[Interview] War in Ukraine spurred Finnish public’s support for NATO membership

Posted on : 2023-02-21 18:35 KST Modified on : 2023-02-21 18:42 KST
The Hankyoreh sat down with Janne Kuusela, the director general of the Defence Policy Department of Finland’s Ministry of Defence, to ask how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, and the war that has followed since has changed the security landscape for Finland
Janne Kuusela, director general of the Defence Policy Department at the Finnish Ministry of Defence, poses for a photo for the Hankyoreh on Feb. 10. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
Janne Kuusela, director general of the Defence Policy Department at the Finnish Ministry of Defence, poses for a photo for the Hankyoreh on Feb. 10. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

Measuring some 1,340 kilometers in length, Finland shares the longest border with Russia in all of Europe. During the Cold War, it became the face of nations caught between the US and the West on one side and the Soviet Union and the East on the other. Finland’s choice to be nonaligned in the aftermath of World War II was a geopolitical tactic for surviving its tight position between massive powers. Last May, Finland declared its intention to join the NATO military alliance of the West, abandoning the strategy of neutrality it had maintained for nearly 80 years. The Hankyoreh sat down with Janne Kuusela, the director general of the Defence Policy Department of Finland’s Ministry of Defence, to ask how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, and the war that has followed since, has changed the security landscape for Finland.

Hankyoreh: How has Finland’s perception of security changed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Janne Kuusela: Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014. And has done so now again on a larger scale in 2022. There‘s much more unpredictability and there is a major war going on. We have concluded that the security environment in Europe and Northern Europe has become worse. As a small nation, Finland must do everything we can to ensure that we can defend ourselves.

Hankyoreh: What specific measures have been introduced due to Finland’s changed perception of its security?

Kuusela: We have always taken good care of our defense, which meant we didn‘t have to make any big renovations to our defense. We have quite a large wartime strength in our defense forces; 95% of our wartime forces are reservists. We have roughly 900,000 trained reservists in Finland, and the wartime fighting force is 280,000. We need to do lots of rehearsal training. So we have increased rehearsal training for reservists.

In addition, we have been buying more ammunition, missiles and spare parts; we have done more maintenance for our equipment. And we have sped up some of the longstanding procurement programs we have for foreign materials. For example, our Air Force‘s main aircraft, to this day, is the F-18, which we procured in 1991. They are becoming old, so we have to replace them with modern fighter aircraft.

Hankyoreh: What did Russia mean to Finland’s security and how has its role changed now?

Kuusela: Finland has a population of 5.5 million while Russia is a nation of 445 million people that covers 11 time zones and is the world‘s biggest nuclear power. Last year Russia sent letters to European governments in which they basically said that they don‘t recognize any more nonaligned nations in Europe, they recognize only Russia’s sphere of influence, and what they call America’s sphere of influence — that is, NATO. We saw how Russia was treating non-NATO nations around them like Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia, and felt that our room for maneuvering had become awfully narrow. We concluded after Russia attacked Ukraine last year that we couldn’t expect to have a decent working relationship with such an administration. That’s when our longstanding security and defense policy of military nonalignment shifted 180 degrees and Finland decided to apply for NATO membership together with Sweden.

Hankyoreh: Is public opinion in Finland in favor of joining NATO?

Kuusela: Absolutely. We have been asking the same questions of our population for many decades concerning defense. Until last winter, usually, some 20% of Finns would have favored Finland joining NATO, and some 40% were strictly against it. But that changed dramatically last year. In the latest public poll, 87% of Finns supported NATO membership. [According to the findings of a public opinion poll announced by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) on May 9, 2022, 76% of respondents in a survey carried out on May 4-6 of that year were supportive of joining NATO, while 12% were opposed.]

Hankyoreh: How specifically will NATO membership contribute to Finland’s security?

Kuusela: The biggest single factor is the deterrence effect — preventive deterrence. The biggest reason to have military force is to ensure that you will never have to use it. [Depending on Finland’s accession to NATO] there will be a huge difference in Finland‘s military deterrence. Are we alone as a small nation, or together with, soon, 31 other European nations and the United States and Canada? There’s a huge difference there. We feel that, because we have a strong defense, we contribute to security. We can contribute to NATO and help others. In a sense, we have been down this path before, when Finland joined the European Union in 1995 and ceased being neutral, instead becoming politically aligned with Western Europe. But the EU is not a military alliance.

Hankyoreh: Will Finland and Sweden continue to pursue NATO membership together at the same time?

