Finland’s Next President Will Face a Changed Security Landscape

Duking it out: candidates for the next president of Finland at a debate in December 2023. Image: Sipa US / Alamy

As Finns prepare to elect a new president, they will be weighing up who is best-placed to protect them against international threats – particularly that of neighbouring Russia. What separates the candidates?

By mid-February at the latest, citizens of the Republic of Finland will have elected a new president. The outgoing president, Sauli Niinistö, has served two six-year terms, which is the maximum duration of the Finnish presidency. The next president will take charge of a newly minted NATO member state with the Alliance's longest border with Russia – a 1,343 km long boundary which Russia has turned into a tool of hybrid warfare, exploiting migrants as an instrument to pressure Finland. Only a few weeks before Finland’s resulting decision to block the border, the Baltic Connector gas pipeline was likely intentionally sabotaged by a Chinese vessel with an ownership structure connected to Russia, which allegedly had a Russian crew on board during the incident.

As an arctic NATO and EU frontier country facing Russia, Finland's geopolitical position has shifted from being an uninteresting pocket of peace to a potential new flashpoint that Russian state propaganda is actively targeting. The next president could hold the office – if re-elected in 2030 – until 2036, over 12 years from now. The president's main task is to lead Finland's foreign and security policy outside the EU, and the officeholder is the commander-in-chief of the Finnish military; this is why, in a time when tectonic global shifts are taking place, topics beyond Russia and the border issues have become increasingly relevant in the presidential campaign debates and for the future of Finland.

In the foreign and security policy arena, Finns' foremost concern remains whether their president can protect them from Russia. In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, all nine presidential candidates share similar views on Finland's foreign and security policy, especially towards Russia. The differences are nuanced. This makes it hard for citizens to distinguish between the candidates. The intention of this piece is not to analyse all nine candidates, but to understand how some of them are positioning themselves in regard to the most significant future geopolitical threats facing Finland, particularly those of Russia and the US–China great power competition, which leaves little foreign policy leeway for small countries.

Apart from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs director, Mika Aaltola, all the candidates are politicians, and their previous policy decisions and positioning can indicate their decision-making preferences. Especially since the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, past statements and policy decisions regarding Russia have come back to haunt some of the candidates.

Idealism versus Realism

The current poll leader, Alexander Stubb, who has held multiple political posts from MEP to foreign and prime minister and is the right-wing Coalition party candidate, has described himself as an idealist and realist. In his previous ministerial positions, he actively promoted economic cooperation with Russia, even after its occupation of Crimea. After this, he accused those who warned about the Russian threat of Russophobia. He supported Nord Stream II, the Russian nuclear power plant project in Finland, and visa freedom for Russians. Back then, Stubb strongly believed in the benefits of interconnectivity between Russia and Europe, and publicly praised Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as his old friend. Stubb was also in the government from 2011 to 2015, when Finland cut its defence budget by about 10%. The defence budget savings continued even after Russia's invasion of Crimea, when Stubb was prime minister. Later, he apologised for his earlier policy mistakes in dealing with Russia. However, he has not changed his opinion on Anti-Personnel Mines, and voted in 2011 for Finland to join the Ottawa Treaty and to unilaterally give up the mines on the Finnish-Russian border. This debate has returned to Finnish security policy discussions since February 2022.

Similarly, the current runner-up in the polls, former foreign minister, long-term pacifist and Greens candidate Pekka Haavisto, has previously labelled those who warned about the Russian threat as Russophobes, even after Russia's invasion of Crimea and East Ukraine. As a rule, he supported defence budget cuts until the 2010s and was firmly against Finland's NATO membership until Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022. Later on, he too admitted to having been too optimistic about Russia's development.

Finland's geopolitical position has shifted from being an uninteresting pocket of peace to a potential new flashpoint that Russian state propaganda is actively targeting

In an assumption that may prove to be fatal idealism, both Stubb and Haavisto have suggested in the presidential debates that Ukraine is already winning the war. The Centre Party candidate and two-time former EU commissioner Olli Rehn has debunked this belief, emphasising that the situation remains critical and severe. This view is shared by the independent candidates Mika Aaltola and Jussi Halla-aho from the Finns Party. Both Aaltola and Halla-aho see Russia as gathering momentum to expand its imperialism beyond Ukraine.

The Social Democrats' candidate, current EU Commissioner and former Minister of Finance Jutta Urpilainen, has also admitted that her earlier belief that economic and other cooperation with Russia could promote democracy and human rights was wrong. Some presidential candidates have taken Russia's warnings against Finland at face value. However, Urpilainen has emphasised that Finland is not militarily threatened by Russia or anyone else; it is therefore likely that she is against raising the defence budget above the NATO requirement of 2%. Instead, she would encourage other members to raise their defence budgets to meet NATO's target. The Left Alliance's candidate, Li Andersson, whose views on Finland's defence budget are the most moderate, suggests that the budget should vary depending on defence investment needs. At the same time, she argues that, for instance, Aaltola's demand for a 3% defence budget is mere populist rhetoric.

