The Charge d’Affaires of the Finnish Embassy in Kosovo, Johan Schalin, in an exclusive interview with The Geopost spoke about Finland’s membership in NATO and relations with Russia.
Schalin told The Geopost that the issue of Finland’s membership in NATO has been a topic of discussion for 30 years now in Finland, but there has never been so much support.
As for Russia, he said it is now unpredictable.
Below you can find Johan Schalin’s full interview for The Geopost:
What is it like to have a neighbor like Russia? You share a 1,340km border with Russia, and knowing that Russia is trying to extend its influence to other countries (far away), how much has Finland felt the Russian attempts to influence?
Schalin: We have, of course, always been neighbors to Russia, it’s nothing new. It goes hundreds of years back and it has not always been easy. There have been more difficult times at times. And for us the long border is something we’ve learned to live with. Then, of course we are also close neighbors, we have many people to people interaction, we have close infrastructure railways, so we are neighbors.
But also, because of vicinity we have been subject to Russians making themselves their interests known to us. We know that we’re away from the Cold War period, when we experienced a lot of pressure from Russia.
But I must say that this border is probably one of the most normal of Russian borders. They have more problems in other borders.
What it comes today in modern situation of the last years and the last months we are accustomed to hear that Russia has expressed very clearly how they prefer us not to cooperate with NATO. It is not new for this year; we have heard it increasingly during the last ten years also. Of course, we are a sovereign country and we have increased cooperation with NATO over the last years, especially after the Crimea annexation in 2014. Our military has over the years become very compatible with NATO standards and I am not only talking about weapon systems, I am also talking command structures and how we communicate and interact interoperability questions.
Russian influence takes many shapes I think. Now during the last months, we have had problems with our GPS positioning in Eastern Finland, we have had some denial-of-service attacks on our servers and so on. But we have not had a massive influence campaign on Finland, not something that we will see without a lot of changes.
I think it’s also worth remembering that there are many indirect ways of influencing and we do experience that many extremist groups or groups that are not mainstream in Finland who are maybe more suspicious of Finnish authorities or Finnish mainstream media are being influenced by Russian actors, funding and so on.
So, there are signs that groups that have been more critical towards the vaccines of Corona are more critical towards the Western narrative over Ukraine. But on a whole I would say we have not experienced more than expected of influence the last months but we know what the ways of influence are and we are very prepared for them and very capable of dealing with them .
Did Finland think about NATO membership in the past or was it the new situation in Ukraine that made you decide to apply?
Schalin: It’s quite easy to say that we have discussed this in Finland for about 30 years, because it was in the beginning of 90s after the Cold War ended when we applied for the EU membership. Of course, application for EU membership was a big thing for Finland at the time also because we were neighboring with Russia.
And there of course in parallel there started a debate, should we just go with the EU or also for NATO.
But the debate was always more limited in those years, the political leadership thought it was not necessary. We wanted to think that if we work on democratic Russia in the future we have more economic interaction, we could get a stable region just maintaining a credible defence and keeping good relations in all directions and NATO would not be a necessary for that.
But the discussion emerged again and again and when Russia started to invade its neighbors (Georgia in 2008 and so on), every time the debate came up again. But we always had the situation that it was no majority for joining NATO.
Over the years, it has been very stable. One quarter of the population has wanted to join and almost half has been against and maybe a third undecided. So there has never really been the press to take the step. This has changed dramatically from December 21 and 24 of February. I say December, because in December Russia made it clear that they had started to put on us, on all NATO members and their vicinity the wish not to join NATO and they put it very clearly already in December. So then, when our sovereign right to decide this ourselves started to become a new pressure. The population started to think differently and with the attack on Ukraine there was a dramatic switch.
How prepared is Finland in terms of military capacities?
Schalin: We can definitely say that we would be a net contributor to NATO. Our military is built under the circumstances where we had to build a credible defense on our own. So we have an army built on a large reserve. Wartime manpower is 280,000, which is one of the largest in Europe. Our artillery is one of the largest in Europe. And also in terms of NATO standards we are already complying, we have different technology, we have American fighter jets. So we are very prepared.
But your question was how prepared we are to use those weapons and I am not sure which one you meant. Of course, they have been trained and they have been maintained and we have a credible defense so we are not too worried about that part.
Recently, Putin as well as other Russian officials threatened that if Finland joined NATO, there would be consequences. However, in the last telephone conversation that your President Niinisto had with Putin, he stated that this time the conversation was “cool and calm” and that Putin did not threaten as in the past, except of saying that it is “a mistake if Finland joins NATO but we are not threatening you”. Do you expect any reaction from Russia?
Schalin: I think it is a very difficult question to answer because if you learn anything in this crisis is that Russia is not predictable right now. Russia is difficult to predict so we don’t know what to expect. But right now we see no sign of massive campaign against us. We hear different Russian politicians express themselves in an unfortunate way but we are prepared for all eventualities, but we don’t see anything right now coming of that sort.
What they say very clearly, the Russia says that they want to regroup and reposition their weapon systems in reaction to what NATO does. But that is really not something that necessarily has to do with the membership as such and as I said we have a very capable military so we have no immediate needs to station foreign militaries in our territory but it is all something for the future.
Do you have any message for states that are not yet in NATO?
Schalin: I think every country takes their own decisions on their security, so it’s difficult to give advice. Right now, we are much focused in our own path to NATO. I realize we sit in Kosovo during this interview and Kosovo is not a member of NATO. Of course, NATO has an open door policy so if we go in before Kosovo we would be committed to the same open door policy as NATO has collectively decided upon. And I think at some point in the future it could be a choice that Kosovo could make.