This seventh part of my series on the Finnish NATO debate concludes this discussion and points the way towards a subject of greater importance, one that is even harder than NATO and plagued by dogma.
The NATO debate has clearly picked up both pace and quality as a result of the Ukraine crisis. Some myths have been discussed and busted, while some arguments remain elusive or unclear. I have discussed opponent arguments in part 5 and proponent arguments in part 6. Please refer to these if you should find this post lacking. Heikki Hakala did a very good fact check on 10 commonly heard assertions on NATO (in Finnish).
Defence spending would increase dramatically if Finland were to become a member.
Commentary: This myth is finally busted. The recommendation of a defence spending of at least two (2) percent of GDP has been thoroughly reviewed. We know that only four or five members plan to reach that level this year, and that NATO hasn’t been that keen on forcing any members to adhere to this recommendation. Concern was expressed for Latvia’s spending by NATO staff, but there was ample reason as the expenditure had dropped well below the one (1) percent mark.
Our defence minister, Carl Haglund, has very clearly pointed out that the expenditure to follow is the share of the defence budget allocated to procurement of defence materiel. This is where Finland excels, with nearly a third quarter (and in the past years a third) spent on materiel.
The cost of a NATO membership is estimated to land at some 50 million, equalling two percent of the current defence budget, with roughly half going to ”membership fees” and the other half going to cost of officers at NATO staff. This is where the debate siderailed. Our defence minister labelled this as getting valuable international experience. I beg to differ. Officers in the NATO component commands and joint HQs won’t just get experience. They’d be deeply involved in defence planning for the alliance. Some would serve as subject matter experts in commands and centres not that heavily involved in operational planning (ACT and COEs), but the extra cost for most would only be the difference between overseas salary and domestic salary.
Member or not, Finland will still have to invest in a fully capable independent defence.
While this has a nice ring to it and sounds very resolute and powerful, it is a question which can only be answered in agreement with other members. It’s been said that nothing is as expensive as a fully independent credible defence. Not all NATO countries maintain full capabilities in all services. Notoriously, the Baltic States are ”infantry and schools only”, to put it bluntly. They rely on NATO to bring the air and maritime power. Finland is no ”biggie” on maritime or air power either. Any addition to those capabilities during a crisis would be most welcome, as I argued in part 6. As a member we couldn’t vacate the ”eastern front” any more than we can today, but on some capabilities too expensive for a small country, we could rely on sharing the burden with other members. One good example is the long range strike capability that is being sought for JAS by Sweden. This is an example of a capability that already proved too expensive for us as we cancelled the order of the MGM-140 ATACMS Tactical Missile System. Now that Sweden is building a long range air-to-ground capability (KEPD 350 Taurus is my guess)
We should go for NATO instead of an alliance with Sweden.
These aren’t mutually exclusive. An alliance with Sweden will happen anyway if both countries apply for membership, as most politicians say it would and should happen. In NATO the two neighbours, with Norway and the Baltic countries, would be quite a natural working group or syndicate in defence planning. NATO means a de facto alliance with Sweden, so taking this first step should be quite easy. This is also politically true as the proposal enjoys great popular support. An alliance with Sweden is a no-brainer – our military capabilities differ somewhat and are actually complementary. Any mutual defence plans would enhance deterrence and work well within a NATO framework.
The way ahead
The debate has successfully brought to public attention the crux of the Finnish credible defence. It’s economics. The very core of this debate lies in understanding what capabilities are, how they are built and the time frame of acquiring capabilities. The clue to enlightenment, instead of calling for more money and more weapons – a popular and vote-winning rhetoric, but always unfinanced, is understanding how lack of materiel affects the defence system in the long term.
Sweden serves as a warning. While most information on the Swedish defence reform was public and the end state was there for all to see, the political debate was filled with flowery words like ”strengthening the defence” and ”building new capabilities for ‘complex’, ‘unpredictable’ and ‘borderless’ threats.” This idealization led to decisions further emphasizing capabilities for international peace missions in a changing security environment that ultimately called for increased focus on national defence.
The next step in the Finnish debate should be a stark, sober and very public discussion on the credibility and capabilities of our defence in the mid and long terms.
In my previous post on the Finnish NATO debate I critically reviewed some key arguments of opponents. As for dissecting proponent arguments, the task is daunting, since NATO advocates actually spend most of their time rebutting opponent claims.
The subject easily lends itself to meta-debate and I shall not resist the temptation to take a cursory glance on this. A little less than ten years ago debating the quality of the NATO debate in Finland was the only way to go about discussing NATO, unless one was set on being labelled an NATO enthusiast and modern day anti-Soviet agitator, bent on destroying good Finno-Russian relations. This is still echoed in contemporary debate, lately much exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis that has Finland pondering its special Russian relations.
