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Sault Finnish community members talk about NATO and Russia

Former Saultite Rissanen joined Finnish reservists, ready to fight if Putin attacks Finland as war in Ukraine continues
Roy Rissanen

After observing Vladimir Putin’s continued aggression in Ukraine, Finland has announced its wish to join NATO.

The Finnish parliament, as expected, has approved a proposal to apply for NATO membership.

Sweden has also expressed its desire to join the 30-member defence alliance.

Roy Rissanen is a Sault native and Finnish-Canadian who relocated to Finland a year ago after deciding to live and work in his ancestral homeland. 

Finland, like Ukraine, is a neighbour of Russia and was invaded by the former Soviet Union in The Winter War of 1939-40.

“The overall feeling here in Finland isn't one of nervousness but it’s one of preparedness,” Rissanen said in a telephone interview from his home in Helsinki.

“There’s been a long history with our neighbours to the east and Finland has remained neutral not from ideology but of necessity, to try and be good neighbours, and that’s worked for them.”

In view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine however, Rissanen said “there’s an adage ‘you don’t go and poke a sleeping bear’ but if that bear’s awake and coming for you, you’d better grab your gun. You’ve got to be ready, and that’s where we are now.”

Putin has repeatedly stated his view that Russia is being boxed in by NATO, as many neighbours of Russia including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and other eastern European states have joined NATO over the years.

Ukraine was slowly working its way to NATO membership before the Feb. 24 Russian invasion.

With that, is there a concern Finland might be a target of further aggression by Putin’s regime, especially with the Russian president's feeling of being 'boxed in?'

“My personal opinion is that I don’t think Putin is as concerned with the whole NATO thing,” Rissanen said.

“He makes NATO out to be the bogeyman in the media, saying ‘NATO is trying to surround us’ and that gives him leverage with his people, as NATO to be something to be afraid of.”

“He has been looking at his strategy with Ukraine but I don’t think NATO has been his number one objective. If it was, then obviously Finland would have been more of a point for him,” Rissanen said.

Finland has access points to the Baltic Sea that Russia would be interested in but Rissanen asked “what would the cost be to try and take Finland for those strategic locations? It wouldn’t be worth it for Putin.”

Attacking Finland wouldn’t be easy, Rissanen said.

Despite its superior military strength, the former Soviet Union suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Finnish Army in The Winter War. The war ended in March 1940 with the signing of a peace treaty which led to Finland losing approximately 10 per cent of its territory to the Soviet Union. 

Memories of Russian losses in The Winter War might make Putin think twice about invading Finland, Rissanen said.

“If Ukraine had folded in a short time, Finland, the Baltic States and Russia probably would be involved in conflict but Putin obviously hasn’t progressed with his incredible weaponry like he had planned to.”

As a former Royal Canadian Navy member, Rissanen said “I’ve seen Russian propaganda videos on how big and scary their technology and their ships are. Now I’m thinking they’re really not that scary. It wasn’t a big surprise for me to see that they’ve faring so poorly in this conflict.”

“You won’t meet a family anywhere in Finland that doesn’t have a connection to a loss in The Winter War and The Continuation War.”

The Continuation War involved Finland aligning itself with Germany in its invasion of Russia in 1941 in an attempt to recover lost territory.

“My great-grandfather's family lived in Finnish territory that was ceded to Russia. They all had to move out of that area. There were big effects on the country,” Rissanen said.

“From there Finland always took a step of preparedness. It was never ‘if war comes,’ it’s ‘when war comes, we’ve got to be ready.’ The preparedness here now includes bunker space for almost all the population to fit in the case of air raids or nuclear attack. The standing full time military strength is in the thousands and the reserve force is 900,000 so within a couple of days they could have a couple of hundred thousand people ready to fight. Within a few weeks they could have almost a million people ready to fight. It would be a very difficult task if Russia wanted to make anything of it.”

Rissanen said he has signed up as a Finnish Army reservist, his son currently performing a year of military service.

“Absolutely,” said Rissanen when asked if he would be ready to fight in the event of a Russian attack on Finland.

Rissanen said he is confident NATO, including Canada and the U.S., would step up to help Finland if the country is attacked.

“Although mothers will worry, we are fully prepared,” Rissanen said.

“My opinion is that it’s a good thing that Finland is joining NATO. They should have done it years ago. Definitely it’s a good thing,” said the Sault’s Martti Tanninen.

“Finland is doing the right thing joining NATO but they should keep up a dialogue with Russia because it’s their neighbour and there’s a lot of trade between them.” 

Born in Finland, Tanninen moved to the Sault with his family in 1951 when he was a child.

“I was five years old but my wife is from Finland and I have siblings that are still alive in Finland, so we’re very knowledgeable of what’s happening there. We’re in contact with them weekly.”

“It is a concern to us. I have a sister in Helsinki and my wife has four siblings in Finland. I have nieces and nephews there, cousins there, so we’re concerned but not worried,” Tanninen said. 

“In late 1939, my Dad and my uncles were involved in The Winter War. We're very familiar with that era. My father fought in that war. My wife’s father was on the front line.”

As he witnesses Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine, Tanninen said “I’ve visited Russia myself and the Russian people themselves are fantastic people, but it’s the government that’s the problem.”

“I pray for the Russians, that God would give their leaders some understanding, to stop this nonsense,” Tanninen said.