Archive and Chronology of Finnish Foreign Policy

Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the Ambassadors’ Conference on 23 August 2022

Esteemed Heads of Missions, ladies and gentlemen,

After a long interval, we meet again in the same physical location. Now that the pandemic finally allows it, this format is again familiar and safe. But the world around us is anything but.

Even though a state of peace prevails in Finland, we have been living in a time of war in Europe for six months. The impacts of the war of aggression Russia is waging in Ukraine are immense. Their depth, extent and longevity is difficult to exaggerate. A return to the old and familiar is nowhere in sight, for any of us. Not for Finland, not for Europe, not for the world.

Now, if not before, the old truth has become clear: the essential task of our foreign policy is taking care of Finnish security. This has also been the case for the past year, and it will remain so in the future. Faced with the unknown, we must strengthen our security with determination and on a long-term basis. It is our common mission.

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“You can get used to anything, but this is something I don’t want to get used to.” These were the words of a nurse in the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv to Helsingin Sanomat last week. This message is important also outside the borders of Ukraine. We must not let the evil paralyse us. We must not grow used to the evil.

The highest price for the cruel war waged by Russia is paid by the people of Ukraine. The extent of human casualties and material destruction growing day by day is something very few of us thought we would need to witness in Europe in the 21st century. Someone watching from afar can never fully understand the cruelty and finality caused by war. What if, tomorrow morning, the neighbouring building is suddenly in ruins and its residents, who we just spoke with yesterday, no longer exist?

It has, however, come as a surprise – not only to Russia but to most Western observers as well – how strong the Ukrainian defence capability has been. It is based on both mind and matter. Ukraine has shown us what can be achieved when you combine an unwavering will to defend one’s country with military capabilities.

To survive, Ukraine has sorely needed foreign assistance. And assistance it has also received. As part of the Western community, Finland’s own support to Ukraine has been strong. In addition to political, financial and humanitarian support, we have also exported defence materiel to a country at war.

Later today, I will participate in the Crimea Platform Summit, hosted for the second time by President Zelensky. A year ago, we met in Kyiv, today the whole summit is held remotely. My message is clear: Finland does not forget that Ukraine is fighting not only for its own freedom but also for European values and principles. Our support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people will continue for as long as necessary.

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At the end of last year, we woke up to the strengthening of the spheres of influence-based thinking in Russia. According to Russia, military non-alignment was no longer up to Finland and Sweden’s own free will. Already in my New Year’s speech, I said that we must know “when to hurry, and when to have patience”.

It has been only six months since Russia invaded Ukraine. In that time, Finland and Sweden have applied for NATO membership, and 23 countries out of 30 have already ratified our membership. The heavily criticised policy, often also referred to as the ‘NATO option’ – Finland maintaining an option to apply for NATO membership – has proven its usability. That is exactly the option we are now exercising. With hurry.

But we needed patience as well. I cannot see it as a bad thing that we carefully considered a decision of this magnitude. During the spring, I found it important to ensure that this decision was anchored to the Finnish society as extensively as possible. And in such a manner that it will last not only through the flood of emotions in the early weeks of the war but also across future parliamentary terms. Even though the time we are living requires us to react rapidly to any matter, we cannot build our national security on fleeting emotions. Major changes must stand the test of time.

During the spring, profound groundwork for the membership application was also laid internationally. The influencing practised in Brussels and in all NATO member states has borne fruit, both in the form of strong expressions of support before the Madrid Summit and in the exceptionally rapid ratifications afterwards. I want to extend my warmest thanks for the work you and the foreign missions you are leading have done for this cause.

As we all know, there were also some surprises. The demands presented by Türkiye in May came very close to halting the progress of our entire NATO membership process. In Madrid, we eventually found a solution that enabled it to go forward. For its own part, Finland will stand by what was agreed with Sweden and Türkiye. We will do so in accordance with our own legislation and with international agreements.

The discussion on closer security cooperation will continue with Türkiye and Sweden between officials before the turn of the month. Time will tell, when Türkiye will be ready to go forward with the national ratification. We still need patience.

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We will not be members of NATO until the last ratification is finalised. But the position in which we find ourselves for the time being already strengthens our status considerably. One NATO country after another has confirmed for its part that they want Finland and Sweden as their allies. It also signifies that we are regarded worth the protection provided by Article 5 and NATO’s nuclear deterrent. The signals from Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and other capitals have been loud and clear even before the membership becomes realised. The message has certainly been heard.

When Finland eventually becomes a member of NATO, it is precisely the preventive effect of the joint deterrent that is the most significant addition to our security. As a NATO member, Finland will participate in the planning and building of the deterrent maintained by the alliance. It will provide the kind of protection we would not have outside NATO.

Of course, NATO also bears major significance in case the preventive effect is not enough. As a NATO member, Finland will participate in the planning and, if necessary, implementation of the joint defence. As we determine together what will be Finland’s contribution to the joint defence, we also ensure that our national defence is coordinated with that of our allies in as effective manner as possible.

Namely, by no means does NATO membership 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. Ensuring that the Nordic area will hold under any circumstances. When coordinated with the joint planning of the alliance, fulfilling this task has a stabilising effect that will enhance the security in Northern Europe as a whole. Our membership will also bring the Nordic countries ever closer together.

Nor does NATO membership mean that we could shift responsibility across the Atlantic. With Finland and Sweden joining NATO, we are taking steps towards “a more European NATO”, which I already referred to back in 2005. There is reason to assume that the US will require that Europe – and the European Union – increase their share of the responsibility for the continent’s security. Ensuring that Europe will hold even in case of a global crisis.

