Finland is preparing for a possible Russian attack, wants to join NATO
Finnish Reservists’ Associations are seeing an increase in membership since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Finland's 840-mile shared border with Russia has Finns concerned about a similar attack.
Sandy Hooper, USA TODAY
- In the weeks since war broke out in Europe, thousands of Finns have signed up with training associations to sharpen their military skills or learn new ones like first aid.
- For the first time in Finland's history, a majority of Finns are in favor of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a defensive alliance.
- Many people say they are alarmed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and want to keep their military training up to date.
VANTAA, Finland – Antti Kettunen pulls out his Glock 17, aims and shoots at a target on either side of a barrier before sprinting over to a jagged wall with holes in it and firing again.
It’s another Tuesday night of training for the Vantaa Reserves Association, the local chapter of the Finnish Reservists’ Association. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, these nights at a range have felt different.
There’s an extra energy in the air, perhaps best shown by anxious chatter over the group’s social media channels or its increased numbers. More than a quarter of its 1,354 members joined in the past several weeks.
Since war broke out in Europe, thousands of Finns have signed up with training associations to sharpen their military skills or learn new ones such as first aid. The rise has been fueled by anxiety over Finland’s geographic proximity to Russia. For the first time in their country's history, a majority of Finns are in favor of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a defensive alliance.
“Our president says we are not scared, but we are aware,” says Kettunen, dressed in combat boots, a camouflage vest and shirt and olive green pants. “That’s quite nice to say, but where else do they (the Russians) go if the plan is to make the Great Russia, from Lisbon to the Japanese sea?”
Finland is one of the few European nations with mandatory military service, primarily due to its 830-mile shared border and memories of battles with Russia during the past century. That history shaped its politics, which focused on neutrality during the Cold War and walking a middle ground between the West and Russia ever since as key to maintaining its independence.
For years, joining NATO, which was created to limit Soviet expansion, seemed like a distant possibility. Now, it is an urgent option for many Finns, who note that Ukraine’s efforts to join the alliance were rebuffed before it was invaded.
Finnish officials have engaged in a whirlwind of meetings with European leaders, and the country’s politicians could begin the process of joining NATO by summer. That’s despite threats from Moscow about the consequences for the nation of 5.5 million should it take that route.
“We never let our guard down after the Cold War ended, as many European countries did,” says Janne Kuusela, director general at the Finnish Ministry of Defense. “In that sense, we’re well placed to defend ourselves if need be in the future.”
Kuusela says there is no direct threat to Finland from Russia, but there are concerns among Finns about prolonged instability in Europe. The two countries enjoyed lots of cross-border travel and trade, but that has been cut off for weeks because of sanctions enacted against Russia, he says.
“There's quite poor visibility for what lies ahead, there’s lots of uncertainty, and it may be that there will be a longer period of poor relations between Russia and the West,” Kuusela says.
Of the 900,000 Finns who have gone through military training, 280,000 trained to mobilize in the country's wartime reserve.
Many Finns decided they want to be ready to join the fight. The 45,000-member national reservist association gained more than 6,300 members in recent months, nearly twice the number of people who joined its ranks from 2015 through 2021. The National Defense Training Association of Finland, which is supervised by the Ministry of Defense and works closely with the military, has seen up to an eightfold increase in the number of training course enrollees, and more classes are oversubscribed than ever.
“Many people say they are alarmed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They want to keep their military capabilities up to date, they want to learn new things, they want maybe to make up for mandatory service they didn’t take very seriously at the time,” says Ossi Hietala, training officer for the National Defense Training Association of Finland. “They want to make sure they are prepared for the worst.”
That’s what Kettunen and his buddy Vesa Kortelainen, 44, who led drills with a half-dozen members, have heard from people joining the group. Both served in the same platoon in Kosovo decades ago.
“The consensus is it’s not looking good for Europe at the moment,” Kortelainen says, noting that although it's unlikely the war will spread, the risk is the highest it's been in his lifetime. “For Finns, it’s more probable to go to war.”
