Most European countries have abandoned conscription, but Finland is stubbornly holding out. While the number of recruits is dwindling, and currently only two-thirds of the young men serve in the armed forces, the system enjoys popular support and seems set to remain. Yet the last time the Finnish Defence Forces saw large-scale action was World War II. The so-called Winter War of 1939-1940, when Finland held out against a Soviet invasion, dominates the popular imagination. That’s tough on the Finnish Defence Forces (FDF), who deal with a large number of conscripts every year for whom war is thought of as a thing of the past. General conscription means that the term “reservists” effectively describes the majority of young and middle-aged Finnish men, as well as a small but rising number of women. Unlike the reserve forces of most volunteer services, the majority of reservists have little to no interaction with the FDF after their mandatory service is done.
A small part of the solution is a 19-minute film, “Taistelukentta 2020” (“Battlefield 2020”), released on YouTube earlier this summer. This is the latest iteration of a concept first tried during the 1990s, in which an short film, made with the aid of Finland’s public broadcaster YLE, is used to show how a modern-day conflict could develop from a crisis to a full-blown war, and how the FDF would handle the situation. It’s an effective and meaningful publicity film—and the implicit enemy is still the Russians. The film acts as both a model of how to introduce the realities of modern-day conflict to a broad audience, and as an introduction to how the FDF—which is all too aware of its powerful and aggressive neighbor—sees the country’s strategic challenges.
The decision to publish the full film on YouTube and not just restrict it to internal training is notable in itself, as otherwise the majority of Finnish reservists would never get to see the material. But while the basic premises of the video are clear enough to the casual viewer, there are several more subtle aspects to the story that show how the FDF’s thinking has changed.
The film begins with a short prelude from FDF Col. Jyri Raitasalo. Raitasalo, as both a doctor of political science and a military advisor to the minister of defense, is one of the most prolific Finnish military thinkers today. He is also the face of the FDF throughout the film. Besides providing the opening and closing thoughts, as part of the film narrative he is “interviewed” by YLE to provide expert commentary about the developments—something he has done for real several times, on topics such as the INF-treaty, the infamous Airiston Helmi case of 2019, and about Putin’s ambitions in a Foreign Policy piece last year. Raitasalo acknowledges that recent events have changed how the FDF thinks about a potential conflict, and that war can start in many ways.
The film proper then starts with a depiction of large-scale cyberattacks on financial infrastructure and the power grid, as well as sabotage of local water supplies. This is the first key point. Traditional Finnish thinking, based in no small part on the crisis leading up to the Winter War, envisioned a “gray period” in which temperature was slowly rising. During this time, the reserve would be mobilized and preparations for an enemy attack would be made. One of the Finnish traits, however, is a deep respect for laws and regulations. On the positive side, this translates into some of the highest trust in authorities and lowest levels of corruption measured in the world, but on the flip side the system is extremely inflexible if faced with a development that it is not designed to meet.
The Russian annexation of Crimea made it painfully obvious to Finland that a system that relied on army units being mobilized through extra refresher exercises, that legally has to be called up months in advanced, was outdated. A series of reforms were initiated of both the FDF organization and the legal framework surrounding its procedures. The results of this reform work are evident in Taistelukentta.
The first hint is relatively minor: a brief mention of local forces helping distribute clean drinking water to areas affected by sabotage. The Local Forces are similar to a home guard, consisting of volunteer reservists who agree to take part in additional refresher exercises and can be called up to assist civilian authorities in case of natural or man-made disasters. They predate Crimea, going back to the early years of the millennium, but their importance has grown in recent years. In wartime they would guard strategic targets and conduct simpler military tasks. The fact that they are largely staffed with volunteers and set up on a local basis makes them well-suited to these kinds of missions.
But why would Finland become the target for enemy aggression? The film doesn’t go into details. In fact, it doesn’t even mention who the attacker is. However, current geopolitical trends together with the equipment and organization of the film’s unnamed adversary make Russia the obvious candidate.
The bigger picture is hinted at through newsreels and interviews with Raitasalo. The crisis in Finland isn’t taking place in isolation, but against a backdrop of increased tension in the Baltic Region with Russia and NATO as the two antagonists. In this atmosphere of increased tension, “someone” is targeting Finland with increasingly aggressive measures to get the country to act in a certain way, and when this does not happen the measures are escalated.
In this atmosphere of increased tension, “someone” is targeting Finland with increasingly aggressive measures to get the country to act in a certain way, and when this does not happen the measures are escalated.
Finland might not be a formal NATO member, but its status as one of the alliances’ closest partner countries and its deep roots in the western democratic community means there’s not much room for picking sides—or desire to do so. Finland and Russia do share a vibrant business sector, which include both tourism (Russians being the single largest group of foreign tourists in Finland) as well as trade. The general attitude among Finns toward individual Russians is also usually rather neutral (although cultural shocks does happen). However, based on a widely reported poll from last year, Finns are very critical of the current Russian administration and its foreign-policy choices, which they feel are causing instability both globally and in the Baltic Sea region. As such, the political scene-setting shouldn’t be too difficult to swallow for most viewers.
Much has been written on the role of Finland in a NATO-Russia showdown, but the key points are that Finnish territory is important for NATO’s reinforcement routes to the Baltic countries (in particular Estonia), and as a staging ground for long-range weapons allowing for control of the sea lines between the Russian mainland and Kaliningrad, and affecting the Murmansk region and Russia’s nuclear weapons bastion in the far North. And as usual, it is good to keep in mind that a Russian attack on Finland, as opposed to neighboring Estonia, a NATO member, would not trigger NATO’s Article 5.
