(CN) — It became clear after Sunday's election that Finland is ready for a new government. It's one of several hefty political changes underway in the northern European country.
After admitting defeat, outgoing Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced her resignation as chairman of the Social Democratic Party on Wednesday, concluding a four-year term that elevated the center-left millennial to international fame.
Marin, together with President Sauli Niinistö, initiated Finland’s application to join NATO last year, once and for all ending decades of their country’s military nonalignment policy in a historical play of survival tactics between East and West amid the war in Ukraine. That effort concluded on Tuesday after Finland officially became NATO’s latest member.
But underneath these heavy changes lies one thing that has remained a constant throughout: Militarization is Finland’s insurance. Unlike many other European countries, Finland did not cut back on military spending during peace times. A look back on history tells us why.
Geographically placed in northern Europe between Sweden and Russia, Finland was stuck between western and eastern forces for centuries. After 100 years of Russian imperialism, Finns seized independence after the October Revolution of 1917.
This led to the birth of a new republic that would clash with its Russian neighbor years later during the Second World War.
What is still ingrained into the minds of present-day Finns are the stories and experiences from the Winter War. Just three months after World War II started in 1939, the mighty Soviet Union invaded Finland and its less than 4 million habitants at the start of winter.
Nearly 26,000 Finns either died or went missing after three months of fighting. After signing the Moscow Peace Treaty in 1940, Finland lost 9% of its territory to the Soviet Union.
Russia became a ghost that roams within the collective Finnish mind up through the present day. If the Nordic country wants to exist, it knows it needs the skills to defend itself.
Helsinki continued to modernize its army throughout the Cold War and beyond. It was simply an insurance policy as the country prepared to build political and economic relationships with Russia after the Soviet Union's fall.
“It was hoped that diplomatic exchange would gradually have a positive effect on Russia's political and societal development, and make it a closer partner to the Europeans,” said Juhana Aunesluoma, professor of political history at the University of Helsinki, in an interview. “Finish policy was to engage rather than isolate Russia, but Finland did not rely on this policy alone. It was matched with heavy investment in defense.”
To prevent provoking the Russian bear, Finland throughout history practiced a policy of military nonalignment within the world order. This gradually shifted as Finland joined the European Union in 1995 and de facto entangled itself in Western infrastructure.
Finns found it unnecessary to join NATO for years but were prepared to do so should Russia start behaving aggressively. The alliance is not entirely unfamiliar to the Finnish army, as it has participated in multiple NATO training exercises and missions along with its Scandinavian neighbor, Sweden, which likewise did not wish to break its many years of neutrality.
With a population of around 5.5 million, Finland finds it vital to engage every layer of society in its defense infrastructure. A separate military class does not exist. For example, citizens over the age of 16 are offered free voluntary defense training with a local focus. These courses typically include skill development in first aid and fire extinguishing.
In addition, Finnish leaders from politics, business, government and civil society traditionally attend the National Defense Course, which includes one to three special courses annually where attendees receive training in responding to different forms of crises. It is a given that big companies have discussions with authorities about their potential role during a crisis.
“We learned from World War II that if we wanted to survive as a small nation, we have to use all our resources of the society,” said Pekka Toveri, a former major general with the Finnish Defense Forces.
Considering what a potential attack could do is part of the Finnish mentality. Toveri calls this "dynamic pessimism."
“When you build a bridge in Finland, you do it in a way where it is prepared for demolition," he said.
Successfully defending a nation requires more than good skills. It also takes the right mindset, and numbers suggest Finns have it. According to a survey conducted by Finland’s Advisory Board of Defense Information last December, 83% of 1,000 respondents said they should arm and defend themselves if attacked, even if the outcome does not guarantee victory.
Formal military training is mandatory for all men in Finland, and those who oppose it can do civil service. A breathtaking 900,000 people are in the Finnish reserves, ready to help in any way possible should the Nordic country come under attack.
With Finland as its 31st member, NATO now extends its border with Russia by 1,340 kilometers (830 miles). Some might fear that the alliance is now at a greater risk of being forced to confront Russia in the future. However, lessons learned from the Winter War show that this long border is not a wise move for Russia to invade, as most of it is covered by wilderness.
“If Russia decided to attack up north across the wilderness, army commanders would pop champagne bottles, because that is exactly what we hope they would do,” said Toveri.
This is what happened in World War II. The Finns were able to effectively defend themselves against the Soviet Union’s aggressions because their neighbor was not comfortable moving in the wild. Finland had also prioritized training cavalry units that ensured flexibility on the battlefield.
As for NATO, the alliance has now included a member that already met its economic demand. For years, it has been a well-known requirement among European members to meet a quota to devote at least 2% of their GDP to military activities by 2024. In contrast to many of its European counterparts, Finland met this requirement by investing 2.03% of its GDP into militarization.
Just over 6 billion euros ($6.5 billion) is secured for Finland's defense budget this year. That is a 20% increase from 2022, showing the Nordic country does not think twice when it comes to security politics.Follow @LasseSrensen13
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