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Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training at the Santahamina military base in Helsinki on May 14. Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP via Getty Images

On April 11, while the world was busy watching the war in Ukraine, 98 Finnish sports stars, from ice hockey athletes to basketball players and cross-country skiers, began their military service.

When Joonas Korpisalo, goalie for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, realized he’d have to report for duty to the Finnish military, he was annoyed—but his reaction was simply to bellyache a bit about it cutting into the NHL season. “I should have done this when I was 18,” the 28-year-old Finnish ice hockey star said. The year they turn 18, Finnish men are assessed for military service, which lasts from about six months for soldiers to around 12 months for officers. They can put off serving but only until they’re 28.

Despite his annoyance at not having completed his service 10 years ago, Korpisalo, like the other 97 sports stars, packed his bags—even though six months, let alone a year, is an awfully long time in a sporting career. Among this year’s top athletes donning the Finnish Defence Forces’ uniform: the Cleveland Cavaliers’ forward-center Lauri Markkanen. Indeed, with draft dodging considered socially and personally shameful, virtually every able-bodied Finnish man willingly turns up for military service.

On April 11, while the world was busy watching the war in Ukraine, 98 Finnish sports stars, from ice hockey athletes to basketball players and cross-country skiers, began their military service.

When Joonas Korpisalo, goalie for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, realized he’d have to report for duty to the Finnish military, he was annoyed—but his reaction was simply to bellyache a bit about it cutting into the NHL season. “I should have done this when I was 18,” the 28-year-old Finnish ice hockey star said. The year they turn 18, Finnish men are assessed for military service, which lasts from about six months for soldiers to around 12 months for officers. They can put off serving but only until they’re 28.

Despite his annoyance at not having completed his service 10 years ago, Korpisalo, like the other 97 sports stars, packed his bags—even though six months, let alone a year, is an awfully long time in a sporting career. Among this year’s top athletes donning the Finnish Defence Forces’ uniform: the Cleveland Cavaliers’ forward-center Lauri Markkanen. Indeed, with draft dodging considered socially and personally shameful, virtually every able-bodied Finnish man willingly turns up for military service.

That’s a stark contrast with their neighbors over the border in Russia, where conscription is considered a joke among the middle class and above, who almost universally avoid it through a variety of shady methods—most commonly, by simply paying off a doctor to give them a certificate of medical ineligibility. Russia’s military is now dependent on the country’s most vulnerable groups for recruitment, mostly the poor, unconnected, badly educated, and sometimes even the ill and people with alcoholism. The poisoned soil of conscription is bearing ill fruit in Ukraine, where a badly motivated and poorly skilled army, a large proportion of which are former conscripts turned regular soldiers, is being beaten back by a far more competent Ukrainian military.

The Finnish model is very different from Russia’s—something that should give pause to Moscow when it throws around tough talk about punishing Helsinki for joining NATO. Interviewed by the Athletic, Korpisalo argued that serving was a good thing despite his own frustrations. Years ago, he observed, Finnish NHL stars used to be able to dodge the draft. “Back then, they let the athletes do whatever they wanted. ‘You don’t have to come,’” he told the magazine. “The people got pissed off because everyone should be treated equal, and I agree with that.”

Such commitment matters. Finland’s mandatory military service for men means that every able-bodied and able-minded young man has to serve. Indeed, the reserves—that is, former conscripts—form the bulk of the Finnish Defence Forces’ mobilized strength of some 280,000 personnel. The reserves total some 900,000 citizens, who would be used on rotation in wartime, while professional soldiers and officers make up a mere 3 percent. Finland’s defense, in other words, depends on young men performing their civic duty.

And they do perform it. Currently, some 75 to 80 percent of Finnish men begin their national service, and 70 percent complete it. Only men with genuine physical or mental ailments do not serve. That means that, with annual cohorts of 19-year-old men ranging at just shy of 29,000 people, each year some 20,300 young Finns complete their military service.

