Russia-NATO Cold War Leads Finland to Build Military 100 Years After Independence

The increasingly militarized conflict between Western military alliance NATO and Russia has compelled Finland to boost its own defenses and acquire new weapons, according to the commander of the country’s armed forces.

Finnish Defense Chief General Jarmo Lindberg said Wednesday that the increased military activity in the region prompted Helsinki to rethink prior defense cuts and commit to expanding its forces, including procuring new weapons and equipment. Finland has been one of the few Western European countries that hasn’t sought membership in NATO, but its troubled relationship with neighboring Russia worsened after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, which prompted an escalation in NATO’s mobilization in recent years.

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“The overall military activity in the neighborhood of Finland has been growing. Russia, as we all know, has been active ever since Crimea. NATO has brought on forces to the Baltic states, and in Poland it has forward presence. There is a U.S. Marine Corps unit in Norway. Sweden has brought the forces back to the island of Gotland, and they also ran a huge national exercise—19,000 soldiers—this September,” Lindberg told Defense News.

“So overall military activity all around Finland has been growing for the last four, five years. That means that also we are in a situation where we have been analyzing our military capabilities, our military readiness—and based on our analysis, it is changing. So more reserve, it is better readiness and it is better spearheading of capabilities for all the services,” he added.

RTX3GZ0H Finland’s defense minister, Jussi Niinistö, inspects Finnish troops during a military exercise on the Swedish island of Gotland, on September 19. Finland has not joined NATO, but the country has participated in joint exercises and expressed concern regarding recent Russian moves in the region. Anders Wiklundvia/TT News Agency/Reuters

In the early 19th century, the Russian Empire annexed Finland, then part of Sweden, and it remained under the czar’s rule until declaring independence one hundred years ago, on December 6, 1917, after Russia underwent a Communist revolution that year. German-backed Finnish nationalists ultimately overcame their Soviet-backed Communist foes in a subsequent civil war, and a series of vicious battles were later fought between pro-Nazi Finland and the Soviet Union in the early years of World War II.

Throughout the Cold War, Finland attempted to balance the interests of both Western and Eastern factions, and renewed tensions across Europe have once again put the Nordic nation in the middle of a geopolitical struggle for influence.

While Lindberg said low domestic support for the idea meant Finland wasn’t planning to seek NATO membership “in the imminent future,” he said the country has increased cooperation with regional powers, many of which are part of the U.S.-led coalition, since 2014. That year, he said Finland’s encounters with the Russian military peaked along its borders and in the nearby Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea.

Lindberg said that Russian air encounters had since gone down in 2015 and 2016, but this year it seemed they would be on par with last year’s numbers. Still, Finland remains committed to “a high-level political dialogue” with Moscow, he said, and two weeks ago opened a 24/7 hotline with Russia.

RTX3D6JV Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö sail on the passenger steamer S/S Saimaa as they arrive at the Castle of Olavinlinna in Savonlinna, Finland, on July 27. Finland has often been ranked the best country in the world when it comes to quality of life, and both NATO and Russia have attempted to convince the Nordic country to join their respective factions.  Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin via REUTERS

Finland has often been ranked the best country in the world when it comes to quality of life, and both NATO and Russia have attempted to convince the Nordic country to join their respective factions. 

In an interview with the state-run Rossiya Segodnya, Andrey Kelin, director of Russia’s Department for European Cooperation, said Monday that while Finland works closely with NATO “in the military sphere,” the country’s opposition to joining the alliance signaled “opportunities...for strengthening security in the Baltic region on a non-NATO basis.”