While the film doesn’t go into details, you can certainly construct a plausible background scenario from the hints. Russian aggression directed toward the Baltic countries (or Poland) leads to a serious international crisis, in the shadow of which Russia tries to push Finland to side with it in some way. This could be directly, such as providing basing rights, or indirectly through publicly making commitments not to honor EU’s mutual defense clause or allow NATO aircraft to use Finnish airspace in case of an outbreak of hostilities. As Finland resists these demands, the heat is turned up, and the Kremlin’s attention is directed more towards Finland to ensure that the right flank is safe in case of a major war. You may not be interested in war, but war might be interested in you, as the (likely false) Trotsky quote goes.
As the measures against Finland are stepped up, the legal changes introduced in Finland post-Crimea start to kick into effect. The importance of these might not be obvious, as they go by in passing throughout the film, but in a real-life crisis they would mark important milestones. These include the ability to fast-track mobilization of certain units as well as to raise the peacetime limits on the maximum number of days of refresher exercises that can be required from a reservist, changes that were introduced in 2016. These kinds of tailored responses are particularly important as a crisis can develop swiftly and in unexpected directions. An additional complication for Finland is that the political system relies heavily on the parliament. The 200-seat chamber currently holds nine parties, five of which have 20 seats or more. As such, even a single majority will require at least three parties agreeing, leading to worries about disinformation and political partisanship causing delays in the ordinary procedures, meaning that fast tracks are seen as vital.
Once the shooting starts, the changed nature of the FDF itself starts to show.
When an airliner squawking an emergency lands at Kajaani airport, central Finland, and armed men start streaming out of it, the star of FDF’s post-Crimea reforms enters the stage. The readiness units, known by their Finnish abbreviation VYKS, are set up by all peacetime garrisons to provide a quick reaction force. These combined arms formations are staffed by a combination of professional soldiers and conscripts volunteering for additional service and are trained to handle everything from “little green men” to full-scale war. As such, while the first step when someone starts shooting in Finland is to call the police, in “Taistelukentta” the local police quickly alert the FDF and ask for assistance. Soon the commander of the local VYKS has taken charge of the whole situation, bringing with him not only infantry, but also tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery, as well as a detachment of the Utti Jaeger regiment, the country’s leading special forces unit, who are flown in by helicopter.
However, while the Kajaani situation is quickly cleared through an assault on the terminal building where the gunmen are holed up, the situation escalates elsewhere. “Taistelukentta” shows the navy setting up defensive minefields, a tried-and-tested tactic in the shallow Baltic Sea that still is a key part of the Finnish Navy’s doctrine, both for stopping hostile forces from landing on Finnish soil and for deterring enemy surface and subsurface units from intercepting merchant shipping. With Finland reliant on imports for a number of goods, including fuel, food, medicines, and certain high-tech weaponry, keeping the shipping lanes open is a must during any prolonged conflict.
The next threat in the movie emerges far from Kajaani, when an enemy marine-mechanized company starts rolling off civilian ro-ro vessels (roll-on, roll-off) in the port of Hanko as the city’s small airfield simultaneously suffers an airborne assault. Since Hanko is the southernmost point on the Finnish mainland, the peninsula has throughout history provided a base for naval units and coastal artillery that can control the western inlet to the Gulf of Finland. As such, basing surface vessels and modern anti-ship systems there would allow for cutting off cities such as Helsinki, Tallinn, and Paldiski, but also St Petersburg and Vyborg, from the Baltic Sea proper and beyond.
As the FDF is mobilized by this stage, it is not the VYKS that get to greet the invaders, but mobilized wartime units manned with a combination of professionals and reservists. The spearhead of the Finnish wartime army is made up of battlegroups, a catch-all term that describes a unit with integral supporting arms, allowing it to solve missions independently or as part of larger task forces. This is illustrated in the film by having a lead motorized battlegroup being reinforced with armored and infantry units able to counter the enemy advance from land, while at the same time the elite marine infantry of the Finnish Navy, the coastal jaegers of the Nyland brigade, cut off the enemy supply lines by capturing key islands south of the peninsula.
At the same time, the authorities try to evacuate the civilian population.
At the same time, the authorities try to evacuate the civilian population.
This is another aspect that is easily overlooked when speculating about what the next war would look like, but especially in the case of a defensive war such as those Finland (and NATO) is planning for, minimizing losses to friendly populations is a key issue. For Finland, which successfully evacuated large parts of the population away from the fighting during the Second World War, large-scale evacuations are still seen as an option, and the evacuation of 600 inhabitants of the real-world village of Degerby was included in a military exercise back in 2018.
The rest of the film can be best described as B-roll portraying the events along the main front, showing attacks and counterattacks, artillery concentrations, and Finnish soldiers in the midst of the battle. These provide additional material with which the young conscript can identify, and provide food for thought for questions such as, “How would my war look?” and “What would I feel?”
The short film is a powerful educational tool for creating serious discussions between the officers and the conscripts about many aspects of their training. But it is also, whether planned as such or not, an important statement to potential adversaries and friends that Finland plans on defending itself against outside pressure. Strategists, soldiers, and politicians in other nations stuck in lockdown should spare the 20 minutes to familiarize themselves with the Finnish plans.