Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resonates deeply in Finland. Not just the concocted pretext for war, but also Ukraine’s sustained push-back against Russia’s supposedly superior military strength.
Nine decades ago it was Finland’s turn. Its fabled Winter War began in November 1939, when the Soviet Union attacked its small Nordic neighbour. The vastly outnumbered and outgunned Finns held out for four months with daredevil offensives, guerrilla defence tactics and even a reindeer battalion.
An uneasy peace agreement with Moscow in March 1940 saved Finnish independence at a cost: 10 per cent of its territory, further conflicts and an uneasy alliance with Nazi Germany. Determined never to be humiliated by Moscow again, the Finns spent the postwar era preparing – quietly and continuously – for the next Russian incursion.
In a final move, Finland’s government is expected to file for Nato membership later this month after support more than doubled within weeks to about 65 per cent. For Finns, who share a 1,340km border with Russia, the era of small, neutral, nonaligned Europe countries is over.
“First Ukraine, but what else will they try to take over, perhaps even our country?” said Lieut Gen Esa Pulkkinen, director general of defence policy at Finland’s ministry of defence. “This is the fear among citizens. This is why we are changing completely. The pressure is coming from the bottom up.”
Though postwar Finland pursued a policy of neutrality, Moscow machinations meant Helsinki never quite achieved that until the near the end of the Soviet era. It was always more a tool than a dogma, and Finns now see Nato membership as the end point of a process towards alignment and away from neutrality that began with EU membership in 1995.
For Lieut Gen Pulkkinen, the pursuit of Nato membership has been forced on Finland by an unpredictable neighbour that is “close to a dictatorship” and reverting to “old imperial rules”.
Surrounded by ministry portraits of Finnish generals who faced the last wave of imperial Russian thinking, Lieut Gen Pulkkinen is quietly confident Finland is ready for whatever Russia has planned when Helsinki applies to join Nato. But he is not so sure what the future holds for Ireland.
For 20 years the soft-spoken Finnish military man has worked closely with Irish officials and, in 2020, was invited to be a member of the Commission on the Irish Defence Forces.
Two weeks after the commission’s 183-page report was published in February, Russia invaded Ukraine.
“The report was quite revolutionary in Irish terms but, given the situation today [with Russia], we would have been even more ambitious,” said Lieut Gen Pulkkinen. “Your defence forces are seriously underfunded; I said in webinars that you would have to triple spending. The Irish people –and your defence forces – deserve that.”
Among the paper’s 24 recommendations: improved troop protection, fire power and air and coastal defences as well as a significant boost of military intelligence and cyber defence capabilities.
A continuation of “business as usual”, the report warned, would leave Ireland “without a credible military capability to protect ... its people and its resources for any sustained period”. Translation: Ireland cannot defend itself today, let alone tomorrow.
In conversations with The Irish Times, several Finnish officials who have followed recent developments – cyberattacks on the health service and the visit of Russian boats to the Irish southwest coastal waters – wonder aloud whether Ireland is ready for uncertain times ahead.
As one senior official puts it: “Please explain to me why Ireland is celebrating a centenary of its independence from the UK, yet, to defend that sovereignty, relies almost entirely on the UK?”
Not all in Helsinki think the answer for Ireland lies in following Finland into Nato. Retired Finnish general Pekka Toveri suggests the best route for Ireland to defend its interests – as an open, exporting economy of services and multinationals – is by being a proactive EU member and driving on EU common security and defence structures.
“Your infrastructure to be protected is business and societal, and the EU has a better grasp of the legislation, rules and regulations you need to protect that, better tools than Nato,” he says.
At the defence ministry, Lieut Gen Pulkkinen agrees that Ireland’s different history and geography means it has different questions to answer, and “from a different angle”, to his homeland.
Despite his military background he views the EU as a “more profound” institution than the “paper” of the Nato treaty and its promise of mutual defence.
Much more can be done within EU structures, he says, to target hybrid and cyber threats that are of more immediate concern to Ireland than conventional threats.
“The key question for Ireland is this: will membership of the EU provide enough security for you in decades to come?” he asks. “If the answer is yes, you don’t have to change anything. If you think there is any chance that you will need a stronger and more robust military capability support for your sovereignty, go for Nato.”