US-Ukraine Security Dialogue VII

Putin”s Logic Is Not Ours

Henrik Lax

Remarks by former Finnish & European Member of Parliament Hendrik Lax, delivered at US-Ukraine Security Dialogue VII, Washington, DC, February 25, 2016.

1. Russia

The real nature of today”s Russia and President Putin”s comprehensive and systematic challenge to the liberal-democratic order of the west (EU&US) is only slowly dawning upon Europe’s political leaders and public. Even less understood is that a common denominator behind many of the unpredictable and assertive moves of Russia in the global arena is to bolster the domestic legitimacy of the regime in order to let it survive. The institutional instability of the country is a major concern for Putin and the ruling elite.

Nevertheless, the need for a credible deterrent to enable Europe to deal with Putin’s Russia is becoming evident. The whistleblowers in the Baltic Rim, namely the three Baltic States and Poland, ridiculed for so long, were proven right.

We may predict with some confidence that Russia is on its way toward a major systemic crisis. What we do not know is whether it will take the form of an explosion or an implosion. Both promise to bring grave dangers.
An explosion – perhaps a full-scale aggression against Ukraine or a major provocation against Turkey or within the Baltic Sea area, with the aim of deflecting the focus of the people, bound for increasing hardship.
An implosion – a collapse of central authority in Moscow and a “smutnoye vremya”, a period of chaotic power struggles in a major nuclear power.
Neither of these alternatives is pleasant to contemplate.
Today we can add to the list several additional acute problems, mass migration from crisis areas, displays of military power, including blatant nuclear threats against Nordic countries like Denmark and Sweden, and spectacular disinformation operations, like the fabricated story of the rape of a 13-year old girl in Germany. These have become parts of the Russian arsenal of influencing the outside world. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said recently, that Russia seems always be present wherever there is a major problem in the world.

2. Deterrence is crucial

The annexation of Crimea proved that Russia had definitely abandoned the European Security Order built on the principles in the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe adopted in Helsinki 1975, and other later documents, which OSCE member states, including Russia agreed upon.

The obvious answer for the EU member states, if they wish to preserve peace and stability and be able to cope with a contender scrapping international agreements and relying on hard power, is to ensure an adequate deterrent. – Military power is the basis for peace in Europe.

3. The Baltic Rim – Finland and Sweden

“The Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) all need support from the United States for their security, and the United States needs reliable allies and partners if it wishes to secure peace and stability in the Nordic and Baltic Sea Area, including the Arctic, where competition for natural resources is bound to increase in coming decades.” (1) These lines by two Finnish defense experts are found in a monograph published by U.S. Army War CollegePress a year ago.

In the Baltic Rim, Finland and Sweden are still the only EU member states that have not recognized NATO membership as the decisive deterrent and guarantee for their sovereignty. The Trans-Atlantic link and bilateral defense cooperation with the United States are, however, becoming increasingly important. Enhanced Partnership with NATO is the tool by which Finland and Sweden are integrating with the alliance in order to be able to carry out a range of common operations in case of an armed conflict.

The Nordic Security Dialogue with the US, which is a forum inaugurated by President Barack Obama in Stockholm in September 2013, reflects a coalition of the willing to care for the regional security. The forum, which is conducted on an annual basis, ensures a link to the US.

A far reaching partnership between Finland and Sweden, now including common military defense planning, a common situational picture and (some) shared battle units is being built up. Also this venture, which enjoys large public acceptance, adds to the deterrent, and it is neither a substitute nor an obstacle for joining NATO later. This kind of partnership would in addition require a common view on foreign policy. That is not on the agenda yet.

At present an informed public debate on the pros and cons of NATO-membership is going on in Sweden, where public opinion might suddenly swing in favor of joining. The importance of the Swedish territory and air space for the US and NATO in case the Baltic States actually have to be defended is being publicly recognized.

For Finland the situation is more delicate. Apparently a majority of the Finns still feel that Finland is not quite in the center of gravity of a possible conflict in the region, and that Finland might be able to stay outside of it thanks to its “solid territorial defense”. A more informed assessment is that the best contribution Finland can give to the Baltic States in a conflict with Russia would be to defend its own territory, and that this would also be in the interest of the US and its NATO allies. In addition some Americans argue that a Finnish membership in NATO would increase the risk of escalation of a regional conflict into a global one because of Finland”s closeness to Russia”s strategically important nuclear installations on the Kola Peninsula.

