President Sauli Niinisto says Finland – with a population of 5.2 million, a border with Russia that runs 1,340 kilometers (833 miles) and just a small professional army of trainers – has spent its century of independence perfecting the art of self-reliance. It’s not joining NATO any time soon, if ever.
“We have a huge reserve [of military forces] and they are trained reservists,” Niinisto explained to DW this week. “One of the largest in Europe.” If Finland called in all its back-ups, officials say, that would be almost a million soldiers. To illustrate his point further, the president explained Finland would then have 5,000 more “men in arms” than Germany would with its reserves, despite boasting a population just one-sixteenth the size.
Though the number of Finns kept in training as active reservists has dropped considerably since its peak in the mid-1990’s, the government decided to boost its forces by 50,000 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The current number of continuously trained reservists now stands at 280,000.
A widely circulated 2015 Gallup poll showed 74 percent of Finns said they’d be willing to take up arms to defend their country – the highest figure by far in Europe. Almost 60 percent of Russians would be willing to fight for their country. In next highest Sweden, that figure was 55 percent; in Germany, just 18 percent.
It’s easy to point to different geopolitical circumstances that make it possible for Finland to focus on its own territory, and it could be argued that the stability in the region has been assured because other countries chose NATO. But it must be granted that the Finnish approach has ensured a popular understanding of the need for a military defense, whereas NATO countries may experience a more fatalistic public opinion regarding national defense.