HELSINKI — Finland has further distanced itself from a standing Russian offer to develop a defense-industrial relationship following Defense Minister Carl Haglund's remarks that Russian fighter aircraft technologies are "untrustworthy."
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu presented the collaboration invite to Finland in mid-2013 in a clear attempt to soften the country's growing interest in moving toward NATO membership. Furthermore, the Kremlin suggested that Finland could join a Russian-led NATO-style defense grouping in the Baltic Sea area.
To sweeten its offer, Moscow also proposed attaching a broad trade dimension to cooperation. Under this proposal, Russia would seek to become a major supplier of big ticket equipment and hardware items, such as fighter aircraft, air defense and surface-to-surface missile systems and naval ships to Finland.
The offer by Russia resulted in the ministries of defense in both countries establishing working groups to identify potential areas for defense-industrial cooperation, including the possibility that primary Russian defense programs could be opened to Finnish subcontractors.
However, the momentum toward formal bilateral talks stalled in February 2014 when Russia began to send troops and military equipment into Ukraine. This action triggered a sanctions war that included military materials between the US and EU against Russia.
The Finnish government's support for US/EU sanctions, along with Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb's openly pro-NATO membership position, has contributed to the cooling of political and defense relations with the Kremlin.
Haglund said Finland needs to examine its trust in Russian military export offerings. Suspicions exist, he said, that certain equipment, including fighter aircraft, could contain embedded "back-door systems" that may cause planes to malfunction in a "crisis situation."
Russia's muscle-flexing of its military power in the region, demonstrated by regular intrusions by its fighter and intelligence gathering aircraft into Nordic and Baltic airspace, "seriously violates European air safety" at a time when Russia flouts international agreements, Haglund said.
"Russia says one thing but does another. I do not trust Russia at all, and I could never be in favor of purchasing Russian military jets," Haglund said at a news briefing.
The Finnish government has established a working group, under former Air Force chief retired Brig. Gen. Lauri Puranen , to examine a range of aircraft types and purchase options in connection with the root and branch appraisal of the Air Force's fighter capacity needs.
The Air Force's F/A-18 Hornets, consisting of 55 single-seat F/A-18Cs and seven two-seat F-18Ds, are scheduled for retirement between 2025-2030.
The cooling in Finnish interest over Russian military export hardware and systems is also visible in the MoD's advancing $1.2 billion Flotilla 2020 program to procure next-generation multi-purpose warships to replace the Finnish Navy's Hämeenmaa- and Pohjanmaa-class minelayers and Rauma-class missile ships.
No Russian shipyard, including the Finland-based and Russian state-owned Artech, has been invited to bid for naval ship contracts. Located near Helsinki's west harbor, Artech is owned by United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC).
"There has been no talks with Russian shipyards regarding future shipbuilding orders," said Rear Adm. Juha Vauhkonen, chief of staff at Navy Command.
The planned submarine-hunter surface ships, which are due to come into service by 2025, are set to be equipped with helicopter decks and have a torpedo firing and anti-aircraft strike capability.
That USC is included in the United States sanctions against Russian companies hasn't helped the firm's case in being considered a potential supplier of naval ships under the Flotilla 2020 program, said Jussi Niinistö, Parliamentary Defense Committee chairman.
"Under existing procurement rules, certain companies can be ignored on grounds of national security when it comes to defense acquisitions," Niinistö said in an interview.
USC acquired 100 percent of Arctech's shares when it bought out the South Korean-owned STX Finland (Europe) Inc.'s 50 percent interest in the shipyard in December.
The Kremlin's relationship with Finland hasn't been helped by the decision of the government's Cabinet Committee on Foreign and Security Policy to permit the Air Force to take part in joint air exercises with the US and Sweden.
The March air exercises, which will feature US F-16s, Swedish JAS Gripens and Finnish F/A-18 Hornets, are to be held in Finnish, Swedish and international airspace over the Baltic Sea. The US aircraft will fly out of the near-coast Ämari Air Base in northern Estonia.
Finland's decision to approve the joint air exercises with the US will not be popular in Moscow, said Per Lindström, a Stockholm-based political analyst.
"This was not an autonomous decision by the Cabinet Committee on Foreign and Security Policy. Opinion was divided between president Sauli Niinistö and Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, who fear the decision could further hurt relations with Russia," Lindström said. "On the other side were Prime Minister [Alexander] Stubb and Defense Minister Haglund who wholesomely backed Finland's participation."