Finnish President Sauli Niinistö: "The End of the Era of Finnish Non-Alignment"

Sauli Niinistö
Sauli Niinistö. (Photo: Juhani Kandell/Office of the President of the Republic of Finland)

Finnish President Sauli Niinostö draws lines to the Winter War in Finland, comparing the Soviet Union´s invasion to the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine, in his speech for the new year. All the while looking into the future as his country takes a historic turn and joins NATO. An act that will end the era of Finnish military non-alignment.

The war in Ukraine and Finland's upcoming NATO membership dominated Finnish President Sauli Niinistö's New Year speech Sunday. Being the neighbor to an aggressive country is not something he takes lightly.

“We are now living in a time filled with worries. We have already – decade after decade – become accustomed to things always getting better. Or at least to constantly have more and more of everything. Us Finns, we ended up becoming the happiest nation in the world. Without us even really noticing it ourselves,” said Niinistö.

Then the past year suddenly took the Nordic nation back to the past.

“To something that, generation by generation, we had begun to consider increasingly distant, and almost impossible in its irrationality. The horrors of a major war returned to Europe,” said the President, thinking back to when Finland’s eastern neighbor invaded in 1939.

Grave mistake

Niinistö said that Russia had made a grave mistake if it believed that Ukraine would be defeated quickly.

Stalin and Putin failed to recognize a key factor.

"One cannot avoid thinking about the similarities the situation has with our Winter War when the Soviet Union assumed that they would march into Helsinki within two weeks."

He said that Stalin and Putin, as leaders of a country under authoritarian rule, failed to recognize a key factor.

“The fact that people living in a free country have their own will and convictions. And that a nation that works together constitutes an immense force”, said the President.

Conflict is near

Still, he asks himself how this could happen, looking back.

“How did we come to believe that it is impossible for something to happen, that then actually happened? Since, in reality, it has been going on all the time. There has been plenty of cruelty around the world. Perhaps we – in Finland, the Nordic Countries, Europe, and the West in general – have just wanted to lull ourselves into thinking that cruelty will not reach us."

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Now, he says, the conflict is very near to Finland.

“It forces us to learn that not everyone is willing to adopt our model, the kind of behavior we consider right. It forces us to learn how to respond to other kinds of models and behavior. At worst, to authoritarian and aggressive ones.”

Among the best

When it comes to preparing oneself against external threats, Finland may, after all, have less things to correct or apologize for than many others, Niinistö noted.

But it is time to tighten the ropes and fasten any loose ends.

“Our readiness and our capabilities are, at least in proportion to our size, among the best in Europe. This work will continue. However, it is high time to wake up to internal security as well. Finland is an open and tolerant country. In this kind of thinking we may have gone further than other Nordic countries, maybe even further than the whole world", said the Finnish President.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyi at JEF meeting
Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelenskyi brought his greetings to the Joint Expeditionary Force meeting in Latvia mid December 2022. (Photo: Riikka Hietajärvi/Office of the President of the Republic of Finland)
Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelenskyi brought his greetings to the Joint Expeditionary Force meeting in Latvia mid December 2022. (Photo: Riikka Hietajärvi/Office of the President of the Republic of Finland)

He adds that being the most tolerant of all also has its pitfalls.

"Namely, evil is good at finding the one that is the most lenient of all. In the Nordic countries, the direction is now towards strengthening public order and the safety of individuals.”

Non-aligned no more

And the President speaks, the Finnish foreign and security policy is facing a historic turn.

“What we could only anticipate a year ago became reality in the spring. We applied for accession to NATO after a rapid but thorough process.”

He says that the Russian demands for a sphere of interest and then the invasion of Ukraine, surely touched every Finn.

That will end the era of Finnish military non-alignment.

“It generated a spirit and a conviction: We cannot continue along our traditional path any further. The strong popular opinion was reflected both on the co-operation between the President of the Republic and the Government, and on the decisions made by Parliament and the parties.”

And the decision was broadly anchored in the Finnish society.

The end of an era

Now, Finland finds itself in a situation where it still lack the ratification of two countries.

“It is possible that the delay will extend beyond the parliamentary elections this spring. This possibility was already referred to in the discussions last spring. It is, naturally, in the hands of the Parliament in office whether they want to decide on the proposal on accession to NATO on our part already before the elections.”

Still, the President chooses to believe that Finlands accession will become reality in the course of this year.

“That will end the era of Finnish military non-alignment.”

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Finnish "sisu"

But even inside NATO, Finland will bear the main responsibility for defending its own territory.

“But that will happen as part of a military alliance. Others provide security for us; we provide security for others. Our membership will also strengthen the deterrence of NATO as a whole. At the same time, the threshold of threatening Finland with the use of force will become even higher than before.”

Sauli Niinistö calls this a major change in how to safeguard Finland's security.

“However, there is continuity in our foreign policy: Finland has a stable and established line of policy as a member of the EU and as one of the Nordic countries. The rest of the world knows Finland as a competent and trustworthy country that acts in a predictable manner. This kind of reputation is worth holding on to in the future as well.”

In the end, Niinistö put his trust in his people's “sisu”; the combination of willpower and perseverance.

“That is how we have overcome difficulties in the past, too. That provides the foundation for a Finland that trusts in itself.”