Kuusela: We are willing to join together. Every NATO nation has to sincerely agree to take in new members and they have a right to ask questions and to consider the applicants. We also understand that, traditionally, when new countries join NATO, the process has taken many years. We only received the invite last summer. It’s been slightly over half a year, and things have gone very quickly. Twenty-eight nations ratified us within months. We are not in a hurry.

Hankyoreh: Why pursue simultaneous membership with Sweden?

Kuusela: Finland and Sweden are very close to each other and have a very longstanding close relationship that extends to basically all areas of our societies. And we have in the past 10 years tightened our defense cooperation. If you look at the map, it makes sense that both countries would join at the same time. Doing so would make so many things easier for NATO in terms of planning and integration.

Hankyoreh: What differences are there in Finland‘s perception of security from that of Sweden?

Kuusela: There is an inbuilt difference that likely stems from the geographical reality that Finland shares the longest border in Europe with Russia — 1,340 kilometers of land border. Moreover, we have our history with Russia; we have fought many wars with Russia, and that affects our perception of security. Sweden is a bit further away and surrounded by friends like Norway, Finland and Denmark. Sweden has been neutral for roughly 200 years; they have not fought wars since the early 1800s. [Neutrality] is much more deeply ingrained in the Swedish political DNA. Whereas Finland adopted a policy of neutrality and nonalignment after the Second World War because we had no other options as we were squeezed in between the West and the East. [Declaring neutrality was] perhaps not the preferred option, but a method of survival. For that reason, it was perhaps easier for us to change direction so quickly last year than it was for many people in Sweden.

Hankyoreh: Do you see any possibility of a large-scale war in Europe?

Kuusela: There has been very careful concern about potential escalation. That‘s, for example, why NATO has been very careful not to become a part of the war, even though Russia says that they are fighting against the West. So right now, I don’t think it‘s very likely that there would be a larger war in Europe, but it’s always a possibility, which we have to take seriously.

Hankyoreh: Helsinki is a symbolic place where the East and the West signed the Helsinki Final Act, which promised European security cooperation in 1975. Do you think the Helsinki accords are still valid?

Kuusela: We of course hope that the core principles of the Helsinki Final Act are still valid, but they have been violated now by Russia in so many ways. Democracy and human rights and freedom and sovereignty of nations have been challenged these days.

Hankyoreh: Do you think it is time for a new set of accords?

Kuusela: All wars end someday. It is then that we need to figure out how to go forward. I think one of the big questions in the future [after the war] is how to arrange the situation of Ukraine so that they feel comfortable and they are secure. We need to come together in the future and find a long-lasting solution to secure Ukraine and try to revive those important principles that are now being so seriously challenged. I don’t think anybody has any easy answers for how to do it. That will be the task for diplomats and political leaders to figure out in the coming years.

Hankyoreh: What is Finland’s opinion on the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO?

Kuusela: I think they have a right to seek membership. It’s up to NATO to decide when the time is right. Finland is not yet part of NATO, so we don‘t have a position on that. But we hope that Ukraine will be part of NATO one day when all the alliance thinks that the time is right.

Hankyoreh: How far can the West’s military aid to Ukraine go?

Kuusela: How they can and how they want to support Ukraine depends on each European nation. We have been seeing the scale and the quality of support increasing all the time. Finland has given lots of support to Ukraine, and we will continue to support Ukraine in many ways as long as they need support. We will provide not only military material, but also other kinds of material that society needs in times of war and will help with the reconstruction and stabilization as well as with training.

Hankyoreh: Realistically speaking, what is the likelihood that Ukraine is able to reclaim the Crimean Peninsula and Donbas?

Kuusela: Finland understands the situation very well from its own experience in the same position during the Winter War in 1940. We were in a very similar position in 1944, too. Russia had occupied parts of eastern Finland, and was threatening to take them. Our people hated the idea of giving big parts of our territory to Russia. But finally, Finland was in a position where its resources were exhausted; we didn’t have any more ammunition, and society was in ruins. We didn‘t have any outside help anymore. Our main ally was Germany, and Germany was losing the war. So we had to make the very painful decision to negotiate peace with the Soviet Union, and that meant that we lost big territories from eastern Finland. It was traumatic for Finland, and still is. We understand that we will never get those areas back. So I fully understand that Ukrainians want to stay in the fight and defend their country, and they have all the right to do so.

By Noh Ji-won, Berlin correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles