On March 7, 2023, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) was honored to host H.E. President Sauli Niinistö of Finland and his delegation for a unique discussion with a panel of experts from across FSI’s centers of expertise.
President Niinistö was joined for the panel discussion by Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute; Anna Grzymała-Busse, director of The Europe Center; Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on the Chinese military and strategic competition; H.R. McMaster, retired lieutenant general and former U.S. National Security Advisor; Steven Pifer, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and European security expert; Risto Siilasmaa, a Finnish leader in technology and security policy; Alex Stamos, a cyber security expert and director of the Stanford Internet Observatory; and Kathryn Stoner, an expert on Russia and director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
As the war in Ukraine rages on, the discussion focused on opportunities Finland has for defense and strategic cooperation in Europe and beyond, with particular attention to the rise of China and its partnership with Russia, and the shifting landscape of cybersecurity and digital defenses against information warfare and propaganda attacks.
While acknowledging the significance of these concerns, the panel also emphasized how the unique position of Finland both geographically and historically at the border between Europe and Russia gives it advantages in tackling the complexities of these issues and in providing models and leadership for how other nations might do the same.
“We Never Forgot”
Sitting directly to Russia’s east and sharing a nearly 900 mile border, Finland is no stranger to its larger neighbor’s ambitions. Several months after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, forces from the Soviet Union marched against Finland in the Winter War propelled by a grab for additional territory and claims of security for cities such as Leningrad, which sits a mere 20 miles from the Finnish border.
Despite the Soviet Union’s superior capabilities in tanks and aircraft, Finnish forces successfully deterred all major advances from the Soviets until March 1940, when the active fighting ended with the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty. Even in five short months of fighting, the Soviet military suffered heavy losses both in equipment and personnel, as well as intense damage to its international reputation and expulsion from the League of Nations, a precursor to today’s United Nations.
It is history that President Niinistö brought to the forefront of his assessment of current geopolitics.
“In the Winter War, the Soviet Union said they were going to conquer Finland in two weeks. They thought that when they brought so many forces to our borders, the Finns would fly like sparrows and they would be free to go further,” President Niinistö explained. “This came to my mind when I saw the massive attack on Ukraine. It seems Moscow calculated that the Ukrainians would also fly away. They did not. It was a massive mistake on Putin’s side.”
Whether in 1939 or 2023, Finland remains on the geographic and psychological frontlines of Russia, which gives the nation a distinct perspective among its allies in Western Europe and North America.
“After the Cold War, it seemed like most of our European countries started to think that peace is forever. But we in Finland never forgot,” Niinistö told the panel.
The War in Ukraine and Shifting Positions in Europe
With Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine entering its second year, Europe and its allies now find themselves reckoning with issues Baltic and Eastern European countries have held at eye level for decades.
As Steven Pifer pointed out, the war has brought cohesion within Ukraine and erased many of the traditional East-West divides between Ukrainian nationals and Russian nationals. But worries remain both among Ukrainians and their partners that a protracted conflict will eventually erode the resolve of Western nations to continue their support. By Anna Grzymała-Busse's assessment, support for the war in the Baltic republics and places like Poland remains steadfast. But she cautioned against tendencies she has seen amongst certain Western European states to call for peace at any cost or preemptively assume the role of a broker on Ukraine's behalf.
"At this stage, such actions only benefit Russia," Grzymała-Busse asserted.
And while the response of NATO thus far has remained unified, concerns remain that a protracted conflict will eventually erode the resolve of the alliance to continue its support for Ukraine at the level needed to secure a victory or bring Russia to the negotiating table.
But as an ascending NATO member, Finland may be able to reinforce that commitment of long-term support.
“What Finland brings to the nature of the competitions we’re facing is clarity,” said H.R. McMaster. Speaking of its influence in the European sphere, Grzymała-Busse agreed that Finland’s positions and opinions have often served to bring legitimacy to concerns over Russia and made warnings from states such as Poland, Latvia, and Estonia credible and convincing to the rest of Europe.
