Finland is stepping up its military surveillance in response to the worsening conflict in Ukraine, according to the nation’s chief of defense.
“Finland’s security-policy environment has changed,” General Jarmo Lindberg, Commander of the Finnish Defense Forces, said in an interview in Helsinki. The country will raise its alert level if it sees “a clear signal” of activity targeted at Finland; as of now, “the threat toward Finland hasn’t increased,” he said.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and a deepening conflict in eastern Ukraine have left relations between President Vladimir Putin and his counterparts in Europe and the U.S. in tatters. Finland, a non-NATO member which shares a longer border with Russia than all other European Union nations combined, has emphasized the need to defuse tensions.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistoe met with Putin in the southern Russian town of Sochi on Friday and spoke to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev a day later in an effort to de-escalate the crisis.
Finland, which unlike its Baltic neighbors has repeatedly shied away from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, spent the middle of the last century defending its border against Russia. Finland fought two wars against the Soviet Union during World War II, ceding about 10 percent of its land mass in the process. Now, Finland’s economy is more exposed to Russian demand than any other euro nation, trade figures show.
Niinistoe, who acts as the commander-in-chief of Finland’s defense forces, said last week the crisis in Ukraine has pushed the world to “the brink of cold war.” The situation “isn’t likely to de-escalate in weeks or months,” Lindberg said in the Aug. 15 interview.
The latest troop movements from Russia across the Ukrainian border are “indications that the situation could deteriorate extremely fast, in a matter of hours or days,” Lindberg said. “The number, structure and activity of troops on both sides of Finland -- east and west -- have evolved.”
The defense chief, who is known by his nickname “Charles,” after the early 20th-century aviator, this month became the first air force pilot to lead Finland’s defense forces. He has flown Soviet-made MiG-21 fighters for the Finnish Air Force at twice the speed of sound and in altitudes exceeding 21 kilometers. He’s also piloted U.S. F/A-18 Hornet jets over the Sierra Nevada desert during his instructor training.
As geopolitical tensions mount, Finland’s air defenses are at risk of becoming outdated. The country has to find a way to replace its aging fleet of 62 Hornets acquired in the 1990s before 2030, Lindberg said. The cost of doing so is estimated to be at least 5 billion euros ($6.7 billion), Defense Minister Carl Haglund has said.
That’s still more feasible than keeping the old planes, as the aircraft’s main users -- the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps -- are phasing out their planes in the early 2020s, pushing up maintenance costs as technical support and spare parts run out, Lindberg said.
Finnish policy makers have cut funding for the military as two recessions since 2008 weigh on public finances. Finland’s annual equipment budget may be cut by a third to about 500 million euros, according to Lindberg. He wants to limit the cuts to half those proposed.
The current Finnish government has agreed not to seek NATO entry during its term ending in April 2015, citing voter resistance. More than half of Finns would reject an application, according to an Aug. 8 poll.
Finland’s army, navy and air force are conscription-based and train about 25,000 conscripts annually. The maximum wartime capacity is being pared down to 230,000 troops from 350,000.
The defense forces target keeping readiness at the current level and are planning an upkeep program for equipment over the next few years, according to Lindberg. “Calling it a development program is perhaps too optimistic,” he said. Finland and Sweden, which has also opted to stay outside NATO, agreed in May to study ways to pool defense resources. Their findings are due in October.
They could find “tens of millions” of euros in savings through designing together a high-performance warship required in the early 2020s. More savings can be reached through joint training, Lindberg said.
“For Finnish taxpayers it’s very good when we don’t have to train against opponents from our own air force,” he said.
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