Speech by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the ambassador seminar on 26 August 2014

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

exactly 100 years ago, in late summer 1914, Europe suddenly found itself plunged into a major war. Diplomacy was unable to prevent the war or stop the crisis from escalating. First there was bluster then there was destruction. And it did not even stop at one world war.

We would do well to remember that course of events as we contemplate today’s world and Finland’s foreign policy. The ancient, ultimate issues in security policy never really went away. The Ukrainian crisis is a savage reminder that security – even the security of entire nations – should never be taken for granted or considered axiomatic. Not even in Europe.

In 1938, Finnish poet Yrjö Jylhä wrote: “Fire in the east, smoke blows our way,” anticipating future developments. Now the smoke is blowing our way from eastern Ukraine. While the conflict is a regional one, it has implications for all of Europe and for international politics as a whole. It also has implications for us.

The causes and consequences of this crisis will be debated for a long time to come. What is important right now is to contain and put out this fire. Then, further down the road, we must rebuild the security that has been lost. To consider what would be the alternative to such a development makes one pause for thought.

Finland’s position regarding the events in Ukraine has been clear ever since the beginning of the crisis. We condemn any and all violations of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. We have been involved in setting up sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia. We cannot excuse ourselves from responsibility regarding the principles employed in resolving conflicts in Europe. We can also not just look to our own narrow interests when our common values are trespassed upon. 

We are part of the West and share the Western value base. However, our foreign policy cannot consist solely of declaring our opinions and principles to all and sundry. We also need to think about what practical measures we want to and can undertake. And then we need to try to undertake them.

It is clear to me that it is vital to keep communication channels open between different parties. That, after all, is what diplomacy is all about. And diplomacy is essential for understanding the views and actions of the parties involved in a crisis, which in turn is vital for achieving any steps towards a peaceful solution. This is essentially why I went to Russia and Ukraine the week before last. Of course, we are not in this alone but act as part of a larger entity. Our actions support the broader international effort to resolve this conflict. 

We now have a better picture of the views and thinking of both Russia and Ukraine. There is potential for defusing the crisis, but that in itself does not guarantee anything, and indeed the situation might get worse. The process is extremely vulnerable, as recent events demonstrate. But once official talks are established, as was done in Berlin a week ago and will be done today in Minsk, the first step will have been taken. But we need to re-examine the situation after the Minsk summit.

It is important to note that we cannot isolate the Ukrainian crisis from its broader context, by which I mean the relationship between Russia and the West. That relationship too has fallen into a spiral of mistrust and opposition. The Ukrainian conflict is thus both a cause and a consequence of this broader crisis. The diplomatic challenge is about more than just Ukraine, and it is not enough just to discuss concrete measures; we must also bring up issues of principle. Resolving the conflict is thus a difficult process for the EU too. 

Since March, we have heard any number of opinions and guesses about what Russia is up to. We have heard conclusions and recommendations for swift action, often presented in very confident tones.

However, I believe that we have only seen the beginning of an in-depth international discussion of the gulf that has appeared between the West and Russia. We do not know how the Ukrainian crisis will develop. We need to think long and hard, not forgetting self-criticism. And we should also pay attention to those who warn against plunging into a new Cold War as a knee-jerk reaction, without consideration for what happens next. Falling into a hole is easy. Getting back up again is much more difficult.

It is through this broader picture – the opposition between Russia and the EU and uncertainty in security policy – that the Ukrainian crisis has implications for Finland. Therefore our response must also be broader. As a Member State of the EU, we must above all attempt to facilitate a comprehensive response on the part of the EU towards resolving the crisis and curbing its knock-on effects. 

Finland faces no military threats. Our neighbouring regions are stable. Finland is also not a security vacuum, and we cannot afford to become one. We are managing this both nationally and internationally.

