HELSINKI — Finland and its neighbor Sweden have centered their defense strategies for decades on neutrality and refraining from participating with the big military alliances on their doorsteps.
But the annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine in 2014 changed that calculus in Northern Europe. Now, in another sign of the changing environment, Finnish Defense Minister Jussi Niinistö is pushing plans to host a large-scale military exercise as early as 2020 — and he has invited U.S. forces to participate.
“Finland has been attending all kinds of exercises during the recent years,” Niinistö told reporters on Tuesday. “It’s time to have our own.”
Niinistö envisions hosting an exercise on Finnish soil similar in size to the “Aurora” drills that took place in Sweden in September. Those exercises mobilized 19,000 Swedish troops, plus more than a thousand from the United States, France, and Nordic and Baltic countries. Should plans for the Finnish exercises be finalized, they would be the largest military drills the country has ever hosted.
“Sweden said it is ready to participate,” Niinistö said. “But so far I’ve only raised the issue with my counterparts and opened the door for more discussions.”
The comments coincided with a visit from U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis to the Finnish capital for a series of bilateral meetings and a two-day summit of the Northern Group, a multilateral defense forum of 12 European countries: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
“There is a lot less tone deafness from Washington these days about the domestic situation [in Finland]” — Charly Salonius-Pasternak, senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Amid the discussions of future military exercises and other avenues of cooperation at the summit, conversations centered around how best to respond to Russia’s behavior, which in addition to the war in Ukraine has unnerved neighbors with provocative actions such as airspace violations, disinformation campaigns and electronic and cyber attacks. In 2015, the defense ministers from the Northern Group called Russia the biggest challenge to European security and pushed for closer ties as a form of deterrence.
Those ties have continued to grow, but tensions with the Kremlin remain high and some provocative moves in the region are still underway. Norwegian intelligence services said in October that their country suffered an electronic attack in September that came from Russia, with GPS signals on flights in northern Norway being jammed just as Moscow was carrying out its massive “Zapad” military exercise in the neighborhood.
“We know this noise came from the other side of the border,” said Frank Bakke-Jensen, Norway’s defense minister. “But disabling air traffic like this is something we have prepared for, so it didn’t affect us.”
Feeling the Russia effect
Similar preparations are underway for other countries in the region as well. Finland and Sweden, both non-NATO members, are boosting defense spending and increasing their cooperation with NATO. Today, both countries enjoy a privileged relationship with the alliance, including joint military planning and intelligence exchanges, and their militaries possess the technical abilities to operate with NATO.
This growing cooperation and both countries’ strategic location close to Russia, including Finland’s 833-mile (1,340 km) border with the country, have made the Nordic duo more attractive defense partners, allowing them to build closer ties with Washington in recent years.
Jim Townsend, the former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, said a visit from Mattis and his meeting with the Northern Group is a clear signal of the organization’s growing importance.
“We tried for years to get a [U.S. Secretary of Defense] to go to Northern Group meetings,” Townsend said. “But Mattis [in Helsinki] is a sign that it’s now worthy to do so, mostly because of the Russians.”
Speaking alongside Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on Monday, Mattis praised Finland’s commitment to its own defense and said ties between the two countries have “never been stronger.”
Known for cultivating good relations with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as Moscow’s ties with the West have been strained, Niinisto has also deepened ties with Washington, meeting President Donald Trump in August and increasingly leveraging his position to push for dialogue between Russia and the United States, even hosting diplomats from both countries for talks in September.
Balancing domestic concerns
The proposed large-scale military exercise in 2020 put forward by the Finnish defense minister would mark a major step forward for Finland’s most visible security posture since the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2014. But such a shift from foreign policy tradition won’t go unopposed: Already, some members of the parliamentary opposition have voiced concerns.
Erkki Tuomioja, a former foreign minister and member of the Social Democrat Party, told the Ilta-Sanomat newspaper on Monday that he believes the defense minister is skirting parliamentary procedures in pushing to host such a large exercise and that he intends to oppose the drills.
During the Cold War, Finland remained militarily non-aligned and carefully balanced its relationship with Moscow, often accommodating the Kremlin in order to preserve its independence. And while Finland has moved closer to the West since the end of the Cold War, the issue of NATO membership, and the presence of a large number of foreign troops — particularly from the United States — is still a sensitive subject. A poll published on Monday suggested 59 percent of Finns opposed joining NATO.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said that given these internal constraints, having Washington engage through the Northern Group is extremely important, as it allows Helsinki to avoid the thorny issue of NATO membership and work within the boundaries of its domestic politics.
“It’s a sign to neighbors, Russia and to the Finnish people that things are changing” — Jim Townsend, former U.S. diplomat
“There is a lot less tone deafness from Washington these days about the domestic situation [in Finland],” Salonius-Pasternak said. “And this is actually allowing for more cooperation than ever before to take place, both in public and behind the scenes.”
This patchwork of alliances and networks was on display during the summit in Helsinki. On Monday, the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden announced plans to tighten their cooperation even further by signing an agreement to exchange air surveillance data among their militaries.
With these new initiatives, and future large-scale exercises in Finland, Helsinki and its neighbors are hoping to paint a more robust security picture and show they are prepared for any future crisis.
“In the region, it’s a big deal,” said Townsend, the former Pentagon official. “It’s a sign to neighbors, Russia and to the Finnish people that things are changing.”