong and resilient Ally. Finland can defend its 1,340 km border with Russia and be a strong contributor to NATO’s 360-degree security approach. These were the main takeaways from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s 19-21 September visit to Helsinki and Hämeenlinna; the first by an Assembly delegation since Finland became an Ally. 

The visit by the Assembly’s Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Defence and Security Cooperation (DSCTC) and Sub-Committee on NATO Partnerships (PCNP) aimed to deepen the understanding of Finland's role within NATO as well as Helsinki’s perspective on a range of security issues, including the changing strategic landscape in the Baltic Sea and High North regions, the dynamics along the Finland-Russia border and the multi-faceted challenges posed by China.  

The delegation of 40 members representing 14 NATO Allies was led by DSCTC chair Lord Campbell of Pittenweem (UK), Chairperson of the DCSTC, and Theo Francken (Belgium), Vice-Chairperson of the PCNP. 

Finland’s Full NATO Membership Opens a New Chapter in Euro-Atlantic Security and for Finnish Foreign and Defence Policy 

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves that continue to resonate along the Alliance’s eastern flank. Less than three months after Russia’s invasion, Finland abandoned a long-standing position of military non-alignment and submitted, along with Sweden, its bid to join NATO. Its quick accession on 4 April this year – the fastest in Alliance history – has fundamentally altered NATO’s northeastern flank, more than doubling Allies’ border with Russia and significantly strengthening NATO’s position in the Baltic Sea region. 

As NATO’s 31st Ally, Finland is well-positioned to be a bulwark along NATO’s expanded border with Russia, anchoring a new reality along NATO’s northeastern flank. Finland’s high north is proximate to Russia’s significant forces on the Kola peninsula and its southern tip is only 70 km from Tallinn across the Gulf of Finland.  

Finland’s challenging history with Russia in the 20th century, particularly the legacy of the Winter War of 1939-1940, led it to maintain a strong, modern military based on conscription and focused on territorial defence. Finland’s artillery capabilities alone, for example, exceed those of France and Germany combined. As General Timo Kivinen, Chief of Defence for the Finnish Defence Forces, stated clearly: “Finland's primary responsibility for defence lies within the nation itself, deeply rooted in the historical focus on securing the homeland.” 

As briefers told the delegation: Finland’s defence concept is total and focuses on cross-sector resilience. The result is impressive: Despite Finland’s relatively small population (5.5 million), the national armed forces can scale from 24,000 to 280,000 quickly in war time, with a capable reserve force of an additional 900,000. According to opinion polls, remarkably, over 80% of Finnish citizens are prepared participate in the nation’s defence should a war arise. 

Still, Finland understands it must adapt its defence posture as it integrates fully into the Alliance. As General Kivinen stated: “We are seeking to optimise the integration of Finnish defence capabilities into NATO to contribute to Allies’ collective deterrence and defence fully.” This means that Finland will have to adapt its force structure and planning to integrate into NATO’s range of defence plans, increase the tempo and scope of exercising (to include Article 5 training). As defence officials noted, Finland will also integrate into NATO’s Standing Maritime Groups, its air policing missions, contribute to its forward-deployed land forces, bolster the Alliance’s Response Force and plug into NATO’s integrated air and missile defence’s mission.  

Further, as Jukka Salovaara, Permanent State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also emphasised, NATO membership has forced an adaptation of Finland’s foreign and defence policy. This means embracing NATO's 360-degree approach and working with Allies to address threats not only from the east, but also from the south and across all domains.   

The delegation also learned that Finland plans to increase defence spending to EUR 6 billion in 2024, equalling about 2.3% of GDP and a significant increase over the last decade’s average of about 1.4%. The approximately EUR 2 billion in extra spending will mostly go toward funding the recent purchase of 64 F-35 fighter jets to replace the air force’s ageing F-18s and to the mid-life upgrades of the Navy’s four missile boats. Still, officials noted higher levels of defence spending will become the post-accession norm, as Finland intends to stay above the Alliance’s 2% GDP benchmark.  