Russia’s invasion unified and strengthened Finland, taking the internal focus from petty partisan arguments, Kortelainen says. “Now even the dreamers see that anything is possible,” he says.
Kortelainen says he’s been in favor of Finland joining NATO since the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, but the country has been ambivalent because of its close cultural ties to Russia. Culturally, it faces East, but economically and through its values, it faces West, he says.
He says Finns have been too gullible about neutrality, wanting to “be friends with Russia.” After its actions in Ukraine, he wonders if this is possible.
“In my opinion, the best time to apply for membership is now, and the second-best option is today,” Kortelainen says.
For many Finns, memories of the Winter War in 1939 evoke a kind of post-traumatic stress and a sense of deja vu.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin used concerns over a possible attack by Nazi Germany to demand, among other things, that Finland move a portion of its border with the Soviet Union back 16 miles. After failed negotiations, the Red Army invaded with 450,000 troops. The United Nations predecessor, the League of Nations, expelled the Soviet Union for what it deemed an illegal attack.
“It was like Ukraine in February, everybody cheering for Finland, but we were left quite alone, we had to fight insane odds” against Russia without military support, Kortelainen says.
Despite impressive resistance, the Finns were no match for the Red Army’s sheer numbers and superior military strength. After roughly three months, Finland agreed to peace terms, ceding 11% of its territory to the Soviet Union but managing to maintain its independence.
If the Finns thought their efforts to stay neutral were any protection from Russia, its war against Ukraine showed them otherwise.
Roughly 60% of Finns support joining NATO, up from prewar numbers of 20% supporting membership and the majority undecided about the matter. Finnish parents who worried about their children being forced to fight in a war have seen that Russia’s actions cannot be influenced by what their country does or does not do.
“Russia has shown when they went to Ukraine that they never changed,” says Minna Nenonen, executive director of the Finnish Reservists’ Association. “They are always Russia, and they are always behaving the same way. So now all Finns know it’s very possible that at some point they could come here also.”
Timo Virtanen, 35, co-founder of a Finnish IT software company, is one of six Finns who put forward a referendum to bring the question of whether Finland should join NATO to a public vote. All six found each other on a small gaming forum before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Never hugely political, Virtanen says he felt this was a moment to act: Potassium iodide pills to counteract thyroid damage from radiation are difficult to find, and anxious Finns work to ensure bomb shelters are in good working order.
Most tangible, perhaps, was watching NATO nations move their soldiers to strategic positions to protect one another while Ukraine is on its own against Russia.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made some moves possible that just weren’t a year back, or a couple of months back,” Virtanen says. “Now it seems that we are getting on a more honest level, that, well, you (Russia) are not to be trusted. So we better do what's best for us.”
For years, Finnish officials said joining NATO would require clear support from citizens. Virtanen says they never worked to increase support, often referencing the “NATO option” as a way to acknowledge but never truly act on the issue.
An effort to submit a pro-NATO initiative to Parliament was put forth several years ago, but Virtanen says he didn’t hear about it. It failed to get enough signatures to qualify. This time around, the referendum, which went live three days before the invasion, gained the 50,000 required signatures in a week and then some – more than 76,007 people signed in support. It was sent to Parliament on March 8.
Virtanen says some of the people who signed expressed a sense of relief that “perhaps by signing this thing and giving support to this initiative, at least I've done something to make Finland more secure.”
Parliament isn’t obliged to act on the referendum or conduct a public vote, but its submission is history-making nonetheless.
Virtanen says Finland would be an asset to NATO, given its strategic location and overall readiness as a nation.
“I can’t see that much harm in joining, especially since I presume that one can always resign. So why not give it a try?” Virtanen said. “I’d be surprised if it’s not something we’ll try in the next couple of years.”
Tami Abdollah is a USA TODAY correspondent. Send tips via direct message @latams or email tami(at)usatoday.com