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104 days of war and 80 years of preparation. Finland has a plan to fight back against Russia

One third of the population of Finland are trained reservists. Thus, the country's army can be considered the largest in Europe. Photo: Financial Times

One third of the population of Finland are trained reservists. Thus, the country's army can be considered the largest in Europe. Photo: Financial Times

For decades, Finland has maintained its neutrality, and now it is going to join NATO. Despite economic dependence on Russian tourists, residents of the border regions are buying food enough for 72 hours, checking bomb shelters and preparing to repel the Russian invasion.

The Soviet-Finnish or Winter War lasted 104 days. More than 80 years have passed since then, but the Finns still remember this daring attack. Financial Times in its article titled "War with Russia? Finland has a plan for that" describes how modern Finland is preparing for a war with Russia. The Page offers looking through the Finnish strategy.

For decades, Finland has harnessed every level of society to prepare for a possible conflict with Russia. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the country has already drawn conclusions.

What is needed for war with Russia. Helsinki model

If the worst fears of Europe are realised and the conflict in Ukraine spreads across the continent to other neighbours of Russia, then Finland will use the following model. The country of 5.5 million should prepare in the following way.

Having stockpiles. At least six months of all major fuels and grains sit in strategic stockpiles, while pharmaceutical companies are obliged to have 3-10 months’ worth of all imported drugs on hand.

Having civilian defenses. All buildings above a certain size have to have their own bomb shelters, and the rest of the population can use underground car parks, ice rinks, and swimming pools which stand ready to be converted into evacuation centres.

Having trained fighters. Almost a third of the adult population of the Nordic country is a reservist, meaning Finland can draw on one of the biggest militaries relative to its size in Europe.

Quote"We have been preparing for this situation ever since World War II," says Tytti Tuppurainen, Finland’s EU minister. After spending eight decades living first in the shadow of the Soviet Union and now Russia, the threat of war in Europe "has not hit us as a surprise"

Having a strategy of comprehensive security — rigorous, society-wide systems created for timely protection. This protection comes in handy during a possible invasion, natural disaster, cyberattack, or pandemic.This is not only about military readiness, Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a security expert at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, believes, but about all fields including the work of laws and rules in times of any crisis.

Having informal networks between the political, business and non-governmental organizations ready to work together, adjust the current defense plan, create as much stability as possible in the system before a crisis occurs.


The war in Ukraine has underscored how exposed Finland, with its 1,340km border with Russia, is. The prospect of joining the Nato military alliance is now being discussed by Finnish leaders. For the first time in its history, a majority of Finns now support applying for Nato membership.

Quote"Given our geostrategic location, and our large land mass and sparse population, we need to have everything to defend the country. We train on many levels regularly to make sure everybody knows what to do — the political decision-making, what do the banks do, the church does, industry does, what is the media's role," says Janne Kuusela, director-general for defense policy at the defense ministry."

"The end result is you can turn this society into crisis mode if needs be," he explains.

The Winter War lessons

Much of Finland’s current strategy stems from the experience of the Winter War, which was similar to the invasion of Ukraine. In 1939 — 1940, the Finns fought, holding back the entire USSR, but in the end they lost a significant part of the territory and one of the main industries. Rebuilding the country after the war, the Finns swore: never again.

Quote"We haven’t forgotten it, it is in our DNA. That is why we have been very careful in maintaining our resilience," says president Sauli Niinisto. He also points to opinion polls suggesting about 75% of Finns are ready to fight for their country, by far the highest figure in Europe.

Finland has a wartime troop strength of about 280,000 people while in total it has 900,000 trained as reservists. It carried on with conscription for all male school-leavers even after the end of the cold war, when many countries in Europe switched to contract army. Helsinki has maintained strong defense spending even as others cut in the 1990s and 2000s.

Finland also has detailed planning for how to deal with an invasion, including deploying fighter jets on remote roads across the country, laying mines on key shipping lanes, and preparing ground defenses such as blowing up bridges.

Jarmo Lindberg, Finland’s former chief of defense, says that the Finnish capital Helsinki "is like Swiss cheese" with dozens of kilometers of tunnels. All armed force headquarters are located in hillsides under "30-40 meters of granite," he says.

If a likely attack was detected by military intelligence, forces would be mobilized and, as far as possible, civilians would be evacuated from danger areas, a marked difference to what has happened in Ukraine.

Kuusela says that the very core of Finland’s strategy is the will of its citizens to fight and defend a country, recently named by the UN for the fifth year in a row as the world’s happiest nation.

