Military commanders in Finland want to beef up capabilities on the country's eastern border with Russia amid the backdrop of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
HELSINKI — Back in April, Finland joined its Nordic neighbors in strengthening military cooperation to counter any potential Russian threat, saying in a joint statement that "the Russian army is challenging us at our borders."
Finland still has no intentions to join NATO, but since the start of the Ukrainian crisis, it has increased its cooperation with the western military alliance and launched rapid reforms of its military.
In comments widely reported by the media, Finnish Defense Minister Jussi Niinistö said Finland wants to place rapid reaction forces by the Russian border because of events in eastern Ukraine. However a Finnish source has told Kommersant that the move is more focused on reorganizing its existing forces, as the need to reduce reaction times to crises is one facing different armies around the world. Proof of this was shown by the decision in February by NATO defense ministers to double the Alliance's response force to 30,000.
"There will be no new troops," says the same source. "The focus is to increase the readiness of reservists in case of emergency. It is part of plans for the reforms of the military forces."
One Russian military source even viewed the statements by the Finnish military as an "attempt to curry favor with NATO." Still, there is no denying that the rhetoric coming from both Helsinki and Moscow is strong.
Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads head of Russia's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, believes the events in Ukraine have rekindled Finland's longstanding fears of Russia. "In Finland, the fear of Russia is part of its world view. It stems from the Winter War of 1939. The Finnish military command probably does not seriously believe that the Russians will invade, but they prefer to take measures in advance."
There are two goals: firstly, to show the electorate that they are not asleep at the wheel; the second is to nip in the bud any talk of NATO membership. "The country's leaders know how important Russia is to Finland, but the population is nervous and needs to be reassured."
Bad neighbor policy?
In any case, the Russian leadership considers the Finnish position a harmful one. Moscow's ire was raised earlier this month when Finland said it would deny entry into the country to Russian State Duma chairman, Sergey Naryshkin for an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting, because he is included on the European Union's sanctions list.
"Recently we have seen hostile actions by the Finns," declared Sergey Zhigarev, first deputy head of the Duma defense committee, adding that Finland's creation of rapid reaction units "does not add to European security."
Andrey Klimov, vice chairman of Russia's international affairs committee said that since the end of World War II, Finnish leaders have understood the value of neighborliness. "They have guaranteed the security and prosperity of their country without wasting money on defense," he said. "It helps explain the Finnish economic miracle. Now they are ruining what has made their country prosperous for the last 60 years."
Klimov said that Finland's strengthening its defenses against Russia is akin "to defending themselves against the Martians. It is a complete waste of Finnish taxpayers' money." He said that there should be a Russian response and Moscow should consider banning Finnish timber exports.
Zhigarev concurred, saying that "Finland should focus on developing its own economy, which over the last 25 years has been intertwined with Russia's, and not engage in aggressive populism."
Klimov hinted that any hostile policy toward Russia is bound to provoke a response — even if not necessarily a military one. "Many of our citizens have become more careful over where they go on holiday and where they do business," he said. "Latvia, whose government's rhetoric to Moscow could be termed as less than friendly, has already had to come to terms with this reality."