Kathryn Stoner echoed the unique position Finland has often found itself in as a European member state with strongly shared Western values while also being a next door neighbor to the increasingly autocratic Kremlin regime, noting that in the last ten years, President Niinistö has met or spoken by phone with Vladimir Putin more than forty times in the past decade, more than any other European leader and second only to Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Drawing on Niinistö’s experience, she posed the question on many people’s minds: “Will Russia ever be seen as a good neighbor again, after all that is happening in Ukraine?”
“Not in my time,” Niinistö acknowledged. But he also pointed out that despite the conflict and aggressive timbre of the Kremlin, security along the Finnish-Russian and Norwegian-Russian borders remains calm and that sea lane traffic in the Gulf of Finland, which is administered between Finland, Estonia, and Russia remains in good working order as well.
But citing the Finnish version of the common adage, Niinistö also cautioned that, “If there is no wind, there is often a storm coming.”
The Influence of China
One brewing issue President Niinistö was particularly interested in speaking with the FSI panelists about was the role of China on the geopolitical stage, both specifically in Europe and the conflict in Ukraine, and as a rising super power with global influence.
Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on the Chinese military and Chinese strategic competition, addressed one set of immediate concerns. “I don’t believe Russia and China are planning on fighting any wars together,” she affirmed. On a personal level, she is also not convinced that China will begin providing high-level offensive weapons to the Russians to fight in Ukraine, a worry that has been raised recently by Western security officials. “That would go against every view Beijing holds on effective ways of intervening in foreign conflicts and advancing China’s interests,” she explained to the panel.
For Mastro, the more concerning issue with China is the willingness the PRC leadership has to play a spoiler role in geopolitical issues, and to leverage inaction from other nations to its own advantage. She cited examples such as German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit alongside top German business executives to Beijing in November 2022, and French president Emmanuel Macron's upcoming trip in April 2023 to meet with Xi Jinping as examples of European hesitancy to take a firmer stance on China. It is not a position that has been lost on Beijng.
“The Chinese view is that they can continue to support Russia and pay basically no cost in their relationship with European partners and allies,” said Mastro. To change this calculus, Mastro says firmer consequences for China from Europe are needed. While perhaps politically uncomfortable for some leaders, Mastro believes such costs could be very effective in deterring and containing Beijing, which puts high value on its relationship with Europe.
It’s a point President Niinistö shares in his assessment of the Chinese position, and one he has urged his European counterparts to make clear in their interactions with Beijing.
“If people develop an opinion that China is supporting Russia, it will spoil China’s reputation and image in Europe and in the eyes of European people,” he affirmed.
Returning to China’s immediate role in Ukraine, Oriana Mastro was also quick to caution against China’s offer to act as an intermediary for peace between Russia and Ukraine. “It's very standard for China to offer to play this kind of mediator role, because they have close relations with rogue nations that the United States and its allies and partners do not have direct relations with,” she explained, also adding, “But you better believe they're not doing it for free.”
Opportunities for Finnish Leadership
Amid so many competing interests from different regions of the globe, the panel nonetheless focused on areas where Finland could provide leadership among its partners, particularly as a future member of NATO. In political and economic discussions, Finland’s experience as a “bear whisperer,” as Kathryn Stoner phrased it, brings additional leverage amid various European coalitions, some of which continue to struggle in taking or maintaining a unified position on Ukraine and Russia, per the concerns raised by Anna Grzymała-Busse.
Others pointed out the active role Finland has already taken in not only providing military assistance to Ukraine, but in working to counter the digital and informational attacks the Kremlin is carrying out not only in Ukraine, but globally.
