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What makes Finland different

Russia says it is increasing its troop presence on the border with Finland. But the new NATO member refuses to be intimidated; it bases its security policy on historical experiences – with success.

Silvia Stöber

History plays a big role in Finland. The world championship title at the 1995 Ice Hockey World Cup is unforgettable. Finland won it with a 4-1 win against Sweden, in Stockholm of all places.

It was the beginning of a small triumph against its neighbor, whose population of ten million is twice as high. Sweden ruled over the Finns for 600 years and was long ahead in its development. Many Finns went to Sweden to look for jobs, while the Swedish minority in Finland is still considered elite. That's why Finns like to remember that Nokia was in competition with the Swedish company Ericsson. They see the fact that their country was accepted into NATO more than a year before Sweden with pride and as confirmation of a well-considered foreign and security policy.

Historical parallels

When joining NATO, Finland also overtook other states that also border Russia – Georgia, for example, which, together with Ukraine, received the promise of membership in 2008 and to date has not even received the preliminary stage, the “Membership Action Plan”. .

Their story has historical parallels. Finland was also under the rule of the Russian Empire in the 19th century and became an independent state for the first time after the First World War.

Finland, however, was able to maintain its independence from the Soviet Union – in two costly but cleverly fought wars and during the Cold War with a policy that went down in history as “Finlandization”. For the sake of its sovereignty, Finland made painful and controversial compromises, including undemocratic decisions, for example by censoring critical media reports about the Soviet Union.

“Very strong will to defend”

The lessons of history determine today's politics in Finland. This includes a high sensitivity to security risks and the willingness to consistently put the dogmas of foreign and security policy to the test.

In view of the war in Georgia in 2008, a debate began in Finland about whether NATO membership was an option. When Russia began its major offensive against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the country quickly agreed to take this step.

At the same time, for the first time, 83 percent of the population agreed with the statement that they wanted to defend the country with weapons even if the outcome was uncertain. If necessary, up to 280,000 reservists can be drafted gradually.

Finland now benefits from maintaining the level of deterrence after the Cold War. “There is a very strong threat awareness and a very strong will to defend ourselves among the Finnish population,” said Finland’s ambassador to Germany, Kai Sauer, in an interview with the daily News together.

It also means putting everything before safety and making economically disadvantageous and sometimes tough decisions. “There are no longer any large Finnish companies operating in Russia,” emphasizes Sauer.

Because Finland sees the arrival of hundreds of asylum seekers from Russia as a hybrid attack, the government is not only keeping all border crossings to Russia closed. Parliament is now also planning to restrict the right to asylum so that arrivals can be sent back to Russia immediately without giving reasons. This could amount to a violation of EU regulations.

Skillful diplomacy

Finland also counts the stability that it has achieved through diplomacy and prudent security policy as a security policy advantage. Unlike Russia's other neighboring states, Finland was able to avoid the emergence of ethnic and territorial conflicts, even though it lost parts of its own territory to the Soviet Union and there is a Russian minority in the country. Of these, only a small proportion support Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine, said Sauer. The right-wing populists in the country are also not pro-Russian.

The government even found an accommodation with Donald Trump. To his delight, she organized a summit meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018.

The newly elected President Alexander Stubb was correspondingly calm about the possibility that Trump could become US President again and force the US to withdraw from Europe. Finland only signed a military agreement with the USA in December, which also provides for the establishment of US military bases.

Stubb recommends the “Finnish approach”: “Stay cool, calm and collected, and then you can deal with what comes,” he said at a press conference during the security conference in Munich.

For populists like Trump, however, Finland presents a less serious target than states like Germany – or Sweden – and can operate more easily in the shadows. In any case, Finland managed to avoid most of the hurdles that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban put in Sweden's path to joining NATO.

Cohesion in the population

With a view to the upcoming European elections and the polarized mood in some EU states, Stubb described what shaped the presidential election campaign in Finland: “For us, foreign and security policy is existential.” When history begins to falter, “we Finns are very united and consensus-oriented.”

There were no slanderous campaigns between the candidates against each other, said Stubb, but rather civilized debates about the difficult foreign policy issues, for which the president has the authority to direct policy in Finland. He is also the commander in chief of the armed forces.

The election campaign was so harmonious that after his victory, the conservative Stubb went to the Green Party's election party first to thank his competitor Pekka Haavisto for the fair election campaign. On the other hand, the domestic political debate about the future of the welfare state is currently being conducted with great intensity. The high defense and military spending leaves less room for other areas of the state budget.

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