Finland stands tall against Russia

NATO will benefit greatly from Finland’s provision of clear deterrence; less so from Sweden, with its vulnerabilities to Russian threats.

Finnish and NATO flags waving at the Finnish foreign ministry building.
Flags of Finland and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) waving at the Finnish foreign ministry in Helsinki on April 4, 2023, the day the country officially joined NATO. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Moscow is intensifying its verbal threats against Finland
  • Finnish defense posture, inventories and its will to defend are a strong deterrence
  • Sweden is playing catch-up after ignoring defense needs, creating risk for Nordic allies

Russian verbal assaults against Finland have increased in intensity since the start of the year. They began as Hungary was stonewalling its decision on whether to support Sweden’s efforts to be admitted into NATO. Of course, the timing may be pure coincidence. A more immediately plausible cause could be that Finland has attracted Moscow’s wrath by closing its borders to Russians. Although this is clearly part of the game, it is still tempting to suggest that there is a broader connection.

When it filed its application for NATO membership in May 2022, the Finnish government was prepared for an angry Russian reaction, but it failed to materialize immediately. The Kremlin did denounce Finland and Sweden for abandoning their long-standing neutrality, which allegedly had served both them and regional security so well. Yet, it also noted that this change was not viewed as a threat. Even when Finland did join the alliance on April 4, 2023, Moscow’s reaction was muted. It is only recently that Russian verbal attacks have begun in earnest. It is hard not to see a Swedish connection.

As the ratification process of Sweden’s NATO membership application dragged out, the country was revealed to be vulnerable. As the late United States Senator John McCain emphasized after the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, nothing provokes Russian President Vladimir Putin more than weakness. When Mr. Putin encounters firm resolve, he backs off. Perceived Swedish frailty has now triggered harsh Russian threats to Finland and to the Nordic region as a whole.

Nordic security factors

The key to understanding this development lies in the region’s security, which hinges on whether Sweden can effectively be brought into an integrated defensive structure. If Kremlin influence operations can persuade Stockholm to adopt a more understanding attitude toward Russia, that will translate into a major setback for the Nordics and NATO.

During the latter part of the Cold War, when both countries were still neutral, Finland grew increasingly resentful of Sweden downsizing its military, fearing that this loss of a second line of defense would make a Russian attack more likely. Not long after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Sweden and Finland applied for membership in NATO concurrently, with the Finns viewing Swedish membership as crucial to their own security.

It was with some hesitation that Finland accepted the offer to join alone, emphasizing that it did not view its membership as complete until Sweden had also joined. At long last, Sweden officially joined NATO on March 7, 2024.

Finland keeps its guard up

If it could be viewed in isolation from its neighbors, Finland would have every reason to feel confident of its ability to deter a Russian military assault. The two countries have been at war with each other before, and Moscow has hard-learned experience of the Finnish fighting spirit. In contrast to most, if not all, other European nations, Finland did not respond to the collapse of the Soviet Union by downsizing its military and by otherwise lowering its defensive guard. Having dire experience of what it means to have Russia as a neighbor, it never let itself assume that the danger of renewed military aggression had passed.

Finland has retained both conscription and stockpiles of items that would be needed in an emergency. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Finland had rare comfort in the knowledge that it would be able to draw on its stockpiles of medical equipment.

Although Moscow was clearly going to view it as provocative, the Finnish parliament also decided in 1995 to reserve a “NATO option,” stating that in case of a serious deterioration in its security environment, it would be ready to join NATO on short notice.

Finns tend to be short on talk and long on action, echoing Theodore Roosevelt’s classic admonition: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was characteristic of Finland to react promptly by increasing the allocation of funds for defense procurement and by signing contracts needed by private industry to scale up capacity. It is now working on doubling its production of ammunition, notably of the most-needed 155mm artillery shells. The government has signed contracts with farmers for emergency storage of a substantial part of the harvest, and it has signed production reserve agreements with civilian industries to keep production lines ready in case of war.

Finland is capable of fielding a defense force of 280,000 troops, with up to 870,000 reservists. It has the most potent artillery force of any country in Europe, and its air force is in the process of replacing old F/A-18 Hornets with 64 new F-35s. It also has a highly capable armaments industry, including the Finnish-Norwegian ammunition producer NAMMO.

Most importantly, there can be no doubt about Helsinki’s iron-clad resolve to resist Russian aggression and the willingness of the Finnish population to take up arms in their country’s defense. The low-key appearance of Finnish public figures should fool no one. In sharp contrast to Russians, whose saber-rattling includes threats of nuclear attack, Finns tend to be short on talk and long on action, echoing Theodore Roosevelt’s classic admonition: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

During his 12 years in office, former President Sauli Niinisto had ample opportunity to associate with President Putin, and there is every reason to believe him when he says that their conversations had always been frank. The very thought of a Finnish president pleading with Russia in the manner practiced by French and German leaders is outlandish. And it is Finland’s president who oversees foreign policy. All this is textbook deterrence.

