HELSINKI — Finland’s center-left government is under fire from opposition leaders after Prime Minister Sanna Marin suggested Finland could donate an unspecified number of the Finnish Air Force’s (FAF) Boeing F/A-18C Hornet jets to aid Ukraine’s defense.
The service is primed to decommission 62 Hornets jets in its multirole frontline fighter fleet between 2025 and 2030. In December 2021, the FAF decided to spend $9.4 billion on a deal to procure 64 F-35s from Lockheed Martin to replace the aging Hornets.
Opposition leaders and officials expressed concern that Marin’s surprise proposal, made during a weekend visit to Kyiv, was not discussed in advance with her coalition partners, opposition party leaders or FAF chiefs.
The impact and ripple effect of Marin’s comments happened as President Sauli Niinistö met, on March 12, with the Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy to discuss the status of Finland’s entry application to NATO. Government officials here have been in negotiations with Turkey and Hungary, the two remaining alliance states that have yet to ratify Finland’s and Sweden’s membership bid.
The meeting on the accession process followed trilateral talks between Finland, Sweden and Turkey in Brussels on March 9.
The gateway to Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to NATO is complicated by Ankara’s claim that the two non-aligned Nordic states have not done enough in the way of commitments to fight terrorism and restoring arms exports to Turkey.
Domestic tensions over the perceived slow pace of its application approval is causing more political leaders in Finland to review a “side-by-side jump” scenario with Sweden into NATO.
The two Nordic states presented their bids to join the alliance in May 2022, in the months after Russia invaded Ukraine.
“Our information from Turkey is that Finland satisfies the conditions Ankara imposed to obtain its support for our membership application, but that further negotiations are necessary with Sweden,” said Pekka Haavisto (Green Party), Finland’s foreign affairs minister.
Finland’s new position suggests that if Turkey were to ratify the country’s application but defer or block Sweden, Helsinki would not withdraw its application.
Oscar Stenström, the head of Sweden’s NATO accession delegation, said that while some constructive advancements were made in meeting Ankara’s demands, no significant progress is expected before Turkey’s parliamentary and presidential elections on May 14.
Finland and Sweden hope to secure application approval from Turkey before the alliance’s July summit in Vilnius.
Although Hungary supports NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, the Budapest government has yet to set a date to ratify the applications of both states. Hungary has indicated that the applications might be ratified before the end of March, possibly as early as March 20.
Reacting to Marin’s visit to Kyiv, opposition leaders raised fears the warplane saga could further complicate Finland’s already fragile NATO talks with Turkey.
Petteri Orpo, the leader of the National Coalition Party (NCP), said the prime minister’s comments were “ill-considered” at a time when Finland needs to negotiate in good faith with Ankara and maintain a foreign and security policy that is both “transparent and unambiguous.”
“Finland’s foreign and security policy cannot be managed by going solo,” he added. “Her comments can be interpreted as a promise, and this is concerning given that Finland is in a delicate position in its foreign relations, and especially in our NATO accession ambitions,” Orpo said.
Marin made her comments at a media briefing in Kyiv. The prime minister said Finland was open to the possibility of providing Hornets to Ukraine. “There can certainly be a discussion about fighter jets. Other countries are examining their own capacities to deliver this kind of military support. I think this could also be discussed in Finland,” said Marin.
Juha-Matti Ylitalo, the Deputy Director of the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command, raised doubts that Finland had the capacity to supply Hornets to Ukraine based on the aging condition of the aircraft and high maintenance costs.
The logistics command oversaw the HX fighter procurement program that resulted in the F-35 pick, a process that took six years.
“There isn’t a lot left in the Hornets as regards their structural life. It’s unlikely they can deliver a top level competitive performance in to the 2030s,” said Ylitalo.
Finland’s Defense Minister, Antti Kaikkonen, conceded he had no “advance knowledge” about Marin’s Hornet statement, adding that the FAF would not currently be in a position to reduce its capability by donating the warplanes until replacement F-35s are in place by 2025.
“The Hornets we have are still needed, and will be for several years to come” said Kaikkonen.
Marin’s comments caused surprise to Finland’s security partners in Europe and the United States, said Mika Aaltola, Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
“Finland’s policy line on foreign matters needs to always be clear. It would have been wise if the prime minister had communicated with our cooperation partners before making the Hornet remarks,” Aaltola said.
Aaltola is supportive of a Finnish strategy to separate Finland’s and Sweden’s membership applications. “Finland should communicate its ability to separate the applications because they’re politically tied to one another,” he said.
Gerard O'Dwyer is the Scandinavian affairs correspondent for Defense News.