President of the Republic of Finland Alexander Stubb held a speech at Brussels on 10 April 2024. Photo: Juhani Kandell/Office of the President of the Republic of Finland

Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Alexander Stubb in Brussels on 10 April 2024

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Defence and security are areas which require long term planning. But sometimes things don’t go as planned. That’s probably how most of us felt on 24 February 2022 when Russia launched its attack on Ukraine. We realised – the hard way –- that history did not end. Not even in Europe.

We had not planned for it, nor were we fully prepared. And to be blatantly honest, was it not for the heroic efforts of the Ukrainian army and people, I fear that we in Europe and North America would have been as weak in our response as we were in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia or in 2014 when it annexed the Crimean Peninsula and first attacked the Donbas region.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Kyiv for the first time in my capacity as President of Finland. I visited the Antonov airport in Hostomel. The battle over it proved to be a turning point in the early stages of the war. When I lay a wreath at the Wall of Memory of Defenders of Ukraine, I could but think of what would have happened if President Zelenskyy had asked for a ride rather than ammunition.

After my discussions with President Zelenskyy I became more convinced than ever that we must continue to support Ukraine. We must do it with increasing vigor. And we must do it for as long as it takes. We are now two years into the war and as with any armed conflict, things keep on changing both on the ground, and between our ears. In Kyiv I sensed a continued commitment and determination to fight. 

When I bid farewell to Zelenskyy I told him that he will win this war. He told me – “We will, we do not have a choice”. We, on the other hand, have a choice. We can either choose to help Ukraine, or fall into the oblivion of history by letting Russia once again fulfill its imperialist ambitions by swallowing another independent nation state against all international rules and agreements. Ukraine needs ammunition, weapons and vehicles, and it needs them now. Our job is to provide them. Now. We must do it for Ukraine, but also for ourselves. The future of the international order and our own security are at stake.

Another part of this support is to make sure that our defence forces are modernized for the realities of a Europe where the idealism of the post-Cold War era is but a memory of the past. Basically that we are not caught off guard, as we were in 2022. We have to understand that a new Iron Curtain has been drawn in Europe. On one side of it we have authoritarian Russia and Belarus. On the other we have over 40 European democracies who respect international rules. 

This speech is the first in a trilogy of speeches covering foreign, security and defence policy after the post-Cold War era. Today I will focus on defence because it is the most acute and concrete of the three. I will do so by giving my two cents through three points – Finland and defence, NATO and defence, and the EU and defence. 

My thesis is that defence is never binary, either or. For me it is all of the above. In other words, Finland’s national defence feeds into the collective defence of our allies in NATO, and both are connected to the defence dimension of the EU and its overall role.

1. Finland and defence

You might recall that Finland was a neutral country during the Cold War. We did not have a choice because our foreign and security policy was defined by the reality of living next to an imperialistic and expansionist neighbour. And for the record, I don’t mean Sweden or Norway…

When the Cold War ended, we immediately sought refuge and cooperation in the European Union, where many of us felt we had belonged, at least mentally, for decades. It became evident that joining NATO simultaneously would have been a step too far, for both the political elite and the public. Had NATO membership been put into a referendum in 1994, the result would have been negative.

To make sure that Finland’s defence would remain credible, two key decisions were made. The first was to build international defence cooperation, to make sure that we would be as interoperable as possible, also in case we would seek NATO membership at some stage. Purchasing 64 FA-18 fighter jets from the US in the early 1990’s became a key decision in integrating us more closely with the US on defence. Participation in crisis management – such as NATO’s KFOR and ISAF operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan – was a major driver of interoperability.

The second was about continuing to focus on our national defence. This meant, among other things, maintaining our conscription system. The system forms a strong basis for the population’s willingness and capability to defend their home country, if needed.

For us Finns foreign and security policy would always be existential. We understood that Russia would remain a threat – not least because we had been involved in over 30 wars with Russia since the 1300’s.

Against this background, we ended up building and maintaining one of the strongest military forces in Europe. The wartime strength of our defence forces is 280K. In addition, with a population of 5,5 million we have 900K men and women who have completed their military service. As we see in Ukraine, it is not only about platforms, it is also about people. 