That being said, and hoping the current confrontational atmosphere will dissipate, the Finnish NATO debate has improved a lot during the last 4–5 years. Voices advocating a return to Soviet era neutrality and archaic Cold War policy are seldom heard; NATO is discussed as an integral part of European security, both from military and political perspectives; Finland is seen as choosing between on one hand Western values and ideals, and on the other hand good neighbourly relations of mutual respect and a very keen, special understanding of Russia and Russians. Or keeping both, which is a main confrontational issue for opponents and proponents.
Like I said, the task of picking good NATO supporter arguments is challenging, since few are actually presented. In retrospect the ones I chose (see below) seem much like counter-arguments to opponent statements. I’ve settled for four key arguments and have presented them with an extensive commentary.
1. NATO will protect us (i.e. send forces) in case we’re attacked (strength of Article V).
Commentary: In part 5, I presented my opinion that article V is ironclad. Failing to act when a member country is threatened would demolish NATO. Forces would be sent, most likely in a pre-emptive manner as seen today in Poland and the Baltic states. The units deployed in support of Finland would of course depend on availability, but assuming for the sake of the argument, the use of rapid response forces (NRF), the following cautious and moderate estimate of forces to be deployed may be relevant:
Parts of an NRF air component could be readily deployed in Finland, notably increasing Finnish air defence capabilities. Air policing and air surveillance now done with radar stations and a fleet of 60 F/A-18 would be significantly strengthened with airborne surveillance systems and additional interceptors. The long range air-to-ground strike capability would increase exponentially, creating a deterring capability threshold against aggression.
A maritime component, both naval and amphibious, would triple our amphibious forces and add capability to conduct over-the-horizon amphibious operations. 1-2 combined task groups with surface combatants and submarines would greatly increase the range and scope of surveillance, intelligence, air defence and strike assets.
The land component would most likely be very moderate. With a field army strength of several brigades, of which only companies and a battalion at most trained and interoperable with NATO forces, any addition would be superfluous. On this point one has to concede to NATO opponents. In the traditional sense of understanding warfare (i.e. boots on the ground), NATO wouldn’t lend us much support in crisis. Viewed from a capability perspective, however, the opposite is suggested. There is great honour in infantry and cavalry, but gunships and men-of-war really make the difference.
In addition to these chief components support units would be deployed. Such useful units could be special forces units (think Ukraine), psychological warfare units (think Ukraine) and of course logistic units needed to ensure flow of materiel and services to both Finnish and co-fighting (is that a real word?) NATO units.
2. Finland will decide in which non-article V NATO operations it takes part.
Commentary: This is definitely a counter-argument, as opponents claim that Finnish soldiers would be sent Africa and Asia, if we were to join NATO. While a very sound argument from a Westphalian sovereignty perspective, it is somewhat contradictory if presented with the characterization of NATO as an alliance of democratic nations with Western values. If values are argued, then the implications of that system must be taken into account. Shared values and undertakings by these values requires being flexible on sovereignty.
The concept of creating security with diplomacy, and use of force if necessary, should also be weighed carefully. Article V, while being the foundation of NATO, has a diminished significance in the current and future undertakings of NATO. This is evident in the Chicago Summit official texts and in the mission of the Allied Command Transformation. NATO is becoming more of a security organization that strives to prevent crises by active engagements outside its territory. This does not diminish the security guarantees provided in article V, but the future mission needs of NATO will shift the focus of operations to conflict prevention outside Europe and North America. All members (and partners) are expected to chip in on this, each according to its capabilities. This is already done today and will be done tomorrow.
3. Finland, as a NATO member, will be able to maintain good relations with Russia.
Commentary: Our bilateral relations with Russia probably wouldn’t be affected in the long term, but Russia would resist membership plans and pressure Finland with diplomatic and economic means. Some NATO members have good relations with Russia, Germany and Norway as prime examples. These relations are not affected by the Ukraine crisis any more than Finland’s relations. NATO and EU, both sharing 22 members of 28 total, are acting in concert and cooperation. It could be argued that by not being a NATO member Finland is actually left on the sidelines with less influence despite self-declared ”special” and ”good neighbourly relations.”
In the current situation, however, any aspirations towards a fast-track membership would elicit a stark Russian response. The ability to respond to any further escalation in the Baltic Sea area is beyond the capabilities of NATO, already stretched thin. The window of opportunity on an independent membership decision has closed. A Finnish NATO membership will require a strong pull from members and can only be done together with Sweden. Only this would create a critical mass nullifying Russian resistance.
4. NATO won’t have an impact on our defence; a sovereign nation must stand on its own feet and take care of its own defence.
Commentary: This is an argument shared by both advocates and antagonists. I therefore repeat my previous: This is a decision we will have to make with the other member states. Not all NATO countries maintain full capabilities in all services. Notoriously, the Baltic States are ”infantry and schools only”, to put it bluntly. They rely on NATO to bring the air and maritime power. Finland is no ”biggie” on maritime or air power either. The cost of the F-18 Hornet replacement, assuming that 60 will be acquired, will land somewhere between 7 and 12 billion USD (5-9 bn EUR). This is an unplanned and unfinanced cost that equals three to five annual defence budgets. This is one reason why Finland is active in Nordic Defence Cooperation. NATO offers options in the evolving concept of smart defence.
