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U.S. Increases the Heat in the Finnish Political Sauna

November 12, 2012

From October 11th, 2012

Among all the rituals surrounding Finnish sauna-bathing, it is considered commonsense to be polite and not throw water onto the heated stones before asking fellow bathers. Attitudes and relations might be strained, if not become downright hostile, to such a self-centered move.

Metaphorically, this recently occurred when the U.S. Congress raised no objections to the sale of 70 Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off missiles (JASSM) to Finland last month. The heat is now up and the relationship between the small state of Finland and its great neighbor Russia is increasingly anything but polite.

Congress justified the deal with typical vague phrases such as “…the missile sale will contribute to the U.S national security policy…” and that,  “It will help the security of a friendly country…” as “Finland continues to be an important force for political stability…”

Beyond diplomatic textbook-like statements lies real political and security implications worth dissecting.  The JASSM acquisition is a game-changing defensive and offensive capability aimed clearly at Russia. This is an ultra-modern air-to-surface missile weapon, which the U.S. has not sold to any other non-NATO member in Europe.

So why does the U.S. want Finland to have these missiles? Why did Finland find it necessary to bulk up on an already impressive (by European measures) defense system? The arms treaty has three significant political implications and possible unintended consequences Finnish and U.S. policy makers must consider:

First, the signal this arms treaty sends to Russia: Back off.

Finland and Russia have had several military conflicts during the last two hundred years, the last was the Continuation War which ended in September of 1944, the second of two wars that occurred during the World War II period.

So, some 66 years later Finnish policy makers have argued that they are just “keeping up with modern technology.” It will be hard to convince the Russians that their neighbor, once a member of the Russian Empire for 108 years until World War I and enemy in World War II has acquired these strategic deterrence missiles merely as an exercise in regular hardware maintenance. The acquisition is not just a regular upgrade from the meat-and-potatoes system with Cold War era tanks artillery. The JASSM is a cruise missile designed to be fired from jet fighter aircraft deep into enemy territory to eliminate enemy air defense systems, or targets deep in heavily defended (against an air attack) enemy territory. It is a threshold-raising deterrent weapon.

In the unlikely scenario that Russia would attack Finland, the U.S. has made sure that such an attack will be unprofitable. Through this arms treaty, the U.S. is also sending an indirect message to Russia: In the event of a crisis, such as the one in Georgia in 2008, which escalated to the use of extensive Russian military force, the Finnish border has been buffered with U.S. steel.

Second, the signal the U.S. sends to NATO: You are not our only priority.

Why does the U.S. look to strengthen a non-NATO member in Europe? The U.S. deal with Finland is part of a new pattern in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S.’s prefers the tailored collaboration between smaller constellations of Western states on specific areas of defense cooperation. While this might benefit U.S. national security strategies in the short term, the unintended consequence of these types of custom-made deterrence deals, runs the risk of undermining NATO’s credibility as the primary defense component in Europe.

Third, the signal Finland sends through this arms treaty: We are not really neutral.

The Finnish Air Force has become increasingly reliant on the benevolence of the U.S. However neutral the Finns might want to declare themselves to be, there is nothing that spells neutrality with this type of made-in-America-equipment. For Finnish policy makers, this missile deal means effectively committing to America’s power politics. Thus, the potential for Finland to feel pressure to politically support other U.S. actions is likely to grow.

Time to cool it down?

Clearly, the past three years of discussing this arms treaty has triggered unnecessary tensions with Moscow. The big question now follows: how will Finland respond to the threatening rhetoric of its great neighbor? Earlier this summer, when the missile deal was still pending, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that, “if the deployment of attack missiles is approved, Russia will take retaliatory measures.” Putting it lightly, the deal has irritated Moscow. Putin has stomped his feet, threatening to spark another arms race between the two former Cold War rivals.

Perhaps its time to open a window and let some fresh, cool Scandinavian air into the overheated sauna? Or should the Finns wait for the air to cool down by itself? For now, Finnish policy must at least stop the offensive water tossing on to the heated stones. Otherwise, the sweaty and red-faced Russian will continue to grunt hostilely inside the Finnish sauna.


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