"We are number one in the world in being happy. On the other hand, the other side is that you are prepared to defend this. We had a near-death experience in World War II that only strengthened us," Kuusela adds.

Strategic stockpiles

After the Winter War, systemic preparation for crises remained "deep down in Finnish minds," says Niiniste. The key to the strategy is to involve the corporate sector in a leadership role in the preparation and management of the crisis. Each critical industry — such as telecommunications, food supply, or energy — meets several times a year, where issues that may affect their sector are discussed under careful supervision.

Quote "The company leadership have been serving in the military. We don’t have business, we don’t have welfare, we don’t have growth, if our defense fails. It’s well understood," Kuusela believes.

The National Emergency Supply Agency (Nesa) helps coordinate this network of companies, but its responsibilities go well beyond that. It also has a balance sheet of €2.5bn, which consists of its strategic stockpiles of six months’ supply of grains such as wheat and oats, and different types of fuel as well as certain undisclosed "strategic assets".

Janne Kankanen, chief executive of Nesa, says the agency is saving against a rainy day from all fossil fuel and electricity purchases in Finland. The agency can quickly purchase the critical materials and check the sectors of the Finnish economy. For example, to find out if Finnish farmers will produce enough grain this season.

Military training of business elites

To ensure members of Finland’s establishment understand what is at stake, they are invited to participate in what the country calls National Defense Courses.

Four times a year, a group of several dozen politicians, business leaders, and representatives from the church, media and non-governmental organizations meet for a month-long intensive programme involving lectures from senior military officers and government officials as well as a crisis simulation.

Tuppurainen took part in 2014, while business leaders such as Jorma Ollila, former head of Nokia, and Mika Ihamuotila, chair of fashion brand Marimekko, attended almost as soon as they became chief executives.

Salonius-Pasternak says it is "eye-opening" for business leaders to play politicians and vice versa in scenarios such as "the water level of the Baltic Sea rises, we have to shut down our nuclear power plants, or there’s a plague". He adds: "The point is to get to know people, and to find out what problems a company or government could have in a crisis."

In total, 10,000 people have been trained in such courses over the past 60 years and most intakes still meet regularly to discuss matters. A further 60,000 have attended regional defense courses. Salonius-Pasternak believes that the courses are probably the key element of Finland’s approach that other countries could easily emulate.


Ukraine's lessons that Helsinki take into account

Legislative work is also important. After the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, the Finnish government overhauled all of the country's security legislation to make sure the "little green men" could not exploit any loopholes.

Finland is not just focused on the threat of invasion, but on other forms of attack, for example, the poisoning of a water source, incapacitation of a power station, or cyber attacks.There’s an increasing focus on so-called hybrid threats, actions that are often ambiguous and do not meet the level of a full military attack.

Teija Tiilikainen, director of the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats based in Helsinki, says that Finland needs to be "more proactive" in identifying its vulnerabilities in advance. In 2015, for instance, it was caught unaware by Russia sending illegal migrants over the border.

Quote"That Russia has started a war against a smaller neighbor can only strengthen the understanding of our vulnerability. However, public awareness about risks and threats is at a high level," she says.

The strength of Finland's approach is that the authorities help prepare for "black swans" or unexpected events, keeping the main focus on protecting the "vital functions" of society, says Petri Toivonen, secretary-general of Finland’s security committee.

At the same time, Salonius-Pasternak says another issue is that the strategy sometimes overlooks the general public: the authorities believe that people should not be bothered if the system works.

Quote"People need to have a general idea of what to do. It’s an easy thing, and it helps with your first 72 or 96 hours of a crisis. This is where there is a lack, and some learning to be done," he adds.

There is no doubt that Finns are unnerved by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, another of its non-Nato neighbors. Helsinki has always striven for good neighborly relations with Russia due to its long, shared border but that hope has now been shattered.

During the Cold War, Finland’s location forced it to accept neutrality. But now there is a growing sense in Helsinki that NATO membership would cement its status as an independent, western country.

There is a belief that the Ukraine war demonstrates the wisdom of Finland’s approach all these years.

Quote"The simple idea is that it’s a country worth defending and therefore you have a larger responsibility, whether you’re a CEO or a school teacher," says Salonius-Pasternak. "What Ukraine has taught us is that "if you combine the network effects of a small country with preparation, that will be really powerful."

The story of Ukraine has had a great impact on the debate about joining NATO. After all, the only constant is that Finland will remain a neighbor of Russia.

Quote"Some say we have fought 32 wars against Russia, others 42," says Lindberg, the former chief of defense. "All I know is that Russia will always be there, and we know we will be ready."


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