A Closer Look at Finnish Foreign Policy

Pekka Haavisto joins Chris Miller for first extended sit-down interview after Finland joined NATO

Last week, His Excellency Pekka Olavi Haavisto, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Finland, provided the keynote address during The Fletcher School’s Commencement exercises. During his visit, he sat down with Associate Professor of International History Chris Miller for a conversation on security, Finnish foreign policy, and the war in Ukraine. This transcript was lightly edited for readability.   

Chris Miller: Minister, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to visit The Fletcher School. I’d like to use our time together to discuss some of the really momentous changes in Finland’s foreign policy and security policy over the last two years. Can you start by describing what has changed in Finland’s thinking about European security?

Pekka Haavisto: Thanks for the opportunity to be here. It’s most interesting to meet with you and the experts here at The Fletcher School to discuss all security aspects, including, of course, what’s happening in Europe and on the border between Finland and Russia. If you look at the security thinking and how it has been developing, Finland of course has been a partner of NATO for a long time already. We’ve had in our security white papers since 2004, if I’m not mistaken, the so-called “NATO option.” We are the only country that had a NATO option. It was formulated in such a way that we stayed outside of NATO, but if something changed in our security environment, we were ready to apply for NATO membership. So that was a conditional issue. People were quite pleased in the arrangement. We had a partnership and cooperation with NATO, but also cooperation in our neighborhood, with Sweden and Norway. 

But since the 24th of February last year, when Russia attacked Ukraine, it caused an immediate change in public opinion and the opinion of politicians. We were thinking that if Russia can break the international rules, UN rules, OSCE rules in such a blatant way, it’s better to seek additional security for Finland. We were thinking it’s not good to do it alone, that we need Sweden on board. And we used last spring not only to prepare our own application for NATO, but also to convince Sweden that it’s time to join together.

When you look at NATO’s response, and also Europe’s response to the war, how would you assess the major successes of that response? And what do you see as the shortcomings of the response so far?

Well of course, the paradox is that when I’m sitting in the EU ministerial meetings with 27 EU countries, we speak about the lethal aid to Ukraine, and when I’m sitting in the NATO ministerial setting, we speak about the non-lethal aid to Ukraine. That of course reminds us that NATO is meant to protect its own member states. That’s the main goal for NATO. That’s of course why Finland and Sweden were seeking membership. But when you speak about the European Union, together with the U.S. and the U.K. and other like-minded countries, we have been channeling huge amounts of lethal aid to Ukraine, including Finland. We have now sent 15 military packages to Ukraine, worth more than one billion euros. This is actually the first time since the Second World War that we are sending weapons to a conflict area. And that was of course decided based on the needs of Ukraine, the need to support Ukraine against this violation by Russia.

Finland has long had a complex relationship with Russia, but also a deep relationship in many ways dictated by geography. How have Finland’s views of Russia changed in the last two years?

Of course we have a long land border with Russia, 800 miles. In our defense arrangements since the Second World War, we have had obligatory military service. We have around 300,000 men and women in our military wartime reserve. We have been taking care of our own defense for years. For example, before the Ukraine war, we had ordered 64 F-35 fighters from the U.S. So, we have been renewing our military capabilities all the time. 

The Ukrainian ambassador in Helsinki asked me one time, “How can you negotiate with somebody with whom you have zero trust?” And I said, well, it’s difficult, but when I think of our history after the Second World War, we negotiated with Russia. We had a peace accord summit, but at the same time, people were hiding arms. Why were they hiding arms? They were hiding arms because they didn’t trust that the violence is over. They were thinking that Russia could still come over the border. Only in time was confidence built after the war. And I think that confidence, of course, maintained throughout the Cold War period. Then of course in 1975, when the OSCE was formed and the Helsinki summit was kept, it was a new end of the Cold War period, with some kind of added, increased cooperation with the Eastern Bloc. But I think that cooperation also included the seeds for new types of civilian movements, movements in the Eastern Bloc and behind the Iron Curtain, wanting more freedoms, more democratic rights, and so forth. We could actually see that when the Berlin Wall collapsed.

Look at the current war, which is different in many ways from the Cold War you’re referencing, but has the same bloc tensions and conflict, and think about the future––no one knows how the war is going to end, but at some point, there will need to be a reckoning with what role Russia plays. How do you think about the longer term, over five or ten or twenty years?

Well, I would pose to you the same question. But first thing, how do I see it. 

There can be many kinds of scenarios. One scenario is some kind of ceasefire scenario. One scenario is a frozen conflict scenario. One scenario, of course, is that we will see some post-Putin forces in Russia, that somehow internally, Russia will change. 