Over the near horizon, Finland is looking for the best ways to continue to harness the potential of emerging technologies, such as uncrewed and artificial intelligence-driven systems, and to integrate them into its force structure. In the 2030s, these technologies are expected to account for 30% of capabilities, aligning with NATO’s evolving defence concepts and the changing nature of modern warfare. 

Finland’s Unwavering Commitment to Ukraine 

Finland has been a strong supporter of Ukraine since Russia’s unprovoked, illegal  and brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Finland has marshalled over EUR 1.4 billion in military, financial and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. As Lieutenant General Esa Pulkkinen, Permanent Secretary and Chair of the Security Committee at the Ministry of Defence of Finland, stated: “Supporting Ukraine is not just a choice but a necessity, highlighting the importance of international solidarity in times of conflict.” In addition to enhancing Ukraine’s defence capabilities, Finnish assistance seeks to support its economic reforms, infrastructure development and humanitarian efforts in conflict-affected regions. 

Due to its unique Cold War history, Finland had maintained a significant amount of legacy Soviet weapon systems, which were immediately deployable and easily integrated into the Ukrainian forces. This has allowed Finland to send 19 military aid packages to date. 

Nordic and Baltic Dimension: Regional Security 

Finnish briefers were quick to point out their dislike of the increasing tendency to refer to the Baltic as a NATO lake – it is not, as it remains a contested space. While there are new political-military realities in the region since Finland’s accession to NATO, the physical realities remain the same: The Baltic Sea hosts a slew of critical undersea infrastructure from telecommunication cables to energy pipelines – all of which have been crucial to the rapid economic growth of the region in the post-Cold War decades and the vulnerability of which was brought into stark relief with the September 2022 sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines. Sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) on the Baltic are vital to both Finland and Russia. 

95% of all of Finland’s trade goes via Baltic Sea routes. Russia relies heavily on the Baltic Sea as a key economic and military outlet. Exports of oil products via Saint Petersburg more than double that of any other outlet. In addition, Russia uses Baltic SLOCs to connect with Kaliningrad and resource both the Saint Petersburg and Moscow regions. As such, the security of Baltic SLOCs is vital to both. Defence officials briefing the delegation noted Finland puts a premium on having the capabilities to defend its Baltic Sea interests, which includes significant investments in force readiness and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  

Finnish interlocuters also noted heightened attention to Russian activities across the Arctic and particularly in the Barents Sea region as a defence priority due to a relative sea change in the High North’s broader dynamics. The cooperative spirit that once defined Arctic relations has deteriorated since 2014, and especially since 2022 due to Russia’s reckless military adventurism. The seven other Arctic Council member states suspended cooperation with Russia in March 2022, and great power competition now overshadows Arctic activities. Briefers noted the strategic importance Finland places on the High North and the need to integrate more completely with Allied planning and exercising for the region.  

Over the past decade, Russia has made substantial investments to modernise its Northern Fleet, which was upgraded to a military district in 2021. While Russia’s navy is much smaller than in the Cold War, Finnish officials noted, it has retained the ability to maintain its bastion defence concept around its strategic forces in the Barents Sea, as well as the ability to disrupt crucial transatlantic SLOCs. Russia’s war in Ukraine has only increased the region’s importance to Moscow for both force projection and trade. Investments in military bases and port infrastructure across Russia’s Arctic region has expanded significantly over the last decade. 

Finnish-Russian relations 

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Finland has radically reassessed its relations with Russia. Finnish interlocutors admitted that hopes of gradually changing Russia through trade, cooperation and interdependency proved to be futile. Instead of embracing the rules-based order, the Kremlin opted for a strategy of repression to maintain domestic control, confrontation with the West and military operations to exert influence in the post-Soviet region. 