The Ukrainian conflict has prompted concern and discussion in many countries concerning the sufficiency of their national defence policies. The pressures are undoubtedly greatest on those countries that have not maintained their national defence well. Finland is not among them. We have never fully excluded the possibility of the deployment of military power in Europe, and therefore we have continued to maintain a credible national defence instead of focusing on crisis management.

We must continue to maintain a credible national defence. The Finnish Defence Forces have implemented significant cost-cutting and efficiency measures, but we have now come to the point where less is no longer more. We need to increase our defence spending in the future so that we can allow for our immediate further needs and long-term challenges.

This is not just a question of money. With hybrid warfare, we are facing a substantial change in military operations. The boundary between actual war and other exercise of power is becoming blurred. Means of cyber war and information war are becoming increasingly important. It is now possible to fight a war without actually being at war. At the same time, conflict escalation is setting new speed records, as we saw for instance in the Crimea.

This places new pressures on preparedness measures that rely on traditional threat scenarios. Finland is not too poorly off in this respect, because we focus on a strong comprehensive security approach and close cooperation between the various authorities. However, we too need to reappraise our national defence according to the spirit of the times, in terms of both capability and readiness.

It is understandable that as security policy stability is compromised in Europe, public debate on military cooperation and alliances grows in Finland. This is a welcome debate, and we engaged in it at the Kultaranta talks in the summer.

I said to this very gathering one year ago that we cannot outsource Finland’s national defence. If we do not wish to take the responsibility, we can hardly expect anyone else to do so. On the other hand, it is neither possible to create a credible ‘hermit defence’ model. Modern technology alone prevents such isolationism. International cooperation and building a network to support that cooperation is a natural approach for modern national defence solutions.

The Government and I have decided to launch the drafting of an overall review of security policy cooperation. This will be a broad assessment of various dimensions of cooperation, including the EU Security and Defence Policy, NATO, Nordic defence cooperation (Nordefco) and bilateral relations for instance with Sweden and the USA. The review will assess our cooperation networks across the board.

It will thus not be a NATO report as such. Our cooperation with NATO will progress with or without that report. Sweden and Finland are updating their NATO partnerships in keeping with the requirements of today, and I am hoping that this will be confirmed at the NATO summit in Wales next week. NATO itself is facing pressures towards change, with focus shifting towards territorial defence. Our forthcoming review may include an estimate of where NATO is going. 

We will continue to keep military alliance through membership of NATO as an option in our security policy. In this debate, it is useful to remember the big picture, including the lessons taught by the harsh teacher known as history regarding the undercurrents of security policy and the policies of the great powers in particular. The issue of NATO membership cannot be evaluated just by tallying pros and cons on a spreadsheet. We can also not just look at legal details and rules; after all, NATO is not a district court. 

The Common Security and Defence Policy of the EU has not developed as we would have liked. There are many reasons for this. But we have not lost hope. The political commitment is there. Mutual assistance and solidarity has been provided for through legislation. In the near future, investments will be made in crisis management, capacity and defence materiel cooperation. This is a platform that we, of all people, have no cause to belittle. On the contrary, we should be advocating and contributing to new forms of cooperation. 

I consider it obvious that in the long term Europe must take a completely different approach to security matters. There are already growing pressures towards this, if only because there are also fires burning to the south of the EU, not just to the east. The turmoil in northern Africa and the Middle East that followed the Arab Spring is a phenomenon whose dimensions and impact on Europe are not yet clear. Its significance is certainly no smaller than that of Ukraine, quite the contrary, as I believe the Minister for Foreign Affairs said here yesterday. Europe is thus facing a tough challenge exacerbated by the concern for internal security. We must respond to this with closer cooperation and more investments.

Dear friends, in these days the Finnish foreign affairs administration – all of us – strive to do our best to function in an era that is very different from the one to which we had already become accustomed to. I have found that you have responded to these challenges with subtlety, sacrifices and efficiency. Particular thanks are due to those employees in the foreign affairs administration who have performed admirably in tough spots and under pressure.

Thank you!