Keynote address by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the Helsinki Security Forum, 30 September 2022

Kuvakaappaus: Helsinki Security Forum

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by stating the obvious: the security situation in Europe is dangerous. We all know this. We all know why this is so. But every now and then it is still necessary to stop and think where we have landed. To repeat the facts. So that we don’t grow used to them. So that we don’t begin to think of this as normal.

Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is waging a brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, a sovereign country. It has started a mobilization, however partial that is. It is talking increasingly loosely about the use of nuclear weapons. In outright contempt of international law, it has arranged sham referendums in areas it has occupied from its neighbour. And as President Putin has just declared moments ago, it is using those illegitimate results to claim that these areas are now part of the Russian Federation. Finland, together with the whole EU and our other partners, has firmly condemned these acts.

But yet this is the reality we now live in. A reality that should have been unthinkable in this day and age. A reality for which the people of Ukraine are paying the highest price. In the past weeks, Ukraine has made significant and heroic progress in reclaiming its territory. As welcome as these developments have been, the suffering of Ukraine continues. In lives lost, in traumatic experiences endured, in infrastructure destroyed. And unfortunately, the end of this war is nowhere in sight.

Finland has been steadfast in its support to Ukraine ever since the start of the war. As part of the Western community, Finland will continue its assistance to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people for as long as it is needed.

But the impacts of this new reality are not limited to Ukraine. Russia’s war has deep, extensive and long-term implications for all of us. In Finland, in Northern Europe, in Europe as a whole, and in the world.

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Dangerous times must not lead to paralysis. We have to be able to act decisively to meet the demands of the new reality. In the case of Finland, the track record of the past year speaks for itself. We have been quick on our feet, bringing about a fundamental change in our foreign and security policy in the midst of a major crisis.

At the start of this year, in my New Year’s speech, I said that we must know “when to hurry, and when to have patience”. Since then, we have done both.

On the one hand, everything has proceeded at a remarkable pace. The key trigger was of course the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. A few days before that, in Munich, I told the CNN that on Finland’s NATO membership, much depended on what Russia would do in Ukraine. When Russia did what it did, the Finnish citizens, and us decision-makers as Finnish citizens, too, drew the necessary conclusions. Seven months later, Finland and Sweden have applied for NATO membership, and 28 countries out of 30 have already ratified our membership.

On the other hand, we have needed patience as well. A decision of this magnitude had to be carefully considered. I have referred to our domestic NATO process as a triumph of democracy.

During the spring, I considered it important to ensure that this decision was firmly anchored to the Finnish society, as widely as possible. Making sure that the decision will last, not only through the flood of emotions in the early weeks of the war, but also beyond future elections. Major changes must stand the test of time.

In our international relations, the process has also been a triumph of diplomacy. Only a week after the Russian invasion began, I was in Washington, sounding out the US views on the next steps, both in the White House and in Congress. In the following weeks and months, together with the government, we actively prepared the ground for NATO membership with all our future allies.

That work has borne fruit, in the form of the exceptionally rapid ratifications, and in the form of bilateral security assurances. And the work continues. Based on the good and constructive conversations we have had with Hungary and Türkiye, on various levels, I am confident that the two outstanding ratifications will follow in due course.

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When Finland eventually becomes a member of NATO, the most important value added to our security will be the preventive effect of the Alliance’s joint deterrence. As a NATO member, Finland will participate in the planning and development of that deterrence. It will provide the kind of protection we would not have outside NATO.

Of course, NATO membership is also of major significance in case that this preventive effect is not enough. As a NATO member, Finland will participate in the planning and, if necessary, implementation of the joint defence.

The bottom line is that Finland is seeking to become a NATO member, full stop. Nothing more, nothing less. We don’t have any particular requests or reservations that we would be setting as preconditions for our membership. The Finnish profile in NATO will develop naturally over time and according to changing circumstances. We are not just asking what NATO can do for us. We are also thinking what we can do for NATO, contributing to the security of the whole alliance.

As big a step as NATO membership is for Finland, not everything will change. We are not starting from scratch. Although our security environment is changing dramatically, the basic contours of Finland’s foreign and security policy remain intact. They just need to be adapted to the new reality.

