But Helsinki is updating its military doctrine just in case
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
If you’re a Finnish reservist, something very unusual happened during the past few weeks. The government sent a letter that informed you — among 900,000 reservists — that you need to report in case of a “crisis situation.”
The Finnish Defense Forces broadcast the announcement on TV and mailed letters with instructions on how to update the military as to your whereabouts. You know, just in case Finland needs to mobilize for a massive war. No big deal, right?
It’s all the more disconcerting because Finland’s military has one main job — defending against a Russian attack. Finland and the Baltic states are also on edge about the Kremlin’s increased tempo of military exercises and actual invasions of its neighbors.
Not surprisingly, media outlets often attributed the letters as a response to the Russian threat, or heavily implied it. The Finnish government has not stated the letters were in response to any new Russian actions, such as the invasion of Crimea in 2014 or the Kremlin’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“They haven’t said it was Russia but who else would it be?” Patrik Oksanen, a journalist at the Swedish Hudiksvalls Tidning newspaper told Newsweek. “It’s Russia. It’s logical it was Russian. It’s also not in Finnish national interests to make this story well known.”
But actually — the story is much less scary than it sounds. It’s all part of a plan by the Finnish government to improve its military that’s been years in making. It predates Russia’s invasion of Crimea and support for separatists in the Ukraine’s east.
So don’t freak out. And actually, it’s a pretty interesting story.
There’s a few things to know about Finland’s military. For one, it protects a small country next to a very big — and occasionally hostile — nation. It’s an imprecise analogy, but think of other small countries with proud citizen-soldier traditions, such as Israel and Switzerland.
The FDF has around 8,000 professional soldiers. A further 900,000 Finnish citizens are reservists, which the government can call upon to bring the military up to a wartime strength of 230,000.
Finnish males must serve in the military for a period of six months, nine months or one year.
The Finnish military has also changed. During most of the Cold War, Helsinki planned to deal with a full-blown Soviet invasion with a goal of toppling the government. To defend against this, the FDF planned to crudely — but effectively — arm up hundreds of thousands of reservists and deploy them over a large area.
The plan was to slow down and exhaust the Soviet troops, similar to Finland’s experiences in previous wars. Further, the strategy extended to “total war” involving the coordination of the country’s entire economy and society.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union made this scenario highly unlikely.
Instead of a large-scale attack, the FDF began preparing to defend against against a fast-moving assault by smaller numbers of Russian troops moving into strategic areas. If this happened — such as the Russian invasion of Crimea — Finland’s creaky reservist system wouldn’t be able to mobilize fast enough.
To see an example of what this could look like, the FDF produced a highly realistic and violent video depicting the destruction of a Russian armored column in an ambush. Finnish troops with drones and anti-tank guided missiles detect the tanks, then rush to destroy them.
These are professional troops with real specialties. And this changing strategy required a change in how Finland handles mobilization, according to Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
“While the timing of the letter has been interpreted as having something to do with increased tensions with Russia, due to Russia’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea and continued war in Eastern Ukraine, this is not the case,” Salonius-Pasternak wrote at the institute’s website.
For one, the Finnish military first came up with the letter idea in October 2013. “Note the date, five months before the Russian invasion of Crimea,” he wrote.
But why send it out at all? Well, it does have to do with Russia, but in a different way than you might think. It’s not because of any imminent threat. Mainly, the Finnish military is getting a lot more specific in how it operates, and it’s anticipating reacting to events a lot faster than before.
Rather, the FDF might assign a fewer number of troops to pilot drones or defend against cyber attacks, among other duties. Some of the letters informed reservists of specific duties in case of mobilization. Other letters were more general, and others informed reservists with certain specialty jobs that they would not be mobilized at all.
“Individuals do matter,” he added. During the Cold War, they didn’t.
The allegation that the Finnish government didn’t want to publicize the story is also pretty dubious. If the goal is to update the roster of 900,000 reservists — and tracking their specialties and individual levels of fitness — then making a big deal out of it would get a better response rate.
It apparently worked. “Not many countries would have the human capital or technical capability to send out a personal letter to nearly a million reservists, so its news value was apparent,” Salonius-Pasternak added.
“However, that publicity-messaging value is an additional societal benefit to the operational benefits that the FDF hoped to accrue.”
In other words, it’s a message to Russia that Finland can organize its population into an effective fighting force. The mix of Kremlin propaganda, sabotage and covert operations in Ukraine won’t fly there.
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