Although political leaders in both Finland and Sweden assure that they would only be ready to join NATO together, we cannot exclude a different outcome. Politically it would be a serious drawback for Finland if Sweden became a member and Finland did not, even though the accession of Sweden alone would improve regional stability. I am myself afraid that Finland’s political leaders will not take the decision to apply for membership, at least not before the Putin regime has collapsed.

4. The demilitarization of the Åland Islands – also of interest to the US

A special case is the demilitarized and neutralized Islands of Åland, a self-governing part of Finland only some 80 miles away from the Swedish capital Stockholm. The status of the islands is governed by a Convention adopted by the League of Nations in 1921 and guaranteed by ten countries, all of them now members of the EU.

In 1940 Russia forced Finland to sign a bilateral treaty whereby Finland is committed not to allow any military installations on the islands. At the same time Russia drafted plans for the seizure of these islands of strategic importance in case of an armed conflict.

It goes without saying that the defense of these islands is the weakest link in the Baltic Rim, should Putin decide to test the solidarity between the EU member states. Control of the islands is vital regarding maritime traffic on the Baltic Sea as a whole. For Russia they would be an important stronghold in securing an important part of its foreign trade and in extending the protection of its military bases on the Kola Peninsula.

Thus the seizure of Åland would not only be a fatal threat to Finland and Sweden but also of intense interest for the US.

I refer to my article “The Åland Regime after Crimea” in the review Baltic Rim Economies BRE 5/2015 published by the Pan-European Institute, Turku University.

5. Finnish Cold War and war experiences

Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Timo Soini gave the following assessment last month:

“Russia has already for a long time increased its military activity in the Baltic Sea region. The illegal annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine have contributed to increased tension between Russia and NATO. In this strained situation it is very important with regard to preserving stability in the Baltic Sea region that NATO clearly shows the commitment of the Alliance to the defense of all its member States. This is also a Finnish interest. At the same time it has been important that the NATO response has been defensive in nature, measured and proportionate. The aim has been to show firmness, not to provoke or escalate the situation.” (My unofficial translation, HL)

We welcome the recent US decision to commit several billions of USD and additional military assets of about one brigade”s strength to the defense of the Baltic States and Poland. It is a good start. The important thing is to get the chips on the table rapidly. One should not lightly dismiss the deterrent value of such a move. Poland’s and the Baltic states’ determination to defend their countries, however bad the odds, raises the deterrence threshold significantly, particularly if aggression would be expected to trigger direct hostilities between Russia and the United States, the latter being the only real guarantor of peace and stability in this region.

I”m very well aware of the common thinking within the US military, to pick only those fights you know you would win decisively. The bleak picture painted in a recent RAND study of the possibility to defend the Baltic Sea states successfully is duly noted.

I would, however, claim that the situation is more favorable than is often thought. As a small country Finland has its own experiences.
Finland was forced to defend herself against Soviet aggression in two bloody wars, the Winter War in 1939-1940 and the inevitable Continuation War in 1941-1944. In both cases Finland was massively outnumbered and outgunned. Finland prevailed, however, thanks to good luck, great tactical leadership, superior combat skills and a people highly committed to the defense of the homeland.

The Polish and Baltic armies would not fight alone, if they one day – God forbid – would have to. President Obama extended complete security guarantees to the Baltic States and Poland in 2014. The US European Command, EUCOM, and NATO are at present preparing credible contingency plans for providing such security guarantees.

Any potential aggressor should understand that aggression will come at a very high cost and with unbearable risks and that the aggressor will not prevail.

The Finnish defense posture during the Cold War may offer some perspectives worth considering. The Finnish people was determined to fight even if the outcome was highly uncertain. Officially, according to the Soviet interpretation of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between Finland and the Soviet Union of 1948, the enemy would be Germany or its allies. In practice all Finnish contingency planning, training and exercises focused on a possible attack from the east. The only real deterrence value of the Finnish defense posture was that the Soviet Army had to take into account the possibility of heavy losses if it pushed into Finnish territory. It could not count on a free ride through Finland. On the surface Finnish and Soviet political leaders were the best of friends.

In his speech on January 20, Foreign Minister Soini stressed the importance of the transatlantic link, the Finnish – US relations. Both Finland and Sweden have a great interest that peace and security in the Baltic Sea area prevails and deepens. Operationally Finland as a non-NATO state would not participate in war-fighting outside her borders, and that isn”t even expected. Finland would have other significant roles to play, however. Most importantly, Finland could hardly hinder actors who are willing and able to defend the Baltic States to fulfill their alliance duties. This may necessitate a realignment of Finland’s position. The days of Finnish neutrality are over – for good.

(1) Stefan Forss & Pekka Holopainen: Breaking the Nordic Defense Deadlock (2015)