Official Janne Kuusela, the border crossing at Imatra, camouflage clothing from Germany's Bundeswehr, Tomi Rask of the Helsinki City Rescue Department

Official Janne Kuusela, the border crossing at Imatra, camouflage clothing from Germany's Bundeswehr, Tomi Rask of the Helsinki City Rescue Department

Racing Toward NATO Finland Could Join Military Alliance Imminently

Finland has been neutral for almost 80 years, but now it wants to join NATO and could apply later this week. The Ukraine war has destroyed any last trust in Russia and the mood in Helsinki and the rest of the country has shifted rapidly.
By Jan Petter in Helsinki and Imatra

Peace made Valtteri Lindholm a millionaire, but now he’s gearing up for war. Lindholm runs the Varusteleka army surplus store on the outskirts of Helsinki, a 4,000-square-meter store for those who want to defend their country – or at least wear camouflage when the go fishing. The store offers combat knives, camouflage nets, parkas and night vision equipment, much of it surplus stocks from Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr. For much of the past 20 years, Lindholm has been outfitting customers in Finland and the rest of the world, and now his store is the largest on the continent, he says. Essentially, Lindholm made his money preparing for scenario he believed would never come.

DER SPIEGEL 19/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 19/2022 (May 7th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

On this particular morning, he is wearing a gray shirt, jeans, leather boots and a strawberry-blond full beard, with his shirtsleeves rolled up to reveal his tattooed forearms. In recent weeks, he says, he has delivered thousands of protective vests and military first-aid kits to Ukraine. Business, he says, is brisk, but sales are also rising in Finland. Lindholm says March was the strongest month of sales since he founded the company.

A 40-year-old married man, Lindholm stresses that he is a startup founder and not a warmonger. He simply provides what the market wants and has succeeded in establishing camouflage as a lifestyle in Finland. As a publicity stunt, he sponsored a science fiction movie a few years ago in which Nazis secretly colonize the moon. The mix of comedy and camouflage struck a chord among Finns and their approach to life. Lindholm says that 80 percent of his customers are men under 40. But now, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it's no longer just fun and games. Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer border with Russia; the threat is right next door. Valtteri Lindholm wants to see his country join NATO as quickly as possible.

On Feb. 24, he published an open letter to Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin. "Dear Prime Minister," he wrote, "we have nothing to lose by joining NATO. Our country needs leadership." Thousands shared the letter on the web, making it clear that Lindholm had once again recognized the mood of his compatriots.

Entrepreneur Valtteri Lindholm at his business in a suburb of Helsinki

Entrepreneur Valtteri Lindholm at his business in a suburb of Helsinki

Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL
Many of the things for sale here originated from surpluses of Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr.

Many of the things for sale here originated from surpluses of Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr.

Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

According to a recent survey, 68 percent of Finns are in favor of their country joining NATO, with only 12 percent opposing the move. Only five years ago, the mood was almost precisely the opposite, with the majority opposed to NATO membership. It appears that the war in Ukraine has radically changed the Finns' attitudes toward their eastern neighbor.

Under pressure from Moscow, the country has been politically neutral and outside of NATO since World War II. At some point, the Finns became accustomed to the imposed neutrality, and after the end of the Cold War, there were hopes of reconciliation with Russia. Even though Finland has since sent soldiers Afghanistan and even purchased American fighter jets, it's relations with its immediate neighbors have remained abnormal.

It's possible that Finland could now apply for NATO accession together with Sweden this week. It would be the biggest change in security policy seen in decades. "This would have been unthinkable until recently," says Charly Salonius-Pasternak, an analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, a think tank that advises the government and others. Salonius-Pasternak should know. In 2009, he came under sharp attack after reminding his compatriots that they had been operating in a war zone together with NATO for years in Afghanistan. The foreign minister at the time, Alexander Stubb, himself now a proponent of fast-tracking deeper NATO ties, publicly distanced himself from the political scientist at the time. In the meantime, however, calls for military cooperation with other countries have become part of the political mainstream.

For Moscow, Finnish accession to NATO would be a particularly sensitive defeat. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear in recent months that he wants to push back the military alliance's influence, and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has also warned Nordic countries against joining. If Finland does no become a member, it would mean that NATO's shared border with Russian would become a whole lot longer. Just the week before last, Lavrov said the aftershocks of the Ukraine war could lead to a third world war. "The danger is serious, it is real, it should not be underestimated."

Such threats seem to have lost traction in Finland recently. "I'm glad we didn't turn out like Germany," says military surplus business owner Lindholm, a reference to the jaunty and naive pacifism of the Germans. He blames the fact that he never served in the military on his pacifist parents and says he will surely recommend military service to his sons. "My generation was naive," he says.

Still, the imposed neutrality has never been an excuse for inaction or disarmament in Finland. Unlike many other European Union countries, Finland continues to have compulsory military service, and reservists continue to receive training for several years. To this day, 70 percent of all young men opt for military service, and many stay connected to the armed forces for life. Should the need arise, the country of 5 million inhabitants would be able to quickly mobilize 280,000 men and women and even more in the long term. The Finnish military would likely benefit NATO just as much as the alliance would be a boon for Finland.

