By Sigurd Neubauer
Finnish Ambassador to NATO Klaus Korhonen discusses what’s next for Helsinki’s NATO accession process; Russia and Ukraine, as well as arms control and disarmament.
Finland, the land of the thousand lakes, stands firmly with Ukraine. “It needs our continued solidarity, nothing is more important, and we need to support it with all means possible,” says Finnish Ambassador to NATO Klaus Korhonen in an exclusive interview.
Finland’s 1,340 km (832-mile) border with Russia is the longest of any European Union member.
Russia has twice invaded Finland in the 20th century, which guides Helsinki’s long-standing commitment to maintaining a strong and robust military. In fact, a total of 900,000 Finnish reservists can be mobilized at any given moment while Helsinki remains on high alert.
Only weeks prior Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which started on February 24, 2022, Finland finalized its decision to join the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program by committing to purchase 64 F-35A fighter jets.
While Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens Europe and the Nordic countries in particular, the ambassador, who chooses his words deliberately – and of course, diplomatically – reveals that Helsinki does not see any “irregular activity” from Moscow whether they are hybrid or cyber.
Neither has the country experienced any spillover from Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“We have not seen any direct military threat against Finland, either before or after the war started. What has changed is the European context between all of Europe and Russia. In practical terms, Russia has concentrated its military assets in the Black Sea region and not in the Northern and Baltic regions,” Korhonen says.
The Russian threat, however, is measured in political terms as “our security environment has changed dramatically because of Moscow’s direct aggression against one of its neighbors, which is a problem for all of us.”
While Finland has over the past several years faced cyber-attacks by Russia, since the war in Ukraine started, “have not seen any major events compared to previous times,” the ambassador explains.
Military exchanges between the two neighbors have been suspended because of Ukraine, the ambassador adds.
“We have functioning technical communications, and regular contact between the border guards from both sides because we continue to have traffic between Russia and Finland. It is important that we have this direct contact with the border guard authorities,” he asserts.
Military exchanges between Finland and Russia have been suspended because of the war in Ukraine
At the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain, which took place on June 28-30, Finland, along with its neighbor Sweden, moved closer to formally joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization following initial reservations from Turkey. The three countries reached an agreement brokered by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, which included Helsinki and Stockholm’s recognition of Ankara’s “legitimate security concerns,” Stoltenberg announced in a statement at the time.
Finland and Sweden are applying for NATO membership jointly.
Six months later, 28 out of 30 NATO members have ratified the Finish and Swedish accession agreements in their national parliaments, respectively, but Hungary and Turkey are still holding out. In fact, during the day of our interview, Finnish Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen was in Ankara for talks with Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar, Korhonen points out.
On what’s next for Finland, Korhonen explains that “this has been an accession process that usually takes many years, but it has instead been condensed into a few months even though the Alliance’s membership of 30 is much higher than during previous accession processes,” a reference he’s making to when the Baltic states joined in 2004.
“Our preparations are already ongoing, but Turkey and Hungary are the two only countries not to have ratified.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, whose nationalist policies are at times at odds with the European Union, has also staked out a high-risk foreign policy by balancing between the EU, Russia and even China.
While analysts can only speculate why Hungary has not yet ratified Finland’s NATO accession, Korhonen responds by referring to Hungarian public statements which had initially committed to having its Parliament doing so by mid-December.
“It will likely have to wait until early January next year. Hungary’s explanation was that Parliament had a ‘heavy workload,’ but at the end of the day,” the ambassador explains, he’s nonetheless optimistic that Hungary and Turkey will ultimately ratify it.
“No country in NATO history has blocked any aspiring member(s) from joining even though in the past there have been different schedules for the process.”
On what’s next for Turkey, which has signed a trilateral Memorandum of Understanding with Finland and Sweden, Korhonen explains that there has been a follow up process to review the understandings reached in Madrid.
“Senior officials from the three countries have engaged in both trilateral and bilateral processes, and there have been technical discussions as well.
Finland, most analysts believe, became a collateral due to long-standing Turkish-Swedish tensions over the Kurdish issue as Helsinki and Stockholm made the strategic decision to apply for NATO membership together.
In reference to the delays Helsinki’s ratification processes faces, the ambassadors explains that “when the three countries agreed to sign the MoU, there was no statement about its schedule. The invitation to join the alliance was made by all members – as required – at the NATO Summit in Madrid.
“The next day, alliance member heads of states issued a political invitation to Finland and Sweden to join. Then NATO ambassadors subsequently signed the accession protocols.
Citing official Turkish statements, Korhonen says that Ankara wants to ensure that the MoU’s provisions are fulfilled. The ambassador also prefaces that the atmosphere of all of the MoU related meetings that he’s participated in “have always been very constructive.”
He does, however, sidestep the question as to when it can be expected that the Turkish Parliament will ratify Helsinki’s ratification and whether or not it will take place before the upcoming Turkish elections.
Turkey’s presidential elections will take place on June 18, 2023. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ruled Turkey for over two decades, first as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014, and from 2014 and onwards as President. Analysts consider the upcoming elections to be a de-facto referendum on Erdogan’s legacy.
No military doctrine exists for Nordic security. Yet, a political document entitled Vision 2025, which was based on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), was adopted in 2019 by the defense ministers of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland.
“We have been more active over the past several years, especially when it comes to defense cooperation between Finland and Sweden. Now, that NATO membership is underway, a historic opportunity exists to remove traditional barriers primarily related to Finland and Sweden not being alliance members,” according to Korhonen.
Once Finland and Sweden are admitted, all Nordic countries will be under the NATO umbrella.
“We will all be allies. There will be good discussions about NATO cooperation. We will make use of this opportunity,” the ambassador prefaces without going into details but clarifies that “he does not foresee a Nordic caucus within NATO.”
There are also good prospects for cooperation outside of the Nordic region, he adds.
Poland and Germany play important role, especially in the Baltic Sea. The High North, which is primarily off the coast of Norway, along with the Baltic Sea, are two important regions for Nordic security, Korhonen explains. “Poland and Germany contribute to our security. The question of Finland and Sweden, together with NATO, will be responsible for the security in the Baltic Sea,” he adds.
Arms control versus disarmament
Prior to his appointment in Brussels, which he assumed in 2019, Korhonen served as ambassador for Arms Control.
“I think we should differentiate between arms control and disarmament. Progress in disarmament on the regional and international level is currently unlikely because of political tensions and lack of confidence,” the ambassador explains.
What is, however, possible, he insists, is arms control particularly of strategic weapons even though tensions between Washington, Moscow and Beijing are at an all-time high and so is distrust.
On what it takes to build trust between the U.S., Russia, and China, Korhonen prefaces that each of the three countries are in different positions in respect to their strategic weapons.
But for now, it’s all about Ukraine.
“It is difficult to see Moscow speak to its commitment on arms control issues right now, but I think the most important thing is for diplomacy to continue even if the prospects for progress are limited. It is very important to understand each other’s narratives. Military leaders should also maintain contact to avoid mistakes and misinterpretations so that dangerous mistakes can be avoided.”
Korhonen, naturally, responds cautiously about what a diplomatic process to end the war in Ukraine would entail.
“Nobody wants peace more than Ukraine, and it is suffering from Russia’s aggression.” But what the terms and conditions to start the discussions are, Korhonen says, will be up to Ukraine. “Ukraine is insisting on preserving sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the ambassador explains but quips: “there are no signs yet that Russia is about to respect that.”