Russian threats to the Nordics and Europe

The main problem for Finland, and thus for Nordic security at large, is that it cannot be viewed in isolation from its neighbors. In making plans for a potential military assault, Russia will be bound to factor in how Sweden would react. If the Kremlin becomes convinced that the Swedish government and populace will not robustly participate in a NATO defense operation, its calculus for an assault on Finland will be drastically different.

While Finland was keeping its guard up after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it had to watch how neighboring Sweden was busy scrapping its territorial defense, canceling conscription, transforming vital military bases and installations into civilian property, selling off emergency stockpiles of food, medicine and other necessities and allowing all planning for wartime contingencies to fall into oblivion. Although the current government in Stockholm is making heroic efforts to recover those lost capabilities, it will be a long haul.

Read more on the Nordics

The danger of a Russian military assault on NATO is currently higher than it has been at any point since the early 1980s. The likelihood of the Russian leadership deciding to go to war beyond Ukraine is enhanced by the Russian economy being put firmly on a war footing.

Yet, the costs that will be imposed on all other sectors for keeping the armament industries humming suggest that this may be sustainable for a few years, but not much longer. Once European industries start scaling up their production of armaments, the vast difference in capacity between the Russian and the combined European economies will tip the balance. That implies that if Russia does indeed intend to go to war with NATO, the window for doing so will soon start to close.

Assuming that Russia would likely not prevail in a prolonged war with a well-equipped NATO, an assault would have to begin with a lightning strike against a small country along the common border, after which Russia would resort to its established doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate,” possibly including a limited, tactical nuclear strike against a medium-sized European city, followed by a threat to escalate further or to negotiate on Moscow’s terms.

In Western war gaming exercises, the expected target of a Russian attack on NATO has long been Estonia or Latvia because of their exposure on the northern flank. Following its inclusion into NATO, Finland must be added to that list. It not only has a very long border with Russia, but the country also poses a threat to Russian security, to its vital basing areas on the Kola Peninsula and to its energy export infrastructure around St. Petersburg.



Most likely: Finnish resolve trumps Swedish vulnerability

The baseline scenario is that Finland’s military strength and its resolve to fight will be sufficient to deter a direct Russian attack.

Once it has received its American F-35 jets, the Finnish armed forces may be integrated into a joint Nordic air command comprising 250 top-notch jet fighters. In addition to having Europe’s strongest artillery force, Finland also has highly experienced mountain units trained to fight in Arctic conditions.

The message of Finnish unity was brought home during the recent presidential election. Following a campaign where the contenders showed an impressive degree of civility and respect for each other, the eventual winner, former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, rounded off his campaign by stating that “whatever happens on Sunday, it will be good for Finland.” Since taking office on March 1, President Stubb has indicated his belief that Finland is not likely to be invaded but is well prepared should it happen. President Stubb can afford to stand tall and project confidence, though Helsinki notes Russian spying and meddling is likely on the rise.

The most likely outcome is that Finnish resolve to resist will trump Swedish vulnerability. But Finland will still have reason to look over its shoulder.

Less likely scenario: Russia manages to paralyze Sweden

Another possibility is predicated on Swedish vulnerability. Even after its accession into NATO, Sweden remains ill-prepared to fight a war and public opinion in the country is vulnerable to Russian influence. Russian military planners may convince themselves that running a determined campaign to keep Sweden out of any war scenario would weaken Finland’s defense to the point that a lightning attack may score some initial Russian gains that may prove hard for NATO to roll back.

Potential narratives to be weaponized in Russian influence campaigns could range from claims that Russia has legitimate interests in Finland and that the Finnish government is about to bring war to the region, to demands that the Swedish island of Gotland, which dominates the Baltic Sea, must be demilitarized. Above all, Russia would target the immigrant population in Sweden, parts of which live in a parallel society.

Youngsters with a migrant background make up a large share of the youth population of Sweden; among residents aged 25-34 years, one-third has a foreign background. This creates a vulnerability because it is the younger generation that will have to take up arms and resist a potential invasion. If a large share of that generation feels no loyalty to Sweden, then it will be hard to mobilize them for defense. The leaders of Swedish state media often have negative attitudes toward NATO, and Russia may feel it can succeed in an influence operation that is designed to make Sweden abstain from joining in a NATO defense of Finland.

The success of a Russian influence campaign would be measured not only by Sweden’s refusal to commit its own forces to active battle but also by its denial of NATO transit and overflight rights. Most local security experts will claim that such a Russian campaign would not be successful in deterring Sweden from joining in defense of Finland, but that is beside the point. The key issue concerns whether the Russian side can be convinced of the same, and that is a very different matter.

For industry-specific scenarios and bespoke geopolitical intelligence, contact us and we will provide you with more information about our advisory services.

Related reports

Scroll to top