Dr Arkady Moshes, a Programme Director at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), argued that Russia's strategy may not always be efficient, but it is effective. Moscow may not pursue its goals in a manner that seems rational, but it tends to achieve them nonetheless. He warned members not to underestimate the regime's ability to adapt and survive and called on Western policymakers to refrain from wishful thinking when analysing the country. 

Several speakers noted that Western sanctions against the Russian regime are inadequate, and pointed to the fact that Western businesses continue to operate in Russia, projecting a semblance of normalcy. Finland managed to re-orient its economy away from Russia and has recently even enacted restrictions for Russian vehicles to enter the Finnish territory. Finland is also revising its strategic documents, in part to reflect Finland’s changed assessment of Russia and the threat it poses.  

Matti Sarasmaa, Chief of the Border Guard and Coast Guard Division at the Ministry of the Interior, told delegates that the current situation on the Finnish-Russian border is stable and calm, and the number of irregular border crossings is low. Nevertheless, Finland does not rule out potential contingencies in the future and is rapidly building a new fence which will eventually span 200 km. 

The Role of Education and Civilian Engagement in National Defence 

As part of its ongoing commitment to national defence, Finland places great importance on education and civilian engagement. For instance, Finland conducts national defence courses educating civilians and influential figures about security matters, fostering a well-informed and resilient society. Remarkably, private sector leaders, including CEOs, have shown eagerness to join preparedness exercises, highlighting a strong sense of civic duty. 

Private sector involvement is crucial to the initiative’s success, as it contributes significantly to military transportation, accounting for 70% of the sector. This interdependence underscores the importance of organisations like the National Emergency Supply Agency in ensuring seamless cooperation during emergencies. 

During the visit, NATO parliamentarians also received briefings on the role of the Finnish Navy, toured the Sea Surveillance Centre and observed the Navy reservists training at the Upinniemi Naval base. In Hämeenlinna, parliamentarians visited the Armoured Brigade to learn more about Finland’s heavy armour and air defence systems. They also received briefings at Finland’s leading defence industry company Patria and observed their flagship armoured personnel carriers. 

Additional topics of discussion during the visit included:  

  • Opportunities for further cooperation and coordination among Allies in the Baltic Sea Region;  
  • Maritime security and the role of the Finnish Navy; and 
  • Strategic partnerships between the private sector and the Finnish Defence Forces  

The delegation also engaged with the following speakers:  

Ministry of Defence 
Lieutenant General Esa Pulkkinen, Permanent Secretary and Chair of the Security Committee, Ministry of Defence of Finland  

Ministry of the Interior 
Matti Sarasmaa, Chief of the Border Guard and Coast Guard Division, Ministry of the Interior of Finland  

Ministry of Foreign Affairs  
Jukka Salovaara, Permanent State Secretary 

Finnish Defence Forces 
General Timo Kivinen, Chief of Defence, Finnish Defence Forces 

Finnish Navy 
Commodore Jukka Anteroinen, Chief of Staff 
Captain Marko Laaksonen, Coastal Brigade Commanding Officer 
CDR Matti Linteri, Coastal Brigade Chief of Staff 
Lieutenant Commander Henri Koski, Minelayer Hämeenmaa Commanding Officer 

National Emergency Supply Agency (NESA) 
Nutti Nikula, Head of Strategic Support  

Finnish Institute of International Affairs 
Samu Paukkunen, Acting Director 
Arkady Moshes, Programme Director, Russia, EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood, and Eurasia 
Mikael Mattlin, Research Professor, Global Security and Governance 
Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Leading Researcher, Center on US Politics and Power 

The delegation was also received by Jussi Halla-Aho, Speaker of the Parliament of Finland.  

An exchange of views with the following members of the Defence Committee and the Delegation of Finland to the NATO PA was also part of the programme:  
Jukka Kopra 
Tomi Immonen 
Mikko Savola 
Atte Harjanne 
Harry Harkimo 

Photos of the visit © Finnish Defence Forces

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