NATO countries have kicked off military exercises with a pledge to defend their newest member, Finland, which is hosting its first joint training in the Arctic region since becoming part of the Western alliance in April.
Nearly 1,000 allied forces from Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States – as well as NATO applicant Sweden – joined approximately 6,500 Finnish troops and some 1,000 vehicles for exercises this week, which mark Finland’s biggest modern-time land-force drill above the Arctic Circle.
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Overseeing NATO exercises just a two-hour drive from the Russian border at one of Europe’s largest artillery training grounds in Rovajarvi, northern Finland, US Army Major-General Gregory Anderson from the 10th Mountain Division said his country stood ready to defend Finland.
“We are here, we are committed. The US Army is here training with our newest NATO ally to build that capability, to help defend Finland if anything happened,” Anderson said on Tuesday.
Some 150 aircraft from 14 NATO members and partner countries are also participating in Arctic Challenge 2023 exercises, according to NATO Air Command.
The objective of #ACE23 is to train participating forces to conduct dissimilar aircraft combat in large composite air operations safely and effectively.
The 🇺🇸 48th Fighter Wing heritage F-15E Strike Eagle is also part of the ACE23 fighting force. @HQUSAFEAFAF @NATO_AIRCOM pic.twitter.com/QmSB9LDrYJ
— Ilmavoimat (@FinnishAirForce) May 30, 2023
The addition of Finland to the NATO bloc has more than doubled the length of the border the military alliance shares with Russia amid increasing tension between Moscow and the West following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
“It’s of no question at all. We have prepared plans on what to do if we are to be part of the defence of Finland,” said Major-General Karl Engelbrektson, commander of the Swedish land forces.
Sweden is Finland’s closest military partner and it was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that convinced Sweden and Finland last year to ditch long-held policies of military non-alignment and seek the security of NATO’s collective defence commitment.
Finland formally joined NATO on April 4, drawing a threat from Moscow of “counter-measures”. Sweden hopes to be a NATO member by the time of the alliance’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania in July.
Sweden has been what NATO describes as an “official invitee” since 2022, which allows attendance at meetings and the coordinating of activities with other NATO allies. Full membership will take place once all NATO allies have ratified Sweden’s accession application, the bloc has said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg voiced guarded optimism on Tuesday that Sweden’s accession by the July 11-12 NATO summit was “within reach”.
“There are no guarantees but it’s absolutely possible to reach a solution and enable the decision on full membership for Sweden by then,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Oslo on the eve of a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting to prepare for the summit.
Turkey ratified Finland’s NATO membership but has yet to do so for Sweden.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Sweden has not yet met all of his country’s demands on securing his support for membership, particularly because of what he sees as Sweden providing safe haven to members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, both of which Ankara considers “terrorists”.
Ilmari Laukkanen, a 20-year-old Finnish conscript who operated a field gun in the exercise but in his civilian life works looking after a family farm near the Russian border, said he would be ready to fight for Finland’s new allies if needs be.
“Of course, I would. If we are given something good then we give in return,” Laukkanen told the Reuters news agency.