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The View From Finland: With Or Without NATO, You Need To Be Able To Defend Your Own Country

The heavy mortar mounted inside a trailer for the Finnish-made “piglet” tracked vehicle allows a firing crew to lob a dozen mortar rounds in a minute, then escape into the wilderness before an adversary's battery radars can pinpoint their location.
The heavy mortar mounted inside a trailer for the Finnish-made “piglet” tracked vehicle allows a firing crew to lob a dozen mortar rounds in a minute, then escape into the wilderness before an adversary's battery radars can pinpoint their location.

As chief of defense, retired General Jarmo Lindberg was the Finnish Defense Forces' highest-ranking officer from 2014 to 2019. A career fighter pilot who ascended through the air force ranks, he was elected to the Finnish parliament this month, representing the center-right opposition National Coalition Party, which won the largest number of seats. He has also worked as an adviser and lobbyist.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service spoke with Lindberg about the evolution of Finland's relationship with NATO, Finns' volte-face on membership once Russian troops were pouring over Ukraine's border, and the current war's effect on NATO's new northern flank.

Retired Finnish Air Force General Jarmo Lindberg
Retired Finnish Air Force General Jarmo Lindberg

RFE/RL: Finland's a NATO member now. How does that change the security paradigm with respect to Russia?

Jarmo Lindberg: It has a stabilizing effect. The biggest change in Europe, obviously, was Russia's attack on Ukraine and the ongoing war in Europe. Finland joining NATO means that Finland will have the Article 5 security guarantees from a large alliance. That's the most important factor and the big change here.

It remains to be seen what kind of differences there might be in the relationship between Finland and Russia. Obviously, there has already been a big change from the prewar situation and relationship. Because Finland has been with the EU with all 10 rounds of [Russia] sanctions, and Finnish industry has pretty much left Russia. So, the business is over, and relations have changed dramatically already....

The war and the Russian attack on February 24, [2022], created a big change, because within a week the numbers in Finland of those who were pro-NATO membership and those who were against [membership] changed places, so that the majority of Finns were pro-NATO membership.

RFE/RL: What do you expect them to do now? What about the "military and political consequences" of NATO membership that Russia has been threatening?

Lindberg: Yes, you're right, they have mentioned several times throughout this process and also recently that they will strengthen the northwestern corner of Russia, maybe form a new army corps, a new headquarters in the area, [although] that remains to be seen.

The current situation is such that, from the army garrisons and army brigades, they deployed two battalions [garrisoned next to Finland] to Ukraine, and they have seen heavy fighting and heavy losses. So, the Russian Army capability is at the moment smaller to the east of the Finnish border. And Russia is preoccupied in Ukraine for the foreseeable future, because nobody knows when the war is going to end.

Then there has been discussion about information warfare, cyberattacks, and so on, and also that remains to be seen. You might say that information warfare is already ongoing with the statements that [Russia is making], so that is nothing new.

So far, there have been no dramatic cyberactions. After formal accession to NATO, would there be any changes to what we have been seeing already? Hard to say. In a way, [at that point] the signing process [didn't] change anything.

RFE/RL: We are speaking right after the latest elections, which saw the change of the ruling party in Finland. Does it spell any change in foreign policy?

Lindberg: I actually also got elected to the parliament [in national elections on April 2]. I'm now a member of the winning National Coalition Party….There will be changes to Finnish policy, but those were laid out already during the previous government, because it was the previous government that made the decision [to join NATO], based on polls and the realization that the majority of Finns now support NATO membership....The next government will have to form a policy toward Russia with Finland now a full member of NATO.

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

RFE/RL: Now that Finland has become a NATO member, should we expect an increase in military assistance to Ukraine?

Lindberg: The new government hasn't been formed yet, but it's easy to say that it will be pro-NATO, because 80 percent of Finns are now pro-NATO membership. And when the [parliamentary] vote was taken on the law to participate in NATO, it was almost unanimous; all the parties supported Finnish NATO membership.

It's hard to say [on increased military assistance] because I have had no view into…the 14 rounds of assistance that we've already given Ukraine. There's only the numbers. It is now up to 960 million euros ($1.1 billion) [in contributions], and I think the previous government stated that it is not the end of it. So, it will continue.

With the next round, it will probably go over 1 billion euros, and it will keep on going. And it has been a situation where it has been a negotiation with Ukraine [regarding] what they need and what is available here in Finland -- so what Finland has so far given to Ukraine has [provided] meaningful military help….So, when the process has already been done 14 times, it will continue like that.

