Finland ambassador to Singapore: Ukraine war, WWII push Helsinki to deepen NATO ties

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Finland’s ambassador to Singapore, Antti Vänskä, said his country had to seek closer NATO ties over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Finland's ambassador to Singapore, Antti Vänskä (right) and with Singapore's President Halimah Yacob (left). (PHOTOS: Embassy of Finland in Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Finland was pushed to seek membership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as Russia’s “blatant” invasion of Ukraine has transformed the Nordic country’s security thinking, said its ambassador to Singapore, Antti Vänskä.

In a recent interview with Yahoo News Singapore, Vänskä said Finland experienced a “very profound change” in its security surroundings after its giant neighbour attacked Ukraine on 24 February this year.

“So that was a major shift in our part of the world, which we interpret in Finland as a reasonably big enough reason to change our security solutions. So that made us apply for NATO membership, in order to increase our national security,” said Vänskä.

His comments came after Finland and neighbouring Sweden applied on 18 May to join NATO and are awaiting approval. The applications must be unanimously approved by all 30 NATO members before the two countries can join the alliance.

Finland anchors its security framework on the Finnish Defence Forces and extensive international cooperation. With a conscription army and a large pool of reservists, Finland can fully mobilise up to around 900,000 personnel – out of a population of about 5.5 million people – in the event of a war.

When asked how Finland can contribute to NATO, Vänskä said his country has a highly capable and strong national defence system within a modern society. Finland is already “totally interoperable” with the alliance despite not being a member, and has participated in NATO-led crisis operations in places such as Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq, according to Vänskä.

Members of the MPK, the National Defence Training Association of Finland, attend a training at the Santahamina military base in Helsinki, Finland on May 14, 2022. - On a windy military island off the coast of Helsinki, volunteers from all walks of life are spending the weekend in army training, as people across Finland prepare for a possible conflict with Russia. (Photo by Alessandro RAMPAZZO / AFP) (Photo by ALESSANDRO RAMPAZZO/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the MPK, the National Defence Training Association of Finland, at a military base in Helsinki, on 14 May 2022. (PHOTO: AFP via Getty Images)

In addition, NATO is not just a military alliance but also a political grouping, Vänskä said. Finland’s political views are compatible with NATO's thinking, with both sides forging an “easy connection”.

Objections against NATO expansion

Support from the Finnish people for NATO membership has surged from around 30 per cent “traditionally” to around 70 per cent recently, with strong support across the political parties and Parliament in Helsinki due to the war in Ukraine, Vänskä said.

However, NATO member Turkey opposes the inclusion of Finland and Sweden in the alliance, accusing the Nordic countries of harbouring individuals whom it claims to be “terrorists”, including those from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara also opposes the decisions by Finland and Sweden in 2019 to stop arms exports to Turkey.

When asked about the objections, Vänskä said he is “not overly concerned” as Finland and NATO have been engaging with Turkey at various diplomatic levels to address Ankara’s concerns. The two countries have very good relations and have cooperated within the United Nations in peace mediation initiatives, he added.

Finland's Ambassador to NATO Klaus Korhonen, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Sweden's Ambassador to NATO Axel Wernhoff attend a ceremony to mark Sweden's and Finland's application for membership in Brussels, Belgium, May 18, 2022. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/Pool
Finland's Ambassador to NATO Klaus Korhonen, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Sweden's Ambassador to NATO Axel Wernhoff attend a ceremony to mark Sweden's and Finland's application for membership in Brussels on 18 May 2022. (PHOTO: Reuters)

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin signalled in Moscow last month a softening in the Kremlin’s objection to Finland and Sweden’s decision to join NATO, saying that the alliance’s expansion “does not pose a direct threat to Russia”. However, he warned that "expansion of military infrastructure into this territory will certainly cause our response”.

Russia’s longstanding opposition to NATO’s expansion does not come as a surprise, Vänskä said. “Finland, as a sovereign country, makes these decisions by itself. NATO is a defence alliance so it's not threatening Russia, and that would be important for Russia to understand.”

Ultimately, ties with Russia have been adversely affected and Finland was compelled – like many countries including Singapore – to condemn the Kremlin’s violation of international law and order, Vänskä said.

Many Finnish companies with extensive investments in Russia have either suspended or shut their operations there as they have lost confidence in doing business with their neighbour, according to Vänskä. The economic impact on Finland has not been significant as trade with Russia accounts for less than 10 per cent of its overall trade, he added.

WWII transformed Finland’s culture

Finland’s preoccupation with security planning also stems from its recent tumultuous history with the Soviet Union – the predecessor state of Russia. The two countries fought two wars during World War II: the Winter War from late 1939 to early 1940, and the Continuation War from 1941 to 1944. Finland suffered about 300,000 total casualties including about 90,000 deaths in the wars, and ceded significant territories to the Soviet Union.

As a result of its experience in WWII, Finland has since been adopting a stance of neutrality, particularly in relation to the Soviet Union and later Russia, with whom it shares a 1,340km border.

Just a few days before Finland formally applied for NATO membership, its Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in Helsinki, “When we look at Russia, we see a very different kind of Russia today than we saw just a few months ago. We cannot trust anymore that there will be a peaceful future next to Russia on our own.”

On the decision to join NATO, she alluded to Finland’s WWII trauma and said, “It’s an act of peace so that there would never again be war in Finland.”

17th October 1939:  Wearing white clothing as camouflage these Finnish troops are on outpost duty on the Finnish-Russian front.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Finnish troops on outpost duty at the Finnish-Russian front on 17 October 1939 just before the Winter War. (PHOTO: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Vänskä said Finland’s WWII experience has shaped its mentality and deeply embedded meticulous security planning as part of Finnish culture.

“Finns know that wars are catastrophic, they lead to human tragedy and loss. We have experienced that ourselves. So it has been a very heavy, historic experience and because of that, we have a culture that we need to be prepared for the worst.”

While Finland aspires to have good neighbourly relations with Russia, the current situation is “deplorable”, and Vänskä expressed pessimism about a bilateral reset in the near term.

“I hope that someday Russia will become a modern, democratic and prosperous country that is capable of living in peace with all its neighbours but that is not happening now. The future does not look good.”

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