We have never wanted to increase tensions. But we have always made sure that we are also ready for more difficult circumstances. We may not have made the loudest of public statements. Instead, we have decisively built our strong defence, which has been widely respected. And we are prepared now.

When I last spoke at an event hosted by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, almost exactly a year ago, I revisited the four pillars on which Finland’s security rests. I said that these pillars change and evolve over time, and that if one weakens and cannot be strengthened, others will have to be able to carry more weight on them. This is exactly what is now happening.

First, our national defence. We are now benefitting from the fact that we never let our guard down in the past decades. Our defence is in good shape to begin with, and we are increasingly investing in it. NATO membership does by no means mean that we could start neglecting our own national defence. Just the opposite.

Finland’s membership will double the border NATO currently shares with Russia. For both Finland and NATO, it is of utmost importance that Finland will continue to primarily take care of defending its own territory. When coordinated with the joint planning of the alliance, fulfilling this task has a stabilising effect that will enhance security in Northern Europe as a whole.

Second, our dense web of Western defence and security partnerships. In these dramatically changed circumstances, these partnerships have paid off. Although all eyes are now on NATO, we must not forget the importance of our EU membership as another cornerstone of our security. The EU as a more effective global actor, also in the field of foreign and security policy, is in our core interest. And the further development of EU-NATO cooperation is now even more significant for us than before.

Also as NATO members, we want to advance further our bilateral and multilateral partnerships, in Europe and across the Atlantic. As the most recent example, as was announced yesterday, we will open negotiations on a Defence Cooperation Agreement with the US.

Third, our relationship with Russia. This is of course the pillar that has collapsed, and we therefore need to rely even more on the others. I want to stress that we have never been naïve about this. The idea has been to maintain as functioning a relationship with Russia as possible at a given point in time. Simultaneously, I have always repeated the old Finnish wisdom that the Cossack takes everything that is loose.

At this point in time, any kind of functioning relationship with Russia seems like a very distant prospect. Instead, we need to focus on fixing anything that may still lay loose. But we also need to remember that Russia will not disappear. It will continue to be our neighbour, even if there is no turn for the better. Finland can never afford to ignore it.

Fourth, the international system and our common challenges. Fresh from the UN General Assembly last week, it is clear that we need to pay even more attention to this pillar. At the same time when political divisions are deepening, the demand for global solutions is becoming more and more urgent. As I said in New York, difficult times call for more diplomacy, not less. We must build and strengthen peace and prevent conflicts wherever possible. And we must find sustainable solutions to other global threats and challenges.

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In the near future, we are moving into an uncharted territory. There are dangerous scenarios that we can and should anticipate. There are wicked surprises that we need to prepare for.

The most recent warning signs are the explosions in the Baltic Sea this week, leading to gas leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines. These events need to be investigated thoroughly. Already now, they remind us of the myriad possibilities in which this crisis can escalate, horizontally or vertically, with unforeseen consequences.

One thing is certain. In the coming months, our resilience will be severely tested. Whatever Russia does next, however difficult the energy crisis will turn out to be, unity is our response. In Finland, in Europe, in the world.

I am convinced that we will pass this test. But it will not happen automatically. Maintaining our unity, maintaining our resilience, will require constant efforts from every single one of us. We must be vigilant. We must be ready for hard choices. And we must make them by sticking together.

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Finally, I want to remind us all of the importance of the longer view. Even in times of an acute crisis we must not lose sight of the long-term objective. It is now very difficult to see how and when the current war will end. But history teaches us that at some point all wars do end. What kind of a security order are we aiming at when this is over?

Post-war security orders always have their roots already in the time of the conflict that they follow. The foundations for the League of Nations were laid while the First World War was still raging. The same applies to the United Nations and the Second World War. The CSCE, the precursor of the OSCE, was convened at the height of the Cold War.

The League of Nations ultimately failed, but the UN and the OSCE still exist, despite being severely challenged. It is in our core interest to continue bolstering these essential institutions as the basis of any future security order. But are we again at such a watershed moment in history where we need to think about something completely new, too?

At the end of the day, peace is the fundamental ingredient of any sustainable security. Peace is such an important objective that we should spare no efforts in trying to achieve it. So important, that even efforts that turn out to be futile are worth making.

I hope that this Helsinki Security Forum is able to develop some new ideas on these matters. And I want to wish you all a successful conference.