The independent candidate Mika Aaltola bases his argument for a 3% defence budget on the importance of preparedness. He compares Finland to other ‘flank’ countries, some of whose defence budgets are set to reach 4% of GDP in 2024, stating that 'Euros are cheap compared to body bags’, and stands behind his view that Russia could be a direct threat to Finland in a few years. Aaltola is not alone in Europe with his assessment; for instance, a recent German Council on Foreign Relations report predicts that NATO has five to 10 years to prepare for a Russian attack, and the Polish security chief has brought this estimate down further to only three years.

Soft Positioning Towards China: A Repeat of the Wrong Assessments on Russia?

Considering the accelerating great power competition between the US and China and that Finland has allied itself with NATO and signed a bilateral Defence Cooperation Agreement with the US, while China is among Finland's five most important trading partners, the Finnish media has only been covering the subject of Beijing very lightly.

As the current poll leader, Stubb has taken a cautious approach in an effort to keep his lead. This was confirmed by a Finnish tabloid, Iltalehti, which analysed presidential candidates' online election compass answers. Stubb answered 'neutral' over 40% of the time, far more than any of the other candidates. This election compass had only one question on China, and an unsurprising one in an EU context: whether Finland should decrease its dependence on China in terms of trade and imports. Apart from Haavisto's neutral stance, all candidates answered that Finland should de-risk. Overall, all candidates have emphasised the importance of reducing dependencies.

In particular, the independent candidate Mika Aaltola and the Finns Party's Jussi Halla-aho have distinguished themselves from other candidates on how they view China as a risk both globally and vis-á-vis Finland. In Aaltola's assessment, China is using its economic muscle to advance its superpower interests, and this should be minimised as effectively as possible. He acknowledges that Finland cannot completely break away from China, but argues that it should move production closer to home.

While China is among Finland's five most important trading partners, the Finnish media has only covered the subject of Beijing very lightly

Meanwhile, the Greens' Haavisto does not think there are such risks in the current global environment that trade which benefits both countries should be 'cut without justification'. Elsewhere, Haavisto has supported reducing dependence on China in critical sectors, and he has also highlighted China's active presence in the international arena and the need for China to participate in discussions on a peace plan for Ukraine.

Alexander Stubb, with the biggest campaign budget, has unsurprisingly received a lot of media visibility and has likely said more publicly about China than all the other candidates put together. His views on China are interesting for a poll leader, considering the mistakes he has admitted to making with regard to Russia. He positions himself around European strategic autonomy and has stated that the US must not define Finland's China policy – almost the exact same line that Beijing keeps repeating to European capitals and leaders. Stubb has emphasised in multiple forums that 75% of the time, the EU should go hand-in-hand with the US when it comes to China, but 25% of the time, Finland should engage with Beijing. Stubb characterises China as a ‘patient, strategic, and, in many ways, wise power’ and a more responsible global actor than Russia.

Furthermore, Stubb rejects speculation about a potential major war between the US and China as inappropriate. The former minister believes that moderation will prevail in relations between the great powers, including regarding Taiwan. He does not subscribe to the view that China is a supporter of Russia's military action in Ukraine. Instead, he has said it is ‘an overinterpretation that China sided with Russia’; on the contrary, he argues, Beijing wants to show the world it can solve this war because Russia is currently so dependent on it.

The Finnish Institute of International Affairs director, Mika Aaltola, is less optimistic. He sees the global situation as having worsened since the Second World War and says that the world order has rarely changed without a series of successive or simultaneous wars. He extends these fears to China, suggesting that with its struggling economy, it could follow Russia's example and harness war as a means of driving its economy and maintaining its social system – and if it makes a move against Taiwan, 'we would already be in the middle of a big conflict’. Consequently, he calls for preparedness for a more extensive war within the next 10 years and says that the time for dreaming is over.

Consistency and Foresight Differentiate the Presidential Candidates

In the presidential debates, all nine candidates have committed to the security policy decisions Finland has made since Russia attacked Ukraine. Returning to the period before Russia invaded Crimea, differences in the consistency of the candidates' foreign and security policy views emerge. As Chinese President Xi Jinping has said, we are witnessing changes not seen in a hundred years, and new types of threats will increase in importance to Finland – not least in the form of a friendship without limits between Russia and China, a threat that most, but not all, candidates choose to ignore. The presidential campaign shows that for politicians, it is challenging to break away from the expired politics of hope, as they fear that a sober assessment might scare voters.

In addition to new threats – the Arctic becoming increasingly contested, China planting its global governance across international institutions, and artificial intelligence and new technologies challenging our societies – Finland will remain one of the primary targets of Russian influence campaigns. As Mika Aaltola has put it: ‘Tehtaankatu [where the Russian embassy stands in Helsinki] is no longer a street in Helsinki, but a hybrid influencing channel’.

The author is part of presidential candidate Mika Aaltola’s election campaign team.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Sari Arho Havrén

Associate Fellow - Specialist in China’s foreign relations

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