But I think in all these scenarios, to strengthen the defense of Ukraine is very important. I know that one of the topics in the coming Vilnius Summit, the NATO Summit in July, will be the added support to Ukraine and what kind of relationship to NATO Ukraine will have. But I think in all scenarios, we need to build the defense of Ukraine stronger to resist any new reactions from Russia or any new hostile action from Russia against Ukraine.

I guess that could be one lesson from Finland’s own history, a country that fought a war with Russia as the Soviet Union, and then had to live next to Russia for decades after that. Are there other lessons from Finland’s experience that are relevant to Ukraine?

Well of course, when talking to Ukrainians, they refer very often to our Winter War and refer often to our leader, Marshal Mannerheim. Of course, we have to remember that after the war comes the peace. We made a peace agreement. It was very difficult, it’s not easy, as we always know. 

One issue that surprised many of our Western European partners, as they have been taking care of civilian defense and protection after the Second World War, is that we are one of the only countries that will still systematically build bomb shelters in cities and so forth. Now actually, some of our European allies come to Helsinki and say, “Oh, you have a bomb shelter here, and you are building new bomb shelters. Why?” Well, we got used to it, and we are looking at all kinds of negative scenarios. 

I think we are peace-loving people. We want to live in peace. But of course, based on history, we are always preparing for the worst.

When you look at the European response overall, there’s obviously been the NATO response that you’ve discussed. Also at the European level, you mentioned Europe’s lethal aid to Ukraine. Right now, within the European Union, there’s a debate about strategic autonomy as one framework for European foreign policy. There’s pros and cons of that approach that are advocated by different member states. How do you see the European debate about Europe’s foreign policy as having been impacted by the war?

First of all, I have to say that I’m very proud to be European at this moment. I’ve seen the unity of the European Union in responding to the Russian aggressor. First, we have been taking refugees from Ukraine, big amounts. We have been supporting Ukraine monetarily through humanitarian aid. We have been supporting the reconstruction of the country, and we are supporting lethal aid to the Ukrainian military. I think these have been very comprehensive aid packages, and the European Union has been very united on those issues. 

When looking towards the future for lessons learned about strategic autonomy, for example, I think of course about the war and Russian aggression against Ukraine. But even previously, the COVID-19 period triggered a lot of this kind of debate about strategic autonomy. Were we too dependent on China, for example, with the medicines or protective equipment and so forth, during the COVID time? 

It’s interesting that while strategic autonomy has been historically used to describe U.S.-Europe relations, now we speak with the same words about China-Europe, or about our earlier dependency on Russian oil and gas, and so forth. So, I think we have learned a big lesson here. 

I would make a big differentiation between the relationship between China-Europe, where we have to maybe cut some of those dependencies on critical issues that we’ve had with China, and then on the other hand, we have to manage our future with our own forces vis-à-vis the United States. Of course, the historic connections, the transatlantic connections, are valuable for Europe. And we have seen, for example, in the case of Ukraine, that without the support of the U.S., Ukraine could not have resisted what’s happening. We needed both U.S. support and European support.

We’ve heard a lot over the past 15 months about Europe putting more money into defense budgets, Germany most prominently, but other countries as well. Do you see this as a turning point in European defense efforts? Or do you worry that some of the pronouncements made last year might actually be difficult to implement in certain countries?

Well, of course, there are differences. When we agree on 2% of GDP, we hear some countries facing difficulties, not only in Europe. I was listening to the Canadian Prime Minister on this topic. So, it’s a challenge in many, many ways. But I think that countries have learned their lesson on defense budgets. 

Of course, what concerns me very much is the whole situation with multilateralism in these circumstances, because we have a U.N. where the Security Council is paralyzed, due to the actions of Russia and China in preventing relevant decisions by the Security Council. The moral authority has now been taken by the General Assembly, taking more than 140 votes against Russian aggression. But of course, we see that the United Nations cannot act in this moment. We also see some countries sitting on the fence, so to speak, and some countries voting in favor of Russia. 

In the European context, we have the OSCE organization established in 1975 in Helsinki. In 2025, Finland will be chair again, and we were thinking that it could somehow renew the spirit of Helsinki. But now that we have a war in Europe, unfortunately, we have a situation where the multilateral force that we have in Europe is not functional. It’s a pity, because the OSCE was often referred to in other continents, with others saying that they would like to achieve what we have achieved in Europe. Unfortunately, it’s in ruins at the moment.

You mentioned some of the countries that are fence sitting. China might be one example of a fence sitter. On the one hand, they are being rhetorically supportive of Russia in certain ways, on the other hand, they are not actively supplying lethal aid. How do you assess China’s role in the conflict thus far?

