HELSINKI: Although Finland has a strong military, including a conscript army and 300,000 male and female reservists, the Nordic nation feels safer now that it is part of NATO, Pekka Haavisto, its minister for foreign affairs, told Arab News.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 set off a chain of events that culminated in Finland becoming the 31st member of the Western military alliance on April 4, more than doubling the length of the Russian Federation’s border with NATO.
“In case we are attacked at any day now, we are safer when we can also get NATO support at any moment,” Haavisto said during an interview in Helsinki, which covered issues ranging from the war in Ukraine to crises in the Horn of Africa and his own country’s prominent role as a champion of sustainable development.
In response to Finland’s move, Russian officials issued thinly veiled threats against the country, which until last year maintained a policy of military nonalignment. The Kremlin called the NATO accession “an encroachment on our security and on Russia’s national interests” that would force Russia to “take countermeasures.”
Haavisto, who last month formally handed Finland’s NATO accession document to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Brussels, called the possibility that Russia would launch an attack on Finland “unpredictable.”
“What we are afraid of, of course, is that Russia can make other miscalculations in Europe, and we don’t want to be part of any miscalculation,” he said.
Haavisto clarified that Finland had had “the NATO option” since 2004, which meant that while the country was outside the organization, any event that caused concern could lead it to apply for membership.
“(But) our estimation of our situation and our security situation changed,” he said, alluding to the Ukraine invasion. “We decided that together with Sweden, we will apply for NATO membership because of our own security.
“We will not threaten anyone. We are not currently threatened. But, of course, when you saw a war in Europe, you could always imagine what an escalation of war could mean in Europe.”
While Finland and Sweden both applied for NATO membership on July 5 last year, their accessions to the alliance were stalled for months. For a country to join NATO, all existing members must ratify the accession, and in the case of Sweden and Finland, Turkiye and Hungary initially refused to do so.
In particular, Turkiye made several demands of Sweden and Finland, including the extradition of several individuals that its claims are terrorists and the lifting of arms embargoes imposed on Ankara after it sent its forces into northern Syria in 2019.
As part of the negotiations, Sweden announced that it would allow arms exports to Turkiye again and pass stronger anti-terrorism laws. Finland followed suit in January.
Although Turkiye eventually ratified Finland’s accession, the Swedish bid is still on the table.
“There are good chances that prior to the NATO summit in July in Vilnius, Sweden will be approved as a NATO member,” Haavisto said.
With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan winning re-election for another five-year term, Haavisto is closely following several foreign policy issues related to Turkiye in addition to the Swedish application for NATO membership.
He cited the importance of Turkiye-Syria relations, saying that “the fate of Turkey and Syria is very interlinked” and called for “a peaceful path” to a political solution in Syria.
He also called for a solution to tensions between Greece and Turkiye in the Eastern Mediterranean, citing the territorial dispute that has divided the island since 1974 as an example.
Another file Haavisto is following closely is the crisis unfolding in Sudan. He believes the ongoing conflict must not distract the international community from the goal of transferring political power ultimately to the Sudanese people.
“It’s very important that the future of Sudan is based on the civilian components,” said Haavisto, who previously served as a high-level EU envoy to conflict-prone areas of Africa.
On Monday, representatives of the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, and Rapid Support Forces, led by Mohamed “Hemedti” Dagalo — the two factions locked in combat since April 15 — agreed to a five-day extension of an existing ceasefire and humanitarian arrangements brokered by Saudi Arabia and the US following talks in Jeddah.
“We are very grateful to Saudi Arabia for giving a platform for Al-Burhan and Hemedti’s military representatives to negotiate all these issues. (What is really needed now) are peace initiatives,” Haavisto said.
Having previously supported efforts to end the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray as the EU’s special envoy to that country, Haavisto’s ministry is closely monitoring the Sudan crisis, which has engulfed the capital Khartoum and other states.
An unfortunate fallout of the armed conflict, he said, was that “the perspective that everything was about transforming the power in Sudan from the military to the civilians has been lost. And unfortunately, the (former) prime minister, (Abdalla) Hamdok, was sidelined.”
Hamdok, who was appointed prime minister during Sudan’s transition to a civilian-led government in 2019, was ousted during a military coup in October 2021. Although he was restored as prime minister a month later amid growing public outrage toward the military, he resigned in January 2022.
Haavisto said he was in touch with Hamdok and a number of individuals and civil society groups in Sudan. “We hope, of course, that (the current ceasefire) will be continued until the future, and those who are taking up arms will lay them down as soon as possible,” he said.
During a visit to Riyadh in April 2021 for discussions with Saudi officials while on his way to Ethiopia amid the Tigray war, Haavisto told Arab News it was important that the EU worked with Saudi Arabia in view of the Kingdom’s “good relations with all parties in the whole of Africa.”
“International cooperation … is very important,” he said at the time, citing, presciently, the risks of another conflict in a part of Africa where disputes were rife.
Now, more than a month into the Sudan conflict, Finland wholeheartedly supports Saudi and American efforts to broker a long-lasting ceasefire and peace deal between the feuding factions.
As Haavisto sees it, the war in Sudan is a complex challenge that will require the participation of many actors and the implementation of long-term plans. The strong links between Sudan’s military and economy, especially during the rule of dictator Omar Al-Bashir in the 1990s and 2000s, created serious problems for the country.
“Now I’m seeing that the same problem remains both with Al-Burhan and Hemedti — that economic and military interests are connected. And this, of course, is also something that is an obstacle for Sudan to develop its economy on a free basis, as a free-market economy, in the future. And, unfortunately, (this factor) is probably slowing the economic growth of Sudan as well.”
Concerns about regional and international conflicts have neither stopped nor slowed Finland’s drive to become a global environmental leader. Helsinki is currently hosting the World Circular Economy Forum 2023, which aims to create a new “green” economy and more jobs by taking advantage of circular economy solutions in line with the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals.
“This circular economy meeting that takes place in Helsinki, of course, is part of our policy to support the circular economy, not only in our own country, but worldwide,” said Haavisto, who is a veteran of Finland’s Green League party and a former minister of the environment.
“Recycled materials have huge energy-saving and renewable energy forms … For example, there has been a huge wind power investment now to Finland, and wind power is becoming a more and more important source of energy for us.”
Finland has some of the highest energy consumption per capita in the EU and is one of the only countries in the world that still uses peat as an energy source, so it has plenty of motivation to increase its use of renewables.
So far, the country has made good on a number of its promises: Over the past seven years, the number of operational wind turbines in the country increased from 552 to 1,266, according to the Finnish Wind Power Association. Last year, Finland passed the Climate Change Act, which set 2035 as the target for the country to go carbon neutral, with carbon-negative goals set for 2040.
“We see a lot of potential in both wind and solar power globally,” Haavisto said, adding that Finland was eager to demonstrate new technologies and inventions for energy efficiency at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai.
“We can combine economic growth with a good environment, and a safe environment. I think that’s our key message from Finland.”