But of course, capabilities count. Development of the defence is a continuum, requiring constant attention. During the eurocrisis we dipped into the secondary defence market by buying surplus material including tanks and multiple rocket launchers.

I can’t say these were popular investments at the time. Many see defence expenditure as a zero-sum game with other needs of a functioning welfare state. And, of course, they are right. But we have to keep in mind that without national security, there is no welfare state.

To replace the fighter jets we bought in the 90s, we just purchased 64 F-35’s. We are modernising our Navy with 4 Corvettes. We have one of the largest artilleries in Europe. We have stocks of long range and precision weapon systems for defence in the air, sea and on land.

At the same time our defence has never been built in a vacuum. It has always been about interoperability and international cooperation, whether with our Nordic and Baltic friends, the US, the EU, or Nato. 

We are currently in the process of changing our mindset from what we used to call a “credible and independent defence” to “a strong defence as part of the alliance”. It will take time, but my message to our armed forces and military establishment is clear – national defence and international cooperation go hand in hand. It is not “either or”. It is both. And that will be the approach we take in the coming years as we work on integrating our defence within both NATO and the EU.

In many ways our NATO membership exemplifies this shift. It is a change in our mental framework from a national to a collective approach. This is supported by numbers, I call it our 80-90-90 approach. In other words 80 percent of our population is willing to personally defend Finland, 90 percent supports NATO membership and 90 percent are willing to send our troops to international operations.

2. NATO and Defence

The second theme of the day is NATO and defence. We celebrated our first anniversary as members of the Alliance last week. It might sound that we are new kids on the block, but we have of course been close partners, all but article 5 members, for the past 30 years. Nevertheless, we still have a lot to learn about how to fulfil our role in the alliance. 

We have joined the alliance in the middle of change. We realise the responsibility we have in this transition. You can be sure that we will do our part, and I am not only talking about maintaining 2 % of our GDP for defence expenditure. Finland will be a security provider rather than just a consumer.

Much like with our EU membership, I want to see Finland in the core of NATO. Or to put it differently – we are in the geographic margins of the alliance and therefore we must be in the institutional core. 

We do what we say. Our defence forces are optimized for fighting in the hard conditions in the North. We have a comprehensive security concept to maintain a resilient society. We also have an advanced technological base. T

With the risk of sounding a bit un-Finnish I want to add that in NATO our military capability combined with our geographic location puts us in the “mid-size” country category. We are a big pillar of the defence of North-Eastern Europe.

NATO is a platform of transatlantic co-operation and solidarity. As much as we value the long-standing American commitment to European security, we Europeans must also play our part. Outsourcing security is not a long-term solution.

Together we will be building NATO 3.0. We are taking the alliance back to its roots as a deterrent against Russian aggression. As stated in NATO’s strategic concept, Russia is the most significant and direct threat to our security. This should be the focus in everything we do, including in our defence planning. At the same time, NATO’s approach spans 360 degrees. Finland is ready to play its part in countering threats whatever they are.

As we approach the NATO Summit in Washington in July, it is important that we focus on our core tasks: namely defence and deterrence. They are, and remain, the backbone of article 5, our commitment to collective security.

NATO’s deterrence is rather straightforward. Capability, credibility and communication. Based on an appropriate mix of conventional, missile defence, and nuclear capabilities, complimented by space and cyber capabilities. This is what we need to build on. For each other. Together. 

The posture is defensive, proportionate and fully in line with our international commitments.

You can count on Finland’s strong support to the work of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as we approach our summit.

In Washington we will also stress the importance of supporting Ukraine across the board. For me this means three things – material support for the war, financial support for reconstruction and institutional support towards NATO membership. Let me be clear – Ukraine’s place is as a full member of NATO. Progress towards membership is irreversible.

3. EU and defence

Let me finally turn to EU and defence. One of the main reasons we joined the EU back in 1995 was linked to security. Of course, we felt that our value bond to the Union was strong. And yes, we wanted to benefit from the internal market and the common currency. But for us it was ultimately about security.

That is why we ditched neutrality immediately after the Soviet Union collapsed. And that is why we also wanted to play an integral part in building the EU’s crisis management and defence capabilities, including the mutual assistance clauses that were later written into the treaties.

As with binary thinking between national and international defence there seems to be a rather simplistic view that the EU’s and NATO’s respective work is somehow mutually exclusive.

