Finnish and American defense strategies have little in common, but they are complementary. Were they to learn from one another and cooperate more, they could strengthen not only Finnish security but the security of northern Europe, now threatened by an array of Russian challenges.
Finland understands the Russian challenge, having fought 33 wars with Russia over the centuries and nearly defeating the Red Army during the 1939-1940 Winter War, of which it still takes pride. Finland retained its never-occupied freedom during the Cold War by deftly deferring to many Soviet wishes while achieving a nonaligned status, even while sharing an 830-mile border with Russia.
Finland has always been starkly realistic about the challenges from Moscow, and today it is more able to express that (witness its limited participation in NATO’s recent Trident Juncture exercise). While less alarmist than its neighbors, it understands that President Vladimir Putin’s strategic purpose uses his entire toolbox to divide the West, undermine the international order and return Russia to its great power status. To manage this, Finland combines self-reliant, partnered defense with dialogue, much as NATO did during the Cold War.
Its defense strategy is comprehensive, relying on exquisite civil-military interagency coordination, with the full involvement of Finnish citizens through universal male conscription and large reserves. And they do it with an efficient defense budget approaching 2 percent of gross domestic product (using NATO criteria).
Significantly, Finland also does it without formal allies. Many Finns see themselves strategically as an “island” nation reliant only on themselves and perhaps neighboring Sweden. Finland is one of the most defense-oriented nations in Europe, even while claiming “happiest” and “best-governed” status.
The United States and its NATO allies have much to learn from Finland’s comprehensive defense, especially when it comes to defeating Russian hybrid warfare. It has developed coordinated civil-military approaches through formal, national defense courses eagerly taken by prominent citizens from all walks.
Notably, each Finnish agency is assigned both peace and “crisis” responsibilities, strengthening societal resilience and building what some call a “porcupine defense” in which the enemy is unable to take a bite out of its victim. Finland has also established a European Union/NATO-affiliated European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats to share its learning with partners.
But Finland is not just a porcupine: It has a formidable military capability. Its equipment is second to few in Europe: It flies over 60 American F-18s; it has sufficient naval power and mines to defend its coasts; it has the second-largest main battle tank fleet in Europe; and it has one modern artillery piece for every mile of its long border with Russia.
But there is a weakness in Finland’s defense posture. To man this impressive array of weapons, Finland relies heavily on its reserve force. Though it can probably be called up quickly enough to deal with small incursions like the “little green men” attack on the Donbas region of Ukraine, adequate reserves could probably not be mobilized quickly enough to defeat a large Russian invasion on short notice. Their strategic answer to this flaw is to explain that nothing Finland has or does would entice Russia to initiate such an attack; and in any cas,e a full assault would mean much of Europe was also in the conflict.
Finland, while willingly self-reliant in its defense, also suffers from a problem of consistency and timing of supply of materiel from the U.S. — munitions in particular. This stems from its status, neither a member of NATO nor a “major non-NATO ally.”
Joining NATO to secure alliance protection does not now appear to be the answer, as Finland’s population of 5.5 million is only about 33 percent for joining (33 percent against and 33 percent undecided). Officials fear that a referendum could go amiss, especially with Russian interference. Second, even offering up the suggestion of joining NATO would, some fear, provoke the bear.
As Finland believes its nuanced, nonaligned position gives it maneuver room, a second-best solution — for now — is to further thicken its network of relationships to create virtual alliances, like its “virtual fleet” with Sweden. The foundation for this has recently been laid. Finland became a NATO enhanced opportunities partner in 2016. The U.S., Finland and Sweden signed in 2018 an agreement foreseeing greater defense cooperation. Finland has adopted legislation enabling assistance to and from other nations. And Finnish participation in the NATO Response Force and in military exercises with both the U.S. and NATO continues to increase.
Specific initiatives to build on this foundation could include:
- Gaining greater understanding of what the U.S. and Finland could expect from the other should Russia launch a military strike in northern Europe, including preliminary, coordinated defense planning.
- Creating a small coordination cell in Helsinki of Finns, Swedes, Americans and perhaps others to implement recent cooperation agreements, plan exercises and consider future contingencies.
- Sharing more intelligence on Russian motivations, intentions and specific troop movements to improve understanding and also provide Finland with maximum warning.
- Purchasing either the F-35 (or older F-18 Super Hornets) from the U.S. to maintain strong cooperation between Finnish and U.S. air forces.
- Deploying a small Finnish unit to support the NATO Battle Group in Estonia to show solidarity with both its close neighbor and NATO (as it did in Operation Resolute Support and KFOR).
- Designating Finland (and perhaps Sweden) as a major non-NATO ally, relying upon the 2018 trilateral agreement with the U.S. and Sweden, the designation of which would permit enhanced acquisition benefits without alliance membership.
- Developing a closer Finnish defense relationship with Norway, perhaps by reinvigorating NORDEFCO to attain its laudable Vision 2025 goals.
With initiatives like these, the Unites States and Finland can together strengthen security in northern Europe in the face of growing Russian challenges.
Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and previously served as special assistant to the president for defense policy. Stephen Shapiro is a director at the Atlantic Council, focusing on European security with the Transatlantic Security Initiative of its Scowcroft Center. They recently visited Finland as part of a delegation sponsored by the Atlantic Council in partnership with the Finnish Ministry of Defence.