RFE/RL: As you're a former fighter pilot, I would like to ask you how essential would Western fighter jets be for a Ukrainian victory, and will they be getting them?

Lindberg: It's hard for me to speculate on if they'll get them sooner or later. That's a decision of individual Western nations. So far, as we all know, no such decision has been made by the United States or European countries. And the latest was the help from Poland and Slovakia with the MiG-29s, which makes perfect sense because the Ukrainians have had them already. So that is the fastest way to give them technology that they already know how to use and [for which] they have the spare parts, the logistics system.

For any new type of jets, it will take a while to train the pilots and even a larger crew of maintenance people; then to get the spare parts to the country; and then [to build] the maintenance and logistics chains in country while they are waging war.

You know, I'm a MiG pilot; I flew Soviet-made MiGs. And then I was trained by the United States Navy in California to fly F-18 Hornet jets. I was the commander of the first Finnish Hornet squadron. So, I should know, because I have done it myself. And I know that it takes a while, and there are no shortcuts. You can speed it up a bit, but then there are realistic limitations on how long the whole process will take.

Even if the decision is made now, it will not help the war this spring or this summer or not even this year, because it's such a complicated combination. Yes, it's an added capability, depending on what kind of capabilities are given to Ukraine. Of course, it is beneficial for fighting a war.

Having been involved in planning many military capabilities here in Finland, there is no one silver bullet. You can say, "OK, tanks are what is going to win the war." But when [the front line] is some 750 kilometers [long] and you get a battalion or two of tanks, every planner realizes that it's a long front, and you need additional capabilities, and you need the capability to launch joint operations to reclaim the lost areas. Yes, they are added capabilities, but in an all-out war, it's hard to say that you could have one single capability that would win you the war. It [needs to be] a combination.

RFE/RL: I understand your reservations about the time that it would require and also logistical difficulties. And yet Ukrainian pilots who have been trained already in the West are showing very rapid progress, and nobody really knows how long this war will last. With that in mind, is it conceivable that, for example, Finland could donate its soon-to-be-phased-out Hornet fighter jets to Ukraine?

Lindberg: There's been a lot of discussion regarding that in Finland. I'm not in a position to say whether Finland is going to give them [to Ukraine] or not.... What I've said in the media is that the planned lifecycle for the Hornets is 30 years, and they have been pretty much used to the end of their lifecycle. And the spare-part inventory is declining with the jets. Also, from a technical perspective, the replacement timeline [is that] the first new fighter jets will come to Finland in 2026….

When the new jets start to arrive, the used Hornets, one by one, will start to go down at the end of their lifecycle. The replacement timeline for the Hornets is some five years -- so after 2025 all the way up to 2030. It will take several years to replace the Hornets. And it will take some years in Finland to get the operational readiness -- having enough new fighter jets so that they can say that "OK, we have an operational fighting capability with the replacement jets."

Anyway, it will take years, and then it's up to the air force and the defense leadership to say, "OK, when we're getting new jets, when are we ready to start to draw down the current capability of the F-18s?"

RFE/RL: Finland's defense forces are already interoperable with NATO, but still, should we expect any new bases and such? Should we expect growing numbers of the professional standing army?

Lindberg: Finland has been doing the interoperability preparations for NATO for there are [just] some interoperability procedures that need to be done with the command-and-control systems with NATO. But that's not a big deal.

[As far as defense capabilities go, don't expect] very dramatic changes. The Finnish reserve force is already 280,000 [people]. It is larger than all the other Nordic nations combined. We have the largest field artillery in Europe along with Poland. We have long-range precision-guided munitions for all the services: army, navy, air force. We already have the main battle tanks -- the Leopard main battle tanks -- and the armored capabilities in country.... Plus, the new F-35 fighter jets. So, for [our] defense capabilities, there are no dramatic changes needed.

We can keep our general conscription here; we don't have to change that. Also, the structure is there: The percentage of defense procurement and the defense budget from the GNP [gross national product] is already over the NATO 2 percent requirement. And also, the material procurement part that needs to be over 20 percent, we are already easily over that. So, the…defense [funding] here in Finland is already over the NATO requirements.

If we're talking about bases, then first we need to have discussions about what kind of a NATO profile Finland has -- and those discussions are ongoing. Then afterward, when the profile is figured out together with NATO, then there can be smaller details, additional discussions. NATO is now very busy closer to Ukraine, having deployed a lot of forces closer to Ukraine, so probably this is not the first thing for NATO to do -- to have a base here up north -- because the more acute need is down south in Central Europe.