Lindholm says he has never been afraid of fighting. The idea for his store came to him during tournaments with friends of airsoft, an off-road game in which you fire plastic bullets at opponents using realistic looking weapons. It's the perfect sport for a country that values peace but cannot forget war.

For Lindholm and his generation, the neighbor is no longer a world power to be feared, but rather a corrupt illusory giant. Lindholm says he has often worked with Russians, adding that he never feared them, but he didn't trust them much either. The fear of Russia sometimes reminds him of Nordic mythology, he says. In Finnish lore, bears have always been divine animals. In order not to arouse their anger unnecessarily, ancestral Finns would resort to using euphemisms to describe them. The same has applied to Russia and the Soviet Union for the past 80 years. "No one wanted to wake the bear."

To this day, the name of the neighboring country is an irritant in government circles, and it is better not to use it too often. Indeed, you tend to run up against a number of taboos if you start asking around. This includes the term "Finlandization," which for decades had been used to describe the Soviet influence exerted on Finland, to the chagrin of many Finns. After the country became independent in 1917, it escaped occupation by Stalin's troops in World War II only through fierce resistance. For decades, the price of independence remained limited sovereignty and the need for close agreements with Moscow.

This doctrine was consolidated under President Urho Kekkonen, who held office for 25 years. More recently, however, this legacy has become a burden. Whereas the Baltic states were able to join NATO as early as 2004, mere discussion of the idea remained a taboo in Finland. The shadow of Finlandization was still present in the country.

Defense expert Janne Kuusela: "We're not Switzerland."

Defense expert Janne Kuusela: "We're not Switzerland."

Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

The fact that a similar neutrality status has been repeatedly proposed for Ukraine in recent months sparks anything but enthusiasm at the Defense Ministry in Helsinki. Janne Kuusela, head of the Security Policy Department, explicitly refuses to see his country's neutrality as a political model. "We're not Switzerland," he says. "We simply had no alternative at the time."

For him, joining NATO doesn't mean much from a military point of view, anyway, he assures. "Finland's military equipment is already more compatible with NATO standards than that of some members," he says. His country already has F-18 fighter jets and plans to procure the F-35 in the coming years.

Militarily, Kuusela says, his country has long been prepared for the new reality. "Unlike many other EU countries, we never significantly reduced our defensive capabilities. We have always known what it means to live right next to an influential country." Politically, change is apparently more difficult. Kuusela also avoids referring to his neighbor by its name. Apparently, he doesn't want to wake the bear either.

The Defense Ministry has considered a number of different scenarios for how Moscow might react to an application for membership. A number of different reactions are conceivable, say ministry officials. In 2015, Russian sent migrants across the border, they say. And in recent weeks, Finnish authorities have registered an increasing number of cyberattacks. Kuusela says he generally doesn't want to rule out any possibility, not even the use of tactical nuclear weapons by Moscow. "But, so far, we don't anticipate that happening. Joining is still our sovereign decision."

A visit to Imatra, a nondescript city of 26,000 in the southeast of the country, can provide a better understanding of how being Russia's direct neighbor has shaped the Finns. It's less than 10 kilometers from the city center to the border.

Before World War II, the Finnish territories in Karelia, where Imatra is located, were much larger than they are today. During the war, the Finns here fought fiercely against the Soviets, also with the support of the Nazis. After that, Stalin dictated new borders for the Finns. Since then, the town has been something of an outpost.

An empty border crossing to Russia

An empty border crossing to Russia

Foto:

Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

If there was a place where Finns and Russians met regularly, then it was here. Until a few weeks ago, Imatra lived mainly from Russian tourists. Cyrillic signs in the public sauna are a reminder of the guests who are no longer coming. Inside, the sauna is as empty as is the border crossing. At Finnish Railways, 300 freight transport jobs are now at risk. Practically overnight, a new iron curtain has sprung up.

Their direct proximity to Russia distinguishes Finns from the other Nordic countries, and the trauma of the war continues to shape the country to this day. Suddenly, it is back. Security, rather than the economy, has once again become the most pressing issue.

Border guards receive training at the Imatra barracks. Huge maps hang on almost every wall as a reminder that the Finns did not voluntarily cede large sections of Karelia and honorary plaques commemorate the fallen from the time. The military has built a border strip for training purposes in the area behind the barracks. One instructor says they have changed training regimes since 2014, adding that border protection is now more closely linked to the military.

Future border guards receiving their training: "We are the only neighboring country of Russia in Europe that is free and not in NATO."

Future border guards receiving their training: "We are the only neighboring country of Russia in Europe that is free and not in NATO."

Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL
A Finnish border guard instructor in Imatra.

A Finnish border guard instructor in Imatra.

Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

"As a human being, I'm already concerned," says one border guard in training. The others nod. "But we are the only neighboring country of Russia in Europe that is free and not in NATO. The other two are Belarus and Ukraine. We can't hold out any longer."