I would like to see the EU and NATO as a package, or at least two sides of the same coin. After all, 23 out of 27 EU members are also members of NATO. Or looking at the other side of the coin, 9 out of 32 allies are not members of the EU.

The EU’s four basic functions remain peace, security, stability and welfare.

At the same time, the EU has to keep on transforming, not least if it wants to remain relevant and effective. And in many ways that is exactly what the EU and the Ursula von der Leyen Commission have done. The Commission set out to become geopolitical, and it really has.

Sure, some of it has been driven by circumstance, but you have to grab the opportunity when it knocks on the door. And Ursula von der Leyen certainly has, and then some.

Globally, the instruments that were supposed to bring us together can also be used to tear us apart, or used as weapons. Our competitors are adept in using those weapons in innovative ways.

Yet those tools can also be used in an integrated manner by the EU, as many of them are the exclusive competence of the EU – such as trade, competition and currency. They ought to be used in tandem with and, when needed, in support of security and defence policies. Instead of a narrow, siloed approach we must integrate our instruments of power.

All of this talk about duplication between the EU and NATO seem rather old fashioned and at times intellectually lazy. As if there was a clear distinction between hard and soft power. There is not, and on top of that the line between war and peace is more often than not, blurred.

There is plenty for the EU to do in the field of defence. I support many of the initiatives taken by President Emmanuel Macron as well as other leaders and the Commission. We need to begin using the EU toolbox more actively in areas such as financing, industrial policy and space and cyber defences. The European defence industry is currently fragmented and inefficient – nationally oriented, resulting in smaller volumes and different variants.

This means combining purchases, offering financing for defense purposes, leveraging technology and industrial policy and building an EU wide security of supply. All this builds on the EU’s broad toolbox. It is practical and it serves the overall strategy of becoming more capable and responsible actor, and a more credible partner.

More than duplication, I worry about the gaps that exist between national, NATO and EU defences. Our common thread should be integrate, integrate and integrate. Everyone needs to maintain their own defence capabilities. But better integration is needed. In terms of capabilities, NATO should provide priorities. And the EU should play a strong role in developing those capabilities, using funding, technology and industrial policy and its other tools.

More broadly, the EU should continue building its preparedness for the crises of today and tomorrow.

In a crisis, we must work to make sure that there is full situational awareness and coordination between the capitals, the EU and NATO. The strategies must be aligned. Any gaps will be exploited by the adversaries.


So let me finish by outlining the basic tenets of how I see the integration of the defence of Finland, NATO and EU. 

First, the process of the integration of Finland’s defence into NATO is well on its way. We will work together to make it happen. 

Give us a little time, but be assured that the alliance will be stronger for it. We will increase our efforts with our allies across domains – air, sea and land as well as cyber and space -, and we will work with allies to set up a NATO presence and structure in our region best suited for defence purposes. Keep in mind that Finland has doubled NATO’s land border with Russia. We are a frontline state.

Finland is also an arctic country and a Nordic country. The fact that all Nordic countries are in NATO brings a new level of cohesion to our defence.

Second, Finland does not differentiate between NATO and the EU. We understand that the organisations differ and their tasks are different, but they also complement each other in various ways. We want to integrate.

Strategic autonomy is a worthy goal for Europe, especially if it means that we increase our commitment to defence, but must be achieved by cooperating with our partners, including the US. The bilateral relationship between Finland and the US will also remain essential.

Most of the EU is in NATO and that should manifest itself in the alliance. At the same time, the EU has a colossal task in making sure that the defence forces of all of its members are up to par for serving the Union and the continent as a whole and reducing the burden that the United States is carrying of our defence.

Third, Finland will be a reliable partner both in NATO and the EU. We will do our part.

We will keep our commitment outlined in article 3 of the Washington treaty and this includes exceeding 2 % of GDP in defence expenditure. We do that as much for ourselves as for our Allies in NATO and partners in the EU.

In the end, this is about driving a change of mindset throughout Europe. Defence is not something that only the states bordering Russia should care about. We are all threatened and we are all affected.

We must foster a strategic culture, mindful of the fact that everything starts with people. We have to ensure that our populations have the will to defend their country and creed. To do that we must make sure that our countries, our democracies and our ideals are worth fighting for.

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