Speaking of a prior meeting with the Finnish president he had in 2017, H.R. McMaster recounted that “President Niinistö has one of the most accurate views I’ve heard about Russia’s new generation warfare to subvert the free world.” Beyond the frontlines on the ground in Bakhmut and Kherson, Russia (and increasingly China) continue to operate sophisticated campaigns against the West, which include cyber components, sustained information warfare, and political subversion aimed at reducing the will of democratic populations to compete and stand up to aggression, a reality McMaster highlighted several times as a critical threat to the democratic world.
The Finnish government under President Niinistö has been highly proactive in pushing back against such threats. Since 2015, there has been extensive training offered for government officials in recognizing online disinformation, and the Finnish school system has adapted to offer young people more training in critical thinking and media literacy. In a ranking of 35 European countries, Finland ranks first in a measurement of resilience against the so-called “post-truth phenomenon.”
Looking deeper into the technological realm, Alex Stamos agrees that Finland can bring much needed expertise and leadership into its alliances, present and future.
As an advisor to NATO's Collective Cybersecurity Center, Stamos said that “NATO has no idea what it's doing around cybersecurity.” While the invasion of Ukraine has brought some of those security concerns to the forefront, there is still a great deal of work still to be done to broadly create the kind of resilience individual countries have started to develop.
“We need to create a belief in Western multinationals that they are players in this game, not neutral companies, but reservists that will be called up when the rubber hits the road,” Stamos stressed.
By Stamos’ view, part of the issue in creating robust cybersecurity defenses comes from a difference in the relationship private companies have to their governments in places such as Ukraine or Finland as opposed to nations further west. Nations like Ukraine have faced a constant bombardment of Russian cyber attacks for decades, which in turn has created a much better immune response from both the public and private sectors of their digital economy.
“The private sector in Ukraine sees itself as a component of the nation’s war-fighting and defense capability,” Stamos explained. “That is not true in the West.”
However, Stamos also believes that Finland — which is small, highly developed, and lives under many of the same cyber threats from Russia as Eastern Europe — can provide critical leadership on cyber issues to its Western allies and future NATO partners. It is a role that business executives such as Risto Siilasmaa, a leader in the Finnish tech sector and former executive at Nokia, agreed with. Joining the panel as a representative of the Finnish delegation, Siilasmaa similarly emphasized the need to strengthen ties between public institutions and private technology companies.
“Technology comes very rapidly,” Siilasmaa acknowledged. “And if we regulate badly, we can’t use technology in the right way. That is why we need smart regulation. But in order to do smart regulation, we need to understand it. And to understand it, we may need to send our politicians back to school,” he concluded.
“We Are Awake”
In President Niinistö’s assessment, Finland remains clear-eyed to both the challenges ahead and opportunities his country will have in meeting them. “We are awake,” he affirmed. “This is the Finnish position.”
Niinistö reminded the panel that the Finnish Defence Forces’ reserve comprises approximately 900,000 Finnish citizens, a number which surpasses even Germany’s military personel count. The Finnish government has also been proactive in providing military and economic support to Ukraine, a trend Niinistö sees continuing for as long as the conflict continues.
But beyond military preparedness and support, President Niinistö also acknowledged the power that the hearts and minds of everyday people play in the outcome of geopolitical struggles.
Offering a word of caution to anti-democratic nations, Niinistö advised, “Leaders in autocratic countries don’t take notice that ordinary people in the free world have opinions. But those opinions have an impact on politics and policies. These leaders need to understand that they will suffer a huge reputation risk that will last for generations if they continue as they are.”
For many, the war in Ukraine has provided a timely, and tragic, reminder of how indispensable the values espoused by democratic people are, and how quickly they can be threatened.
Speaking in gratitude to Finland’s commitment to those values, Michael McFaul thanked President Niinistö for the clarity of his positions against authoritarianism.
“You, your prime minister, and your country have been some of the strongest and clearest voices on this war,” McFaul acknowledged. “And as someone who believes in universal values, democracy, freedom, and the transatlantic relationship, I thank you for the leadership you are providing.”
Watch the full recording of the panel discussion below.