Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 14 February 2024


Europe must emulate the Finns — and fast

The Times

From the moment Finland declared itself independent in 1917, a small population with a big land mass sitting right on Russia’s doorstep has had to know how to defend itself. In Cold Will, the classic account of the defence of Finland in the 20th century, Tomas Ries puts it well: “Finland’s armed forces were born fighting.”

He writes: “Within six weeks of the declaration of independence, the fledgling republic was fighting for its existence against a combined body of Russian and Finnish Bolsheviks and Red Guards.”

With German help the democratic Finns, under the military leadership of Gustaf Mannerheim, won. Two decades later, in the Second World War, Mannerheim, by then marshal of Finland, again led his forces daringly and successfully, much to the frustration of Stalin. Although the peace conditions agreed with the Soviets were harsh, Finland survived.

The martial mythology of the plucky Finns is so well known by now that it has become something of a contemporary cliché. With gloomy Europe facing renewed Russian warfare and threats, there is obviously interest in the heartening story of a brave country determined to defend its 800-mile border with Russia.

But there is a lot more to it than national belief and bloodcurdling heroics. Finnish state and society take a highly sophisticated view of the military-industrial production that is essential to deterring aggression.


As Minna Alander, research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki, says: “Finland, despite its status as the newest Nato member, is in a better condition than most of the other 28 European alliance members. Empty stockpiles and slow armaments production are causing concern elsewhere in Europe, but not so in Finland.”

The Russians are running a war economy so the Finnish government decided after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine to run a “war economy lite”, ramping up production and placing orders while too many other European powers were still talking about it. And some are only talking about it still.

In practical terms, the Finnish state revived its Second World War-era procurement plans. That means guaranteed contracts with about 1,000 companies — defence firms but also other manufacturers — so they can prepare and procure what will be needed for a war effort if the Russians try it again. The idea is to ensure what the Nordics and Scandinavians call “total defence” — in which the country has access to everything that it needs to fight, survive and ideally deter an aggressor.

In December, the Finnish government announced that it would double artillery and mortar ammunition production, with a $130 million investment to give companies certainty, speed up deliveries to Ukraine and help domestic stockpiling.

Since then, arms and munitions production has duly been accelerated. In Sweden, the factory of Finnish-Norwegian firm Nammo is working around the clock with a five-shift system to ensure continuous production of Nato-standard 155mm-calibre shells, in part to supply Kyiv.

In terms of artillery and air power, Finland is well equipped for a small country. On manpower, conscription means that the Finns have a wartime strength of 280,000, with a further 870,000 reservists. All this in a country with a population of only 5.5 million.

How did the Finns get this right? For a start, Finnish doctrine was not based on the wrongheaded assumption elsewhere in Europe 20 years ago that Russia after the Cold War was magically no longer a threat. Finns had too much experience of the Russians to fall for that. Instead, strategists concluded that Russia could always pose a threat and at some point deviate back to its historic norm as a large state that likes to bully, invade, coerce or control its neighbours.

In this and in many other ways, Finland is an encouraging example from which the rest of Europe should learn and take encouragement. Indeed, some of its neighbouring countries who might in the past have looked down on Finland as their “country cousins” now regard the Finns as exemplars.


Military co-operation between Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Baltic states is developing fast, given the potential Russian threat. A “northern alliance” of those countries is developing, closely allied to Britain. The UK is one of the two largest non-US military players in Nato and British capabilities are central in the planning for any fighting that becomes necessary on the alliance’s northern flank.

The aim of all this preparation, as the Finns understand, is not to start a war but to build the industrial and military capacity to avert it. And if that doesn’t hold, and the Russians after the Ukraine war do start other fights, be ready to repel them.

There are other ways in which worried European countries coping with populism can learn from the calm, pragmatic Finnish mindset. As well as not running down their defences after the Cold War, the Finns were cautious about the scale of immigration they would accept on the basis that they had enough to deal with. This is in contrast to Sweden, which adopted an open-door policy and now has deep problems with social integration.

Finnish politics is measured and hard-headed. Finland’s presidential election concluded last weekend. The winner, Alexander Stubb, and his opponent were civil to each other. The outgoing president, Sauli Niinisto, is also highly popular. There are not many departing leaders of other countries of whom that can be said.

It is all quite a contrast to our own feverish, angst-ridden and at times silly politics. A deep understanding of the seriousness of history, based on the experience of several attempted invasions by Russia, makes it so and leads to a more realistic posture when it comes to defence. From that understanding flow the procurement policies and military production drive that the rest of Europe must emulate, and fast.

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