Please further the debate by sharing your views and opinions below!
The Finnish NATO debate, enflamed by the Ukraine crisis, continues. My stance on NATO is neither for nor against at this time, but I’d like to remind my readers that our credible defence, at the current and probable future levels of funding, has an expiry date somewhere in the next five years. The defence forces reform, mostly structural and designed only to adjust spending and costs to fit current budgeting, doesn’t address this issue. In five years we’ll be looking at a defence reform.
In this fifth part, trying my English pen, I will focus on some of the very contradictory argumentation heard from NATO opponents. If I were to form my opinion on NATO based solely on the standard of the discussion — and if had I all the power in Finland — I would’ve begun an intenisified dialogue screaming yes! a long time ago.
I’ve taken five key opponent arguments from several sources and paraphrased them. I present them with my commentary below each one.
1. Nato will not protect us (ie. send forces) in case we’re attacked.
Commentary: While it is often argumented, both from an objectively legal and a zealous opponent perspective, that the article is vague, I don’t share this view. Article V is ironclad. The strength in the article lies in the fact that it explicitly includes the use of armed force in defence of other members. I submit my opinion that the Treaty on European Union article 42(7) carries equal weight. This article, however, relies heavily on NATO structures as is states: Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.
2. Finnish soldiers will be sent to Asia, Africa and other NATO battlefields to fight modern wars of conquest.
Commentary: If one argues that NATO members wouldn’t send forces to assist another member (cf. 1), then it’s equally or even more unreasonable to propose they would send forces to assist non-members. Mr Spock would say: Illogical.
3. Our close and special relation with Russia would be notably damaged if we became NATO members. Finland needs to remain outside conflicts and be a bridge building nation.
Commentary: This is the key argument of the opponents. As a neighbour with a 800-mile border (1300 km) with Russia and a long history in both peace and war it is true that Finland enjoys a very special relationship with Russia, though this is also a matter of debate. Finland was a peacekeeping superpower measured in peacekeepers per capita until the early 90s. For the last 20 years our peacekeeping manpower doesn’t support any claim of greatness. Our role as a bridge builder is equally historical. Nonetheless, our reputation of being a bridge builder nation has some merit. Take for instance the SALT I talks of 1969 in Helsinki, the Helsinki Accords of 1975 (OSCE) and other successful foreign policy developments and initiatives. Then again, Helsinki as a venue has benefits that aren’t political, but rather technical in the sense of superpower leaders’ flights (ie. spherical navigation). The latest achievement of some significance is president Martti Ahtisaari’s role in finalising the Kosovo settlement. In the last 15 years there have been great individual accomplishments by Finns representing different organizations, but long gone are the bridge building days. Finland hasn’t been neutral for the last 20 years. In fact, claims of Finnish neutrality made by others have been pointedly rejected by our political leaders.
Russia has benefited from the Finno-Russian post Cold War relationship both politically and economically. While in short term Russia could sever that relationship, such decisions would mean long term losses of income, decline of trade, and above all, political influence in European decision-making. In my opinion, a NATO membership would increase Finland’s influence and enhance Finno-Russian relations as Finland would be part of one more powerful Western forum. We would have Russia’s ear and we would be one of the few members truly knowing and considering Russia in all decisions. It follows that Russian political and diplomatic efforts directed at us would increase in scope. As a NATO member we wouldn’t face Russian generals warning us, rather than a set of softer methods designed to keep Russia’s interests in mind at all times. Bilateral realtions could actually flourish as we gain more weight to throw around in the international political arena.
4. NATO won’t have an impact on our defence; a sovereign nation must stand on its own feet and take care of its own defence.
5. NATO would station air forces, TBMD units and in case of a crisis, nuclear weapons, on Finnish soil.
Commentary: The arguments 4 and 5 are not contradictory per se and neither are they mutually exclusive. Firstly on 5: Each sovereign nation has the right to decide to what extent, if at all, foreign units use its soil. Norway is a good example of a NATO member that shows great consideration for its neighbor when conducting military activities. Norway and Sweden both have hade a lot greater bilateral military cooperation with Russia than Finland. This cooperation is now suspended in re Ukraine, of course.
Secondly, on 4. This is a decision we will have to make with the other member states. Not all NATO countries maintain full capabilities in all services. Notoriously, the Baltic states are ”infantry and schools only”, to put it bluntly. They rely on NATO to bring the air and maritime power. Finland is no ”biggie” on maritime or air power either. The cost of the F-18 Hornet replacement, assuming that 60 will be acquired, will land somewhere between 7 and 12 billion USD (5-9 bn EUR). This is an unplanned and unfinanced cost that equals three to five annual defence budgets. This is one reason why Finland is active in Nordic Defene Cooperation. NATO offers options in the evolving concept of smart defence.
The only thing more costly than maintaining a pluralistic Nordic welfare society based on social liberalism is maintaining a capable, credible and independent defence. Cold will is an important factor here, but it’s more about economy and money. The date of expiry draws near.