I think it’s very interesting, of course, where China stands. I think China definitely has common interests with Russia, for example a wish to live in a multipolar world not dominated by the U.S. or Western countries. So, China definitely has an interest to support Russia and Russia’s role along with their own role in the world. But I would also say that China has difficulties with the issues of protecting sovereignty and protecting existing borders, which have been violated in in Ukraine. They might think that Ukraine is their own country and think of the future of international principles there. 

I noticed that when the Chinese peace proposal, or however you want to call it, came out, it was criticized in the West. But the Ukrainian reaction was quite interesting, because it suggested, “Let’s talk, let’s get engaged with China, and let’s look what’s in it.” Since President Zelenskyy has had his own 10-point peace plan, the question to China is, “Why don’t you join our peace plan? What is the difference between your peace plan our peace plan?”

I think it’s a good strategy to keep China busy helping with a peaceful solution. In this case, whether it will maintain that is difficult to say, but I think it’s a good try.

One of the challenges in Western relations with China during the war has been the question of economic sanctions, with China not joining the sanctions and certain Chinese companies following certain sanctions but not others. How do you assess the success or the efficacy of Western sanctions so far?

Well, we have actually just seen on TV the Russian Minister of Finances warning President Putin that things are not going well. This of course reflects the fact that sanctions are influencing the Russian economy. But what we are quite concerned about after ten sanction packages by the European Union, with the eleventh in preparation, is that the circumvention of the sanctions is so easy. We have seen alternative routes for money and goods and so forth reaching Russia, and we really have to block those routes. We have to be effective on the circumvention. Also, of course, we must harmonize the sanctions in a transatlantic way, have the U.K. on board, and probably have other G7 countries on board. I think the G7 plays an important role in this.

Presumably that also involves putting pressure on countries that have become routes for sanctions diversion, whether that’s Turkey or countries in Central Asia. What are the tools that Europe or the G7 have to try to stop this type of diversion?

I think that on some sanctions issues, there is certainly influence that can be used with these countries. Just pinpointing it and saying openly that one of the rules is there adds pressure. This is what we are doing both openly and silently with some of these countries. 

Of course, we will at the same time try to influence those countries that are still sitting on the fence and not knowing how to vote on big, bold things in the U.N. and so forth. I think this engagement with Latin America, with African countries, and with certain Asian countries at this moment is very, very important. At least from the Finnish side, we have done diplomacy, visiting Senegal, visiting Kenya, visiting Somalia. Our president went to South Africa and Namibia to explain our point of view on what Russia is doing and what our expectations are from our partners in the Global South.

You mentioned the votes at the U.N. condemning Russia’s invasion. On the other hand though, there’s been a lot of countries that have equivocated, as you’ve alluded to. How do you explain the fact that in the West, in Europe, and in a small number of Asian allies, there’s a real focus on Russia as the aggressor, but in a lot of the Global South, there’s a much less willingness to condemn Russia? There’s a sense that the war doesn’t have as clear of a moral valence, a good side and a bad side, as many leaders in the West think.

Of course in many countries, there’s dependencies on Russia, on China, and so forth. These dependencies might affect that sort of thing. 

We had an excellent meeting, a Nordic-Africa ministerial meeting last summer in Helsinki. We had 20 African foreign ministers and five Nordic ministers together. These were our traditional partners in Africa, on development and so forth. I remember very clearly the moment when we expressed to the South African minister, “You had the Nordic countries against apartheid. We were fighting with you against colonialism in Africa. How come you don’t recognize at this moment that Russian aggression against Ukraine is a new type of imperialism, violating the very principles that we all share in the U.N. context?” It was an extremely open, extremely blunt discussion, and I think we need that kind of debate more.

It’s interesting to put that discussion next to an alternative discussion that’s present in the Global South, arguing that the West is a hegemonic, even imperialistic power, the one that needs to be pushed back against. It’s fascinating to watch that debate play out, in the General Assembly for example.

I was in one of those conferences in the Arab countries, when we discussed the issue that it is only Western or European interests at stake in this moment. 

I said, “When Iraq occupied Kuwait 1990, immediately after the occupation of Kuwait, the delegation came to Helsinki, met us in the Parliament, and told us that their country has been occupied by their neighbor against the U.N. Charter and needs help based on Article 51. And then a coalition of the willing was formed to help Kuwait get the Iraqi invasion out of their country. So, we didn’t react only on European issues. We have been reacting also to things that happen in the Arab countries.”

I could see that that argument was taken and understood quite well.