Our position has become stronger, but the world situation is increasingly disquieting. The war, currently limited within the borders of Ukraine, may spread. Other conflicts, competing over the global attention of NATO countries, may also emerge in other parts of the world – say, in the Pacific. If, at that point, someone were to begin measuring for real how the Nordic countries and Europe will hold, that would also put Finland to a very concrete test.

NATO membership is undeniably a major turning point in Finland’s political history. As a defensive alliance, NATO is not merely military in nature but also very much a political alliance. But we should not overemphasise its meaning either. Finland’s NATO policy will become part of Finland’s foreign, security and defence policy. Nothing more than that. Also in the future, the policy will be led as laid down in the Finnish Constitution.

All in all, we should keep in mind that Finland’s NATO membership is without detriment to anyone. Security is not a zero-sum game. At the same time, we should also remember that the NATO membership will not make Finland any bigger than it is.

Unity is a national resource and the basic pillar of security. The problems threatening the economy and the energy sector will come to challenge the resilience of Finnish people. At the same time, our society’s capability and willingness to maintain cohesion and control over the situation will also be put to test. Security is not only an external matter but also an internal one.

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Since the beginning of our recorded history, our eastern neighbour has been there, in one form or another, both in bad days and in better days. Russia will continue to be there, even if there were no turn for the better. We do know something about what it is like across the eastern border, maybe more than many others. We must not forget that.

In this position of mine, I have kept in mind the centuries old wisdom: the Cossack takes everything that is left loose. It applies equally to material things and to freedom of action. This was also the case when, at the end of last year, Russia was demanding that the expansion of NATO must stop. We fixed that matter.

I have a habit of saying that each and every Finn is a defender of our country, at least between their ears. In these times, strong efforts are being made to influence our opinions. When receiving and sharing information, we need to be both patient and rational.

Russia is now engaged in an illegal war of aggression against Ukraine. Finland’s position on the matter is crystal clear: we unequivocally condemn it. We oppose Russia’s actions by the means of sanctions we have imposed together with other EU Member States. Finland demands that all war crimes be investigated and those guilty of the crimes be held responsible.

Under the prevailing circumstances, there is not much left of our earlier relationship with Russia. The trust is gone, and there are nothing in sight on which to base a new beginning. This is not the right time to build connections. On the contrary: we must very carefully reconsider any dependencies that could be used against us. Nothing must be left loose.

However, this is not the right time to totally sever all connections either. There are still practical matters, the management of which is in our own interest. We should also hold channels of discussion open for the future, even if we do not actively use them for the time being.

People are now demanding a debate on how to arrange our future relationship with Russia, both in the EU and in Finland. Many people want to take firm and strict positions. And there are also those holding very soft views. A balanced line of policy requires, first and foremost, that we remain consistently firm. We must make our own views and limits clear and act accordingly.

There are a lot of Russian people living permanently in Finland, for family reasons alone. It is clear to us that we condemn Russia’s actions and those supporting them, but hatred is another matter. It has never generated anything good. We can defend our security and values firmly even without hatred.

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In these uncertain times, it is understandable that we focus on things that are near, both in terms of geography and time. But we still need to see further.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is reflected as global instability in all continents. In the coming months, the energy crisis will test the resilience of Europe, and the impacts of the food crisis are already affecting the product selection and prices. But the acute distress experienced by already fragile societies outside Europe is much higher than ours. When basic needs are not met, unrest will grow – and the turmoil will not stop at national borders. Stopping this spiral is a major challenge for the whole international system. That is why the joint efforts of the UN Secretary-General Guterres and Turkish President Erdogan over the past few weeks are worthy of support.

It is also highly disquieting that several difficult geopolitical issues familiar from the past have become activated at the same time. They may be indirectly linked to the Russian military activities, but – whether talking about the relations between Serbia and Kosovo or the varied conflicts in the Middle East – there is enough internal driving force behind each of them as well. From the perspective of global peace and security, it would be particularly destructive if the tensions in the Taiwan Strait were to erupt into full blaze.

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Last year, in this very same event I talked about human responsibilities, in other words, of what kind of a world we will leave to the next generations. And about what each one of us can do to make our legacy a sustainable one, both for human beings and nature.

The global turmoil may have made many of us forget about these responsibilities, but they have not gone anywhere. Climate change is progressing, as the dramatic news from this summer have shown us. Forests are ablaze, rivers are running dry, heat records are being broken. Climate change is not happening far away in the future or in other far-off continents, but it is taking place right here and now, also in Europe. As the loss of biodiversity is also accelerating at the same time, our whole ecosystem is falling into a deeper and deeper crisis.

We should avoid any artificial polarizations. Even in the face of the energy crisis ahead of us, we should not contrast the economy and nature. We must be able to take care of both.

At the same time, technology is advancing at an increasingly rapid pace. This generates new solutions that we must boldly embrace. We must ensure that Finland and the Western community remain on top of technological development. And that we can shape the landscape opening ahead us in accordance with our values.

Technological development also generates new wicked challenges and threats. Many new technologies entail major potential for danger, and the situation should not be made worse by thinking about it as a zero-sum game. We must avoid letting the spirit of technological arms race spread into the world.

The wide agenda of climate, environmental and technology issues is an essential part of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs’ job description. Esteemed Heads of Missions, you have an important task in tackling these issues. I encourage you to keep on examining these themes as well.

People with all their hopes, intentions and fears are not detached from this reality. We have lost a lot of time, but humanity still has time to solve its great challenges, if only we want to do so together. We must not waste this opportunity for the sake of mutual grudges or mistrust.

What combines all these challenges is that none of them can be solved by using weapons. Or by anyone on their own. What we need are sincere efforts to cross division lines and to find functional and just solutions. In one word: we need diplomacy.