Finland Gives NATO a King in the North

For years, Finland bucked the trend of NATO expansion catching fire throughout the post-Soviet European mainland. Old habits, like neutrality, die hard. 

For years, Finland bucked the trend of NATO expansion catching fire throughout the post-Soviet European mainland. Old habits, like neutrality, die hard. 

But while NATO went through eight rounds of enlargement, expanding the alliance to include 30 countries and adding nations, such as Spain and Slovenia, that punched below their weight on military spending, Finland—with the energy to match the most caffeinated population in the world—was getting stronger. 

With memories of the Soviet invasion during World War II still vivid in the public imagination, when the Finns lost a tenth of their territory but avoided occupation, Finland bucked the post-Cold War trend in Europe of divesting military assets during the 1990s, earning side-eye from the Clinton administration and some NATO nations. 

Yet Finland formally joined NATO this week already spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense, the alliance’s military target, and is used to fielding weapons familiar to the rest of NATO. Finland will field F-35 fighter jets by 2025, which will replace U.S.-designed F/A-18 Hornets currently deployed, for example. Finland is also one of only a few countries that fire the so-called joint air-to-surface standoff missile, known as JASSM in defense parlance, which allows Finnish fighter jets to launch armor-piercing standoff strikes at about a million dollars a pop. 

And while Finland’s standing military is just 23,000 troops—smaller than New York City’s police force—Helsinki is ready to mobilize a force of up to 280,000 in wartime, owing to a model of national conscription that calls on men over the age of 18 to serve up to a year in the armed forces. Current and former European and U.S. officials insist the call-ups aren’t just a bunch of benchwarmers from the practice squad.

“They can mobilize pretty quickly a very professional group, not a bunch of overweight reservists in their 50s,” said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for NATO and Europe. 

Russia’s western flank, which shares an 800-mile border with Finland, is all of a sudden looking a lot less threatening more than a year into Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has left a skeletal Russian force hanging around in the Nordic-Baltic region. Finnish officials are still banking on Turkey softening its opposition to Sweden’s NATO bid for naval and logistical support, but Helsinki has already announced plans to buy the Israeli-made David’s Sling medium-range air defense system and has deployed the Norwegian-and-U.S.-made National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, the same batteries that defend Washington, D.C., from the threat of an aerial assault. 

NATO was already in the region before Finland’s entry, with Norway closer to the Russian port city of Murmansk than Finland and Narva, Estonia, nearer to St. Petersburg—with the stopping power of swamps, forests, and water in between NATO and Russian lines. The entry of a 31st country will force the alliance to update its command structure and rejigger defense plans farther north, but Finnish officials see it as an opportunity to extend deterrence into the North and the Baltic seas. 

And Finland’s military is going to be put to NATO-standard tests almost immediately on entry. Though Finland has participated in low-level exercises with NATO troops before, the multinational Defender 23 exercise kicking off in Europe this month will see Finnish troops participating shoulder-to-shoulder with 9,000 U.S. forces, the first large-scale operation the Nordic country has conducted with the alliance.

Finnish pilots will conduct overflights of the North Sea in F/A-18 Hornets during the exercise that spans 10 countries, German Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz said in a press conference at the German Embassy in Washington on Tuesday. He sketched a scenario that maps how the alliance would respond to the invocation of NATO’s Article Five self-defense clause on the European mainland.

From an airpower perspective, U.S. military officials are already looking at options to integrate Finland’s intelligence collection capabilities into NATO, as well as extending the ability of the alliance to operate in frigid conditions. And Finland has kept a “Winter War” mindset stemming from the 1939 Soviet invasion.

“It’s an agile combat employment,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, the director of the U.S. Air National Guard. “They have landing strips just about anywhere, and they go right into the roads.”

And the ongoing fighting beyond NATO’s borders has compounded Russia’s difficulties in the west, which it has denuded in a so-far futile bid to batter Ukraine. Russia’s once-feared 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, with tanks, artillery, and missile defenses in tow, suffered heavy losses in the assault on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and the 138th Motorized Rifle Brigade reportedly suffered such heavy losses in the city that some troops tried to mutiny. It could take years, if not decades, for Russia to return to military strength along the northern Kola Peninsula, the big thumb that abuts northern Finland.

“We have rather good military intelligence so that we actually know more about where their troops are than they do in Moscow,” said Harri Ohra-aho, a ministerial advisor for intelligence in Finland’s defense ministry, with a twinkle in his eye. “We have followed those troops for more than 100 years.”

The Baltic Sea was once a Russian lake, fronted on one side by Warsaw Pact nations and ringed by a neutral Finland and Sweden that wanted nothing to do with the nuclear tensions between Moscow and NATO. Now, the Kola Peninsula—home to Russia’s Northern Fleet, ballistic missile submarines, and its only aircraft carrier—is right up against NATO borders and aspirants. 

“If you’re a Russian planner in the past, during the Cold War days, having those two new neutral nations, as well as having the Warsaw Pact around the Baltics, you had a pretty big balance of power in your favor up in the high north,” Townsend said. “That whole geopolitical tectonic plate has shifted.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post Caf backs Morocco’s 2030 World Cup bid
Next post Macron’s China Trip Is a Fool’s Errand