Finnish military preparing 900,000 reservists for 'crisis situation'

Updated | The Finnish Defence Forces are to send letters to all 900,000 of the country's reservists at the beginning of this month, informing them what their role would be in a "crisis situation", causing a row over whether such a move is necessary.

Finland, with its population of 5.2 million, has a small professional army of 16,000. Yet in the event of mobilisation, Finland could call on its former conscripts to fight. Finland's wartime military strength is 230,000.

According to local media reports, the decision was announced via a television advert, telling the nation's reservists "We want to have a word with you", and warning former conscripts that "Conscription is the cornerstone of Finland's defence capability."

The letter will reportedly inform reservists between the ages of 20-60 what their role would be in a "crisis situation". The letter also asks them to send up-to-date details of their whereabouts.

The director of communications of the Finnish Defence Forces, Mika Kalliomaa, denied any link to a threat from Russia, with whom Finland shares a 1,300km (800 mile) border. "The sending out of these letters to our reservists has no connection to the security situation around Finland," he said. "We are simply keeping ties with our reservists and asking them what their role would be in an instance of war, and asking them if there is new knowledge we should know about. There is no link to any threat from Russia."

Last year, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said in an interview with the Washington Post: "We have a long history with Russia — not that peaceful all the time. So everything the Russians are doing, surely the Finns notice and think very carefully about what that might mean."

In the case of the recent air incursions, he said, the message was clear: "They were testing how we'd react." Finland boosted the readiness of its airforce following an increase in Russian incursions into its airspace.

According to Peter Iiskola, a former Finnish district court judge and journalist, it is the first time such a letter has been sent out. "It is extraordinary and is clearly intended to make people feel there is a Russian threat and that 'pre-mobilization' steps must be taken," he says. Yet Iiskola believes that rather than responding to a genuine threat from Russia, the Finnish military is hoping to instigate panic and encourage the soon-to-be-formed government to spend more on defence.

Similar rumours surfaced earlier this week, after Finland's navy dropped depth charges in waters near Helsinki as a warning to what they believed to be a foreign submarine.

While the Finnish defence minister refused to be drawn on whether the submarine was Russian or not, the media quickly drew that conclusion.

"They haven't said it was Russia but who else would it be?" says Patrik Oksanen, political editor of Sweden's Hudiksvalls Tidning newspaper. "It's Russia. It's logical it was Russian. It's also not in Finnish national interests to make this story well known. Their track record response on these sorts of matters is to handle it without having it public while it happens and then a have a low level of debate. They would have preferred for it to be a non-story, although Finland is well aware they need to increase spending, and need public opinion for that."

After Finland's Centre party took the most seats in recent national elections, it is widely expected that a centre-Right government will be formed between Centre, True Finns and National Coalition. The Centre and Finns are Finland's two leading pro-defence parties.

Finland is not a Nato member, but it has strengthened its ties with the Western military alliance since the crisis in Ukraine erupted. Public opinion is against joining Nato, according to polls conducted last year.

In contrast to the newly formed government, a huge pro-Nato campaign is underway from the country's military chiefs, according to Iiskola. "In case you do not get a real war, then you at least get more money for the defence," he remarks.

But Oksanen said the Finnish navy's response had been a low key signal to Russia, designed to send the message that "'we have spotted you and are warning you to get out of here' without trying to make any more fuss than that".

This article was edited to update a response from the Finnish defence ministry and include comments from the Finnish president and Patrik Oksanen. Comments from Jon Hellevig were also removed after previous offensive remarks were brought to our attention.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Centre party and True Finns had formed a coalition. Negotiations are in fact on-going.