RFE/RL: What does Finland's NATO membership mean for Ukraine's NATO hopes and, from a wider perspective, for other countries that also have NATO aspirations -- for example, Georgia? Can Kyiv and Tbilisi count on Helsinki's support in that regard?

Lindberg: I think that the most pressing need is for Sweden [to join NATO], because Finland and Sweden had parallel accession processes and now Sweden wasn't ratified by Turkey and Hungary. So, it would be important for…Sweden, hopefully, [to get in] before the Vilnius NATO summit in July. Then I think Ukraine and Georgia [should be considered].

I'm not a specialist in the process…and the timing…with those nations. It's more up to the NATO leadership to analyze and have the additional negotiations about the readiness of nations and the NATO requirements for membership....

Being in NATO, we have to play by NATO rules. So, whatever the NATO process is for a new nation, that has to [be gone] through and [has to be] the same thing as we had. If it's all [gone] through and the nation is ready in the NATO leadership's view, then it comes to the ratification process, and each nation, when their time comes, will ratify it or they will have -- as we saw with Turkey or Hungary -- they may have specific things. I don't have a crystal ball or the knowledge to give you a specific answer.

RFE/RL: Finland was well-defended even before becoming a NATO member. Do you have any textbook advice for similarly small countries within Russia's neighborhood that don't enjoy being under the NATO umbrella?

Lindberg: For Finland, being a neighboring country of Russia, after the Cold War ended, some other nations viewed us as being a bit conservative -- having general conscription and large reserve forces and territorial defense -- when a lot of [other] nations started to focus on crisis-management operations.

You know, with our history, and having fought during our history with Russia previously and during World War II, we kept up the combination of having the large reserve, general conscription, and when some other nations were giving up their weapons, selling their weapons, we were there buying the surplus weapons at a cheaper price because we wanted to keep up our traditional defenses.

But on top of the traditional capabilities, we were already buying the high-end, long-range, precision-guided weapons: the missiles for the air force, the rockets for the army, and the missiles for the navy.

The combination that Ukraine is looking for in this war that we are now watching -- having sufficient forces, having the armor capabilities, having the tanks, having the missiles, the long-range capabilities, having the modern fighter jets and air defense -- we have them all. So now people are saying that the defense planning in Finland has been correct for the war that we are now watching [in Ukraine].

This would be my advice to any nation: You need to plan in advance, and you need to have the capabilities in-country to defend your country, whether you are a member of an alliance or not. And you're not freeriding an alliance; you have to be able to defend your own area and even help others, if needed, if you think that within the alliance somebody else is going to help you. It's vice versa, and it doesn't work [if] you don't have the capabilities in your own country and you join the alliance and you say, "OK, somebody come and help us, because we didn't do our homework."

RFE/RL: How does one combine being the "happiest country in the world" with being ready to go to war against a nuclear power any day of the week?

Lindberg: Well, that's been a discussion here in Finland: Why is it the sixth year in a row that we are the "happiest country in the world" [according to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network's World Happiness Report]? I don't know. I think the Finns are very pragmatic, straightforward people. You can trust a Finn and the word of a Finn. And it's very straightforward here in Finland.

I would give the example of Russia attacking Ukraine and, within a week, the Finnish population figured out that we have to be [in] NATO and, very quickly, the political leadership followed with a very fast process to apply for NATO membership. I would say that's very pragmatic. When Finns realize that OK, something is not working, we just [think we] need to go and fix it. That's the Finnish way of thinking.

RFE/RL: During your tenure, what were contingency plans in terms of conflict with Russia?

Lindberg: If there's one topic that I'd mention, it's that when Russia invaded Crimea in the spring of 2014 and I became the chief of defense in August 2014, throughout Europe and also within NATO, there was a realization: Are we ready enough? Because that was a very fast [Russian] special-forces operation. And in the defense [departments] of different nations, people were analyzing whether if something like that were to happen in their area, would they be fast enough to react to that kind of operation.

Also here in Finland, one of my first public statements [when I became chief of defense in 2014] was that we need to improve our readiness so that we are more agile if something happens. Obviously the specific contingency planning and operational planning, that is classified, and the details cannot be given out.'s easy to say, "OK, there's an example for you for contingency planning" when you see that something in the real world happens. And then when you see that in the neighborhood and also [regarding] your capabilities, there may be some deficiencies -- then you need to go and fix them.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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