Veli Merentie knows only too well how long his country has been holding out. He's old enough to have experienced as a soldier what happens when the bear on the other side of the border attacks. At 98, he is the last living veteran of Imatra. There aren't many men like him left in the rest of the country either. The soldiers were treated like folk heroes in the country for decades. Museums, books and magazines kept their experiences alive in the collective memory, and their war stories shaped Finns' views of Russia. Now, most of them have fallen silent.

That's why Merentie wants to continue telling his story for as long as he can. And listening to him helps with understanding the extent to which Russian humiliations incited the stubbornness of the Finns and how the desire for self-determination has always been strong.

Ninety-eight-year-old veteran Veli Merentie: "The need was just so great."

Ninety-eight-year-old veteran Veli Merentie: "The need was just so great."

Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

"I've been to a lot of funerals in my life," Merentie says. He has small round eyes, silver blond hair and a delicate handshake. His wife passed away in 2004, and despite his age, he still lives alone. His simple mobile phone for seniors sits next to the local newspaper. Merentie says he feels like he's in good shape. He has six grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. His daughter, who is herself over 70, helps him each day. The only thing that's different is that he no longer uses his TV chair. He became a lumberjack after the war and has spent his entire life in the border region.

He wasn't actually supposed to become a soldier. His two brothers, one 26 and the other 24, were killed in action in 1940, and his mother died a short time later. "The need was just so great," Merentie says. So, he went to war in 1944, at the age of 19. In the very first months, he was put in charge of seven men.

Their task was to track down Soviet partisans who were deliberately terrorizing the civilian population, Merentie says. During midsummer, when the sun barely sets, they roamed the pine forests to spot enemies while they were sleeping. Once, they stumbled across a Russian who, in a panic, immediately opened fire. Merentie doesn't remember who returned fire. At 98, perhaps he doesn't want to. He only knows what happened to the fighter. "Piff," he says, tapping his forehead. Shot in the head. The other Russians got away.

Later, he was deployed as a messenger between the fronts, and fear was his constant companion. And yet, he says, he enjoyed doing it. "We Finns are stubborn and tough. I'm proud of that."

The 98-year-old has to concentrate when he speaks, but his strength only begins to wane after almost two hours. And it isn't always clear whether he is talking about things he experienced himself or just heard about. His stories show how his own experiences and the national myth have long since melded. After almost 80 years, the two seem barely separable. And soon those memories will disappear altogether.

When he watches TV today, he is experiencing a new kind of war, Merentie says thoughtfully. "We were in the forest. We almost never saw the Russians. It was different from Ukraine – we never had urban combat. Fortunately. Because that's the worst."

The steps to the bomb shelter of the Merihaka sport complexes in Helsinki's city center

The steps to the bomb shelter of the Merihaka sport complexes in Helsinki's city center

Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL
The underground shelter can provide safety for up to 6,000 people.

The underground shelter can provide safety for up to 6,000 people.

Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL
A shelter in Helsinki: 320 plastic buckets as toilets

A shelter in Helsinki: 320 plastic buckets as toilets

Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

And yet, Merentie says in parting, he recognizes the same themes, then as now. "The Russians have always lied to the Finns and their neighbors. If we can do so now, we should definitely be in NATO."

To this day, the Finns are well prepared for war. They have never fully trusted peace in Europe, despite membership in the European Union and prosperity. Should the need arise, 900,000 people in the capital city of Helsinki alone should be able to find refuge in bomb shelters. Tomi Rask, 53, and his colleagues from the Civil Defense Office keep them well maintained and in good condition. In everyday life, the shelters drilled into the granite rock are used as ice hockey fields or swimming pools. They appear in travel guides as a whimsical attraction. Now, the images from Ukraine are evoking what was once meant by dual-use bunkers: underground parking lots that can be used as shelters in the event of an emergency.

Rask leads through the entrance of the Merihaka sports complex in the center. Upon entering the underground parking lot, visitors pass through two dark green steel doors, both measuring six by four meters. "In an emergency," Rask says, "the first protects against blast waves and the second against poisonous gas."

Tomi Rask of the Helsinki City Rescue Department: "We plan on less than one square meter per person."

Tomi Rask of the Helsinki City Rescue Department: "We plan on less than one square meter per person."

Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

Behind another door is a room that may not be photographed. It contains 20 waist-high tanks that can clean the air for 6,000 people in the event of a war. It is capable of filtering 99 percent of all toxic agents.

Across the country, shelters are mandatory for larger residential buildings. Additional shelters are located in and around Helsinki. It should be enough for everyone, but comfort is not guaranteed. "We plan on less than one square meter per person," Rask says. If the facility is ever needed, shelter seekers would have to sleep in shifts and go to the bathroom behind thin curtains in 320 plastic buckets. The markings are already painted on the floor.

Valtteri Lindholm has also updated his emergency contingency plans. Recently, he says, he and his team calculated how many workers would go missing on short notice if the military called up its reservists. The result was clear. "We would have to close. Ninety percent of the boys are ready for battle."