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Pekka Haavisto: “Finland has never stopped building bomb shelters”

L’Express: Finland shares a long land border with Russia. Do you still fear aggressive actions from Moscow?

Pekka Haavisto: From the start of the Russian attack on Ukraine, we were very worried that Russia would succeed in bringing down the government in kyiv. We observed with great optimism Ukraine’s very strong response to these threats and its exceptional mobilization in just a few days, until the international community supported the resistance. If Russia had succeeded in forcibly changing the government of a country of 40 million people, we would be in a very different Europe today.

In the early days of the war, we did not know the extent of Russia’s military ambitions vis-à-vis Ukraine but also other European countries. As a neighboring country, we have enhanced our military preparation in order to deal with all types of incidents. Same thing when we submitted our application to join NATO. In the end, nothing was done directly against Finland, but we have to be ready. We were marked by the explosions that hit Nord Stream pipelines this fall. Although we have no connection with these installations and the explosions occurred near Denmark and Sweden, this event reminds us that our infrastructures may be in danger: pipelines, electrical installations, Internet cables, etc. We must remain very vigilant.

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Finland has decided to build a barrier on its border with Russia. What threat should it protect you against?

By entering NATO, we bring with us a 1,300 kilometer border with Russia, which will therefore become a border between NATO and Russia. In autumn 2021, we carefully followed what happened on the borders between Belarus, Poland and the Baltic States, and we observed how the forced immigration of human beings could be used as a weapon against another country. We must avoid any risk at our border. Our plan is to erect a barrier in some places where this forced migration could be used and to increase electronic surveillance on all the rest of our border. Our objective is to bring a peaceful border to NATO.

On May 18, your country officially applied to join NATO. How big a change is this for Finland?

In Finland, public opinion completely changed in almost one night: the day Russia attacked Ukraine, minds changed on a possible entry into NATO. The Americans had warned that this Russian attack would happen, but many Europeans favored the version saying that everything was normal, that these troops were just gathering near the borders and that they would soon disappear. They did not disappear, this attack was very real. The Finns are a particularly security-oriented people, so if such an event occurs somewhere in Europe, the first question that arises in Finland is: “how to react if this event occurs here?” Then the second question is: “how to help those who are concerned?”

At the start of the war, some Russian leaders launched fanciful discussions about the use of nuclear weapons and chemical weapons. The legitimate question was put to our government: what would be our reaction to the use of such unconventional weapons? Should we forge an alliance with NATO to get help in this kind of situation? Public opinion changed very quickly. Since 2004, we have kept this “NATO option” in our security white paper: if we are threatened or if an exceptional event occurs in our security environment, we are ready to consider joining NATO. Last spring, the government therefore logically wondered: our big neighbor is trying to overthrow a government in a sovereign country by force. What event could be more exceptional in our security environment?

Hungary and Turkey have not yet ratified your entry into NATO. Where are the negotiations with these two countries?

Hungary has just indicated that it will make its decision early next year. As far as Turkey is concerned, we established a tripartite working group (Finland, Sweden and Turkey) at the NATO summit in Madrid last June. We met for the first time in Helsinki in August. The second meeting of the Permanent Joint Mechanism was held on November 25 to discuss terrorism issues and our actions against [l’organisation kurde] PKK, designated as a terrorist group throughout Europe. These discussions are going well. We explain how the European ecosystem works and the state of our legislation. But the final decision rests with the Turkish leadership and President Erdogan. We are expectant.

How to qualify Turkey’s attitude in this matter? Do you have the feeling of a form of blackmail?

It’s not blackmail. Each NATO country has the right to accept or not a new member. But in the current situation, we have a war in Europe… After the explosion of the two Nord Stream pipelines, I contacted Hungary and Turkey to explain to them how uncomfortable this situation was for us: we are in the waiting room as the risks to our safety increase every day. Then the incident with the missiles hitting Poland happened [le 15 novembre] and, here again, we find ourselves as observers, when NATO discusses a possible triggering of Article 4, or even Article 5 [qui déclenche une réponse militaire de l’Otan si un de ses membres est attaqué]. But Finland is not protected by Article 5. We are on our own. Fortunately, we are grateful to the many countries, such as France, which have made very strong statements to guarantee our security and to the NATO countries which take part in military exercises in Finland.

Finland has decided to end tourist visas for Russians. Can you explain this decision to us?

This autumn, when the Baltic countries decided to prohibit their entry to Russian tourists, we noticed that part of the tourist traffic was diverted towards Finland to reach the Baltic countries, but also other European countries. This situation made us uncomfortable. We have therefore decided to stop issuing tourist visas for Russians, while keeping exceptions: those who work in Finland can have a visa, those who study in Finland, who have relatives in our country or who follow a medical treatment. The border remains open, there are just fewer visas.

Do you recommend other European countries to follow this policy on tourist visas for Russians?

We recommended including this ban on tourist visas in the sanctions against Russia. Should ordinary citizens be blamed for the situation? The question remains. But you can also say that ordinary people in Russia should wake up after these events and use their influence on their leaders, so painful is what is happening in Ukraine.

Finland retained a powerful army. Do you think Western European countries have been naive to Russia’s intentions?

Finland is an old-fashioned country, with its security as a priority. We are one of the few countries in Europe that has never stopped building bomb shelters since the end of the Second World War. It’s in our DNA.

We have a conscription army, with over 870,000 people in reserve, and all the necessary equipment. Last year, we ordered 64 new F-35 fighter jets and systematically invested in our defense, when other European countries sold their tanks and guns… We keep them in reserve. In the current circumstances, taking care of your own safety as we do is proving to be an advantage. Perhaps the main concern is not with the military, but with the energy dependency that has developed in many European countries that suffer from their energy links with Russia. We in Finland have always considered that it was necessary to favor the widest possible energy mix: hydrogen, nuclear, and of course more and more renewable energies. Europe is forced to learn this lesson quickly.

Emmanuel Macron tries to keep a link with Vladimir Poutine, to dialogue with him. What do you think of the French president’s strategy? Can it be useful?

At the start of the war, the Finnish president had very regular contact with President Putin to try to understand the state of mind of the Russians and their decision-making process. But his last call to the Kremlin was to warn our neighbor of our decision to join NATO… I think it was one of the hardest calls of his life. The contexts are different, the international leaders are different, but I think that in all circumstances you have to maintain a dialogue. The Americans, especially on the nuclear issue, continue to talk with Russia. It is essential to avoid any misunderstanding or further damage. We don’t know how long this war will last. We must prepare for a long fight, and diplomacy is not completely dead: there will come a day when diplomatic ties will regain all their importance.

How can this war in Ukraine end and how do you see the future of Russian power?

At some point, a regime change will occur in Russia. Unfortunately, Russian democracy has taken such a direction that “normal” regime change is no longer an option. The influence of elections is limited, political parties no longer exist… This means that change can be made in a spectacular way. Some in Finland believe that Russia will always be the same, imperialistic and harmful on the international scene. Personally, I always recommend looking at the last hundred years: the Russians had the Tsars, then Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev, before seeing the arrival of Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and finally Putin.

For a hundred years, it’s been a permanent zigzag! So, for the next hundred years, I think it will follow the same path, with periods closer to the Western mentality, others more distant. What is certain is that we must be prepared for all options. A neighbor does not disappear, Russia will remain on our border in the future. We have to live with it and hope for the best of scenarios, especially for Russian citizens who suffer from their authoritarian rulers, lack of human rights and freedom of expression.


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