Russian Border Anxiety Grows as Finland Beefs Up Military Budget

  • Finland to increase defense budget for first time since 2013
  • Defense minister says instability justifies extra spending

The western nation that shares the longest border with Russia is building up its military arsenal, just in case.

Having already moved as close as politically possible to NATO, Finland now wants to spend more on its own war ships, fighter planes and army personnel. Defense Minister Jussi Niinisto says his government has little choice under the circumstances.

“The crisis in Ukraine and increased global tensions have led Finnish policy makers to think that we must take care of our own defenses," Niinisto said in an interview in his office in Helsinki this week.

A lawmaker for the Finns Party -- the nationalist junior partner in Prime Minister Juha Sipila’s ruling coalition -- Niinisto has already pushed through Finland’s first increase in military spending in three years. That followed repeated incursions by Russian fighter planes into Finnish airspace in the aftermath of President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

The added cost of beefing up Finland’s military is putting pressure on an economy that has contracted for the past three years and that was stripped of its top credit grade at Standard & Poor’s in October 2014.

“Even though Finland is going through hard times, defense and internal security are the only sectors that will get more funding,” Niinisto said.

According to the Finnish Defense Ministry, spending is set to rise 9 percent next year to 2.89 billion euros ($3.1 billion), equivalent to 1.4 percent of gross domestic product. The government has agreed to raise the defense budget by 150 million euros from its current level by 2020.

Much of the spending has covered the replacement of aging military jets and vessels.
The government plans to renew Finland’s fleet of Hornets, with a decision expected in the next legislature, Niinisto said. Russia and China have been excluded from the bidding process, he said.

Finland has already boosted its cooperation with NATO. At the Wales summit of 2014, it flanked Australia, Georgia, Jordan, and Sweden in joining the alliance’s Enhanced Opportunities Partners program -- a cooperation with non-NATO countries whose military set-up makes it easy to pool resources by sharing procedures, systems, infrastructure, bases and communication.

In May, a two-week joint fighter jet exercise involving several NATO countries was held in the northern parts of Sweden, Finland and Norway. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg praised Finland’s and Sweden’s "important political and practical contributions" to NATO, including through their contributions to the alliance’s missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

“This is as close as you can get to membership without being a member," Niinisto said.

Finland is also ready to assist other nations trying to fight terrorism, he said. The offer was underlined after the Paris attacks of Nov. 13. Those killings, and events like Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter plane along the Syrian border, threaten to "lead to an escalation" of geopolitical tensions that could reach nations like Finland, Niinisto said.

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