Turning back to Russia, one of the striking things about the war thus far has been that at least a big chunk of the population in Russia has been actively supportive. It’s hard to know, because of the repression domestically, but certainly a lot of people have been taken up by nationalism, believing that Ukraine doesn’t have sovereignty. What hope do you have that over the coming years the view in Russia can be changed? Or are we setting ourselves up for what’s likely to be a longer-term period of antagonism or confrontation with Russia that is going to be difficult to unwind? Because the Russian populace thinks the war is a good idea.

Of course, particularly among the diaspora who have left Russia, there are strong opinions on this issue. I met with Garry Kasparov and others who are extremely critical of the current leadership in Russia. But I think the biggest optimism arises when you see people inside the country expressing their opinions. I have been following the singer Alla Pugacheva, the rock band DDT, Yuri Shevchuk, and so forth who are openly inside the country actually criticizing what is going on. 

But you’re definitely right, that general feeling is that there is a patriotic feeling or nationalistic feeling  going on. Of course, I remember very well when the Baltic countries got their independence, or took their independence back. Some of my liberal friends in St. Petersburg said, “Okay, the Baltic states were never actually part of Russia, really. But Crimea has always been ours.” There are a lot of emotional feelings around Crimea. It’s probably easy to raise these nationalistic feelings at this moment.

I think one of the striking takeaways is the continued relevance of nationalism. In an era when many people thought that transnational or liberal ideas were beginning to play a larger role in politics, the war has actually illustrated that that’s not always the case.

Well, I think unfortunately we also see the same waves in the Western Hemisphere, in Western Europe, even in the U.S., where these kind of nationalistic or ultra-patriotic tendencies are used. Sometimes populistic tendencies are used to raise the wrong type of nationalism. This the very same phenomenon that we are following in in Russia. I don’t see any difference.

Finland might be example of the right type of nationalism: patriotism, a willingness to defend one’s country. Can you talk about how Finland has maintained its really extraordinary cohesion, in spite of a very difficult geopolitical environment?

Finns are very security-oriented people, and I notice that at the same time, we stay very calm and do not accelerate issues, do not do things out of hatred, or anything like that. I think ordinary Finns see that Russians are human beings like us. There’s not a big difference. But their leadership is making big mistakes. So, we don’t hate ordinary people. We accept that they are not the decision-makers at this stage. But the leadership has made very dramatic wrong decisions with Ukraine, and we have to resist that. 

There’s a kind of feeling that we will take care of our security in all circumstances. So when we joined NATO, there’s now a question of if we will have NATO troops in Finland or NATO bases in Finland. We say no, we are our own first line of defense. Then if we need help, NATO is there to help. That’s our attitude.

When you look at Russia’s response to your joining of NATO, on one hand, Russia has been very critical of many other countries joining NATO over the past 30 years. On the other hand, it seems to me that Russia’s response when you finally joined was pretty minimal.

Well yes, I think the immediate reaction was minimal. Of course, we considered all kinds of negative scenarios when we decided to apply for NATO membership. We have to count what will happen if there is any harassment in our airspace, our maritime areas, or even our land areas, hybrid threats, cyber threats. We had had to calculate all kinds of possibilities. It’s true that there was not any raising of incidents. But of course, the relationship is not good. 

We have still our diplomatic representatives in Moscow and in St. Petersburg. Russia has the embassy in in Helsinki, and so forth. Of course, we don’t actually communicate now on the higher political level, not on the President’s level, not on the Foreign Minister or Prime Minister level. But some of our staff, of course, is communicating with Russia on the border, guarding the border and so forth. We want to keep the border peaceful. The border is still open, by the way, to people who work in Finland and have a work permit, to people from Russia who study in Finland, to relatives who visit each other, and so forth. So, the border is not closed.

One of the interesting facets of Russia’s rhetoric about the war is that if you listen to Russian political leaders or watch TV, you’ll hear that Russia is at war with NATO. That’s how Russia is describing it. But when you actually look at the actions Russia has taken over the past 15 months, it’s been solely focused on Ukraine. Despite predictions of cyber attacks or hybrid activities, there hasn’t been a lot of that. How do you explain this?

My feeling is that that’s the strength of NATO. Russia knows that if they move in that direction, if they take NATO or any NATO country as an enemy, the whole of NATO will respond. That is, of course, a totally different scale of response from what’s coming now. So, we have chosen a strategy to try to keep the borders peaceful, but at the same time, support Ukraine as much as we can.

Minister, thank you so much for taking the time for this conversation. It’s a delight to host you at The Fletcher School.

Thank you. It’s my pleasure, and I welcome you to visit Helsinki.

(This post is republished from The Fletcher School.)

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