by Elias Huuhtanen
© Agence France-Presse
Santahamina, FINLAND (AFP) — On a windy military island off Helsinki, people from all walks of life are spending their weekend doing military training, as volunteer numbers soar and Finland readies to join NATO to protect itself from Russia.
Finland’s defence forces only have around 13,000 employed personnel but the country of 5.5 million boasts an impressive 900,000 reservists with a wartime strength of 280,000 troops.
Finland shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia.
For many of the participants attending this weekend’s training course on Santahamina Island, Moscow’s February 24 invasion of another neighbor, Ukraine, was the deciding factor that got them to sign up.
“These recent events in Ukraine were the final sign that it is necessary to be prepared in one’s own life, so that if something ever happens, one is better equipped for a crisis,” said 30-year-old engineer Ville Mukka after learning how to fight off a knife attack.
He and the other volunteers donned camouflage uniforms, some wearing helmets with branches tucked in them, as they trained in hand-to-hand combat, detecting explosives, and squad movement in the forest.
In the week after the war in Ukraine started, enrolment for the voluntary defense courses soared.
“Interest in voluntary training was about 10 times higher than in normal years,” said Ossi Hietala, 28, a representative of course organizer MPK, the National Defense Training Association of Finland.
While around 600 people usually register during a normal week, the number enrolling in MPK courses in the last week of February jumped to 6,000.
To meet the increased demand, MPK received additional funding of nearly three million euros ($3.1 million) from the state in April.
Finland fought two bloody wars against the Soviet Union during World War II, with the Nordic country ultimately ceding vast areas of land to its powerful eastern neighbor.
– ‘Just ordinary Finns’ –
“You don’t have to go too far back in history to find points of convergence (with what is happening today), which is quite worrying,” said Tuomas Vare, 43, one of the participants on the course.
“Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I have become more active in training.”
Less than three months after Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, the Finnish government on Sunday announced its official intention to apply for NATO membership, ditching its decades-old policy of military non-alignment as public and political support for membership soared.
For some volunteers, the decision was a welcome one.
“I think that Finland as a small country has no other reasonable way to defend itself and its own sovereignty. Yes, I am in favor of the alliance,” Mukka said.
Finland’s decision, taken in tandem with neighboring Sweden, has angered Moscow, which has warned the two countries to expect a “response”.
The courses organized by MPK, the coordinating body for Finland’s volunteer national defense, offer a wide range of training aimed at preparing citizens for crises.
“The participants in MPK’s courses are just ordinary Finnish people. These people want to come to the courses to develop their skills, practice and learn new things,” Hietala said.
MPK trains around 40,000 Finns every year.
– Reservist army –
The training ranges from basics like map reading and camping in the forest, to advanced courses in sniper rifles and anti-tank weapons, for example.
While there are courses available for people of all backgrounds, most of the participants are reservists refreshing their skills.
“I myself have served in Kosovo after the war in the 1990s, and I feel that there is a similar atmosphere now. So it’s good to be prepared for the next round if there is one,” financial consultant Marko Jarvelin, 48, said.
Unlike most other European countries, Finland bases its defense on compulsory military service.
All men aged 18-60 in the Nordic country are liable for conscription, while women can apply for military service on a voluntary basis.
Every year, over 20,000 young conscripts do their military training, which lasts from six months up to nearly a year. Upon completion they enter the reserves.
“Reservists make up about 96 percent of the defense forces’ wartime strength, meaning they are a very important part of Finland’s military defense,” said Hietala.
“A very large proportion of the adult population has received military training at some point in their lives,” he added.
© Agence France-Presse