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19th Jan 2019

US backs Europe on Russia deterrent

  • Mattis (r) with Niinisto in Helsinki on Monday (Photo: defense.gov)

US defence chief James Mattis has praised European efforts to jointly deter Russian aggression, amid talks on EU military integration.

Speaking in Helsinki on Monday (6 November), Mattis said that "by tightening such cooperation here in the north, we see the deterrent capability of democracies strengthened."

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  • Broad support for Pesco at EU military chiefs' talks (Photo: consilium.euoropa.eu)

He said the "deepening" of a Nato-Finland 'defence partnership' and the implementation of a US-Finland defence 'statement' had "a stabilising purpose here in northern Europe because it contributes to Finland's resilience as an independent nation."

Mattis also "applauded" Finland's creation of a Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats.

He said the centre's 12 members, including the US, would be "learning from the other and building resistance to those with malign intent toward our democracies."

Mattis did not name Russia in his Helsinki remarks, but he told US press en route to Finland that his five-day European tour was "an opportunity to reiterate where we stand by our friends … if any nation including Russia seeks to undermine the rules of international order."

The Finnish centre of excellence, which opened in April, is aimed at countering Russian hybrid warfare - a mix of economic measures, propaganda, cyber attacks, and covert military action.

Asked by press on Russia's attack on the US election last year, Finnish president Saul Niinisto said on Thursday: "We are clear-eyed on that."

"The most important thing is that ordinary people understand that kind of threat in Finland", he added.

"Every citizen is a defender of his or her territory, at least what's between his or her ears," he said, referring to hostile propaganda.

Finland is not a member of Nato and 59 percent of its people still oppose joining the alliance, according to recent surveys.

Northern defence

But it signed bilateral defence pacts with Nato and the US in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine three years ago.

It also takes part in regional defence clusters, such as the Northern Group, which includes Britain, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the Nordic states, and the Baltic states.

The Finnish hybrid centre involves Finland, Estonia, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Britain, and the US, but is open to all Nato and EU members.

Niinisto said the US and Finland were in talks on holding a joint military exercise on Finnish territory.

He said the drill, to include up to 10,000 troops, was "worth doing. In principle, yes I am positive it that we develop training activities," he added.

"Relations between the United States and Finland have never been stronger," Mattis said.

EU integration

The US defence chief will meet Northern Group officials on Tuesday and most of his EU counterparts at a Nato event on Wednesday.

His visit comes amid EU preparations to deepen military cooperation in areas such as arms procurement, air transport, and medical operations.

EU states' military chiefs discussed the scheme - called Permanent Structured Cooperation (Pesco) - in Brussels on Monday.

Up to two-thirds of EU countries, led by France, Germany, Italy, and Spain are expected to sign up to it at an EU foreign ministers' meeting on 13 November.

Pesco's main aim is to speed-up EU crisis interventions in Africa and the Middle East.

Speaking to press en route to Europe, Mattis said the Islamic State jihadist group in Iraq and Syria was "going down."

Its "whole bottom was dropping out", he said.

Finland calls for 'pragmatic' EU defence

Finland’s plan for EU defence integration, presented to ministers today, goes less far than Italian or French “visions”, while quietly designating Russia as a threat.

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