HELSINKI — The National Guard’s top officer recently visited Finland as part of a larger Northern European itinerary to strengthen the Guard’s security cooperation ties in the region.
The Guard has worked with Finland for more than 20 years. The framework for an even deeper partnership is already in place, Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, National Guard Bureau chief, told Finnish defense officials during his second visit to the Nordic nation this year.
“Finland has a rich history, strong military capabilities and strategic significance,” Hokanson said. “We congratulate Finland on becoming the newest member of NATO and look forward to continued collaboration to learn from each other and improve our readiness.”
During his visit, Hokanson met with Douglas Hickey, U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Finland; Esa Pulkkinen, permanent secretary, Ministry of Defense; Gen. Timo Kivinen, Finland’s chief of defense; Lt. Gen. Vesa Virtanen, chief of the general staff, Finnish Defense Forces; leaders and troops of the Finnish Army’s Karelia and Jaeger Brigades and members of the Southeastern Finland Border Guard District.
“The National Guard is an important partner for us,” Virtanen said. “It has important performance capabilities and troops that we are happy to practice and intensify our cooperation with.
“Membership in NATO and bilateral cooperation are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “Bilateral defense cooperation effectively supports NATO’s collective defense, enables both parties to strengthen their performance capabilities and prevent crises from arising.”
The United States established diplomatic relations with Finland in 1919 following its declaration of independence from the Russian Empire. Russian culture and historical influence are still apparent here.
Also evident is Finnish support for Ukraine — in the many Ukrainian flags flying over Helsinki and in the defense support packages Finland has sent to Kyiv.
The Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, sparking a war between Finland’s army and the much larger Red Army.
The “Winter War” lasted longer than many had predicted — including Russia. Though a swift USSR victory was hindered by Finland’s strong, resilient force, after nearly four months of fighting, it concluded with a peace treaty that stipulated Finland yield 11% of its territory to the Soviet Union, including the strategic Karelian Isthmus.
For Finns, similarities between 1939 and 2022 are striking: a larger nation and military force attempting to subjugate a neighboring country to its dominion.
Russia’s latest conquest attempt in Ukraine caused Finland’s leaders to reexamine and ultimately modify its long policy of neutrality. In April, Finland was welcomed into NATO as the 31st member country.
Finland President Sauli Niinistö then declared: “The era of military nonalignment in Finland has come to an end. A new era begins.”
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, one in four Finns supported the country joining NATO. After the invasion, three in four Finns supported joining.
NATO’s cooperation with Finland began when Helsinki joined the Partnership for Peace Programme in 1994. Around that time, Finland began its bilateral relationship with the United States when it upgraded its air force with American-produced fighters.
Over the subsequent decades, Finland became one of NATO’s most active partners and a valued contributor to the alliance’s activities, including NATO-led operations and missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Also, in the early 90s, the Department of Defense was exploring ways to assist former Soviet states emerging from the Iron Curtain. The National Guard was selected to manage the nascent State Partnership Program as an instrument to help develop these newly independent countries’ militaries. The California Guard took on Ukraine as one of the program’s charter pairings in 1993.
California Guardsmen have developed close personal ties with their Ukrainian counterparts, which have paid dividends in Ukraine’s ongoing fight against Russia.
The State Partnership Program now includes security cooperation relationships between 100 nations and the National Guard of every state, territory and the District of Columbia.
Though not an official SPP association, Virginia National Guardsmen have worked with Finnish Defense Force members since the early 2000s. Finnish troops and Virginia Guardsmen deployed together as members of NATO’s SFOR-10 (stabilization force) Multinational Division North in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2001.
This co-deployment sparked a now broad security cooperation relationship. Finnish troops and Virginia Guardsmen have participated together in many training exchanges over the past two decades.
In recent years, Guardsmen have worked with Finnish troops in cyber exchanges and Arctic training — two areas of growing significance for the DOD and National Guard.
“It’s critical for us to learn how to survive in the Arctic,” Hokanson said, “and not just survive, but operate. We think it’s very important to train together in this environment and learn from them.”
In April, more than 60 Virginia Guardsmen participated in Defense Exercise North — part of the U.S. Army Europe and Africa-led Arctic Forge exercise — focused on building Arctic military capabilities and cooperation.
Hosted at Finland’s Sodankylä Garrison north of the Arctic Circle, Guardsmen and active-component Soldiers trained alongside 500 Finnish counterparts who taught the basics of operating in an Arctic environment, sharing their cold climate expertise.
The knowledge flowed both ways.
“We validated the concept that a [traditional, part-time Guard] force could deploy on short notice to an overseas base in the high north, receive specialized theater-specific training and be capable of conducting tactical operations in an Arctic environment,” said Army Maj. Sidney Leslie, commander, 2nd Squadron, 183rd Cavalry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Virginia Guard.
The National Guard and Finland each have robust capabilities in the cybersecurity and defense domain. In August, the Virginia Guard hosted a cyber defense exercise to test its cyber response plans. Finnish cyber experts joined Cyber Fortress 2.0, held in Virginia Beach.
For its air force, Finland is preparing to replace an aging F-18 fighter fleet with F-35 fighters. Helsinki ordered 64 of the fifth-generation fighters, with the initial fielding set for 2026.
Finnish pilots visited the Virginia Guard’s 192nd Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in May to discuss techniques and operations.
“The Virginia Air National Guard’s 149th Fighter Squadron is leading U.S. Air Force efforts in Agile Combat Employment, an area where there is much to learn from the Finnish Air Force as they operate with an ACE mindset daily,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Lawrence Dietrich, 149th Fighter Squadron commander.
“Additionally, the 149th has tremendous experience with fifth-generation fighter integration tactics and can provide this expertise to Finland as they begin to procure F-35s and fly them alongside their existing F-18 fleet,” he said.
It’s all part of both nations’ commitment to peace and stability and the international rules-based order.
“We’re happy to help them any way we can,” Hokanson said. “It’s a two-way street and a mutually beneficial relationship.”
During his stop at Finland’s Southeast Border Guard District in Vaalimaa, the CNGB met with Col. Mika Rytkönen, the commander of the agency that secures part of Finland’s 833-mile border with Russia.
This law enforcement unit conducts border surveillance and checks and maritime search and rescue. Its members have military training to defend the border if needed.
Finland has a long history of combining military and non-military aspects of society into its comprehensive security model — a collective charge Rytkönen described as a “cold will to defend Finland.”