“Finnish teenagers have a strong sense of responsibility and a feeling that Finland should survive,” Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a military analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told FP. “And there’s no risk that you’d be sent to a distant country to fight. You’d fight for Finland.” In the Finnish defense ministry’s annual survey on public attitudes to national defense from 2021, 73 percent of Finns advocated keeping mandatory conscription for men while only 7 percent supported all-volunteer forces.

But because not even the strongest sense of civic obligation can make a fighting force out of untrained young men alone, the Finnish Defence Forces (FDF) have regularly updated their conscript training. The FDF recently completed its latest reform: Training 2020. “It focuses on how conscripts learn,” Salonius-Pasternak explained. “As part of the program, the Finnish Defence Forces have been implementing innovation from education and technology to create better methods of teaching young people. As a result, conscripts’ motivation has increased. It’s amazing that a conservative institution like the military has done this.”

Training 2020 follows an initiative launched in 2002 called “transformational leadership,” which includes regular polling of conscripts on every matter pertaining to conscript life—including officers’ performance. The FDF closely follows the results and acts on the findings. “The point is not that we conduct surveys and score well and say, ‘That’s great; they love us,’” Brig. Gen. Jukka Sonninen, then the FDF’s head of training, told me in 2017. “The point is that we analyze the results and then look for the root reason. When people figure out that the process works, it dramatically changes their attitude.”

Together with Finns’ commitment to their country, the FDF’s intelligent personnel strategy has borne fruit. In the defense ministry’s 2021 survey, a whopping 84 percent of the population said they’d be willing to contribute to defense efforts should Finland be attacked.

Compare that to Russia. “Every year since 2016, around 270,000 Russians have begun their military service,” Gudrun Persson, a Russia expert at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, told FP. “That’s out of an annual cohort of almost 1 million men.” To be sure, Russia has real problems with alcoholism and poor health, but a 2011 report found that one-third of men graduating from secondary school are genuinely unfit for military service. With nearly one-third serving, it means a third dodges the draft. It’s hardly surprising given the Russian Armed Forces’ pervasive and brutal hazing of conscripts (a phenomenon known as dedovshchina). This isn’t practical jokes or schoolyard bullying: Dedovshchina involves everything from fatal beatings to rape. Pay is desultory: just 2,000 rubles (or $31) a month compared to the 62,000 rubles (or $961) regular soldiers receive per month. And pervasive corruption means basic supplies, from uniforms to food, are often in short supply or poor condition.

No wonder so many young Russians acquire medical certificates attesting to a serious illness, physical or mental. And as I documented in a 2015 Foreign Affairs piece, many university students stay on for doctoral programs as a draft-evasion strategy. Recent figures from Statista show male students heavily outweighing female ones among doctoral candidates 27 years and younger. (Once men turn 28, they’re no longer obliged to do national service.)

Among doctoral students ages 28 and above, women dominate. Tellingly, in a 2019 Levada Center poll, 60 percent of Russians said, “Every real man must go through military service” (the highest figure since 1997), whereas only 24 percent said, “Military service is an obligation to the government that must be fulfilled, even if it isn’t in your own interests” (the lowest figure since 1997). In other words, all men should serve, as long as they don’t include oneself. Unlike the Finns, of 20 Russian NHL stars I surveyed, including some who are very supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, none are reported to have served.

Of course, the Russians who can dodge military service are also likely—by virtue of being the most privileged—to be the healthiest and best educated. That leaves the military forcing those with real issues to take the place of young men with connections. “With the armed forces keen to take on as many conscripts as possible, those with genuine health problems, but unable to afford bribes, were pushed through the medical,” the European Parliamentary Research Service noted in a 2015 report. Nor, the report observed, did alcoholism preclude young Russians from military service.

It’s hardly surprising that the Kremlin has, at various points, tried to phase out military service, only to have to reverse course as the armed forces failed to attract enough contract soldiers. “In 2019, the Russian Armed Forces’ plan was to have 476,000 contract soldiers by 2025, but there have been delays,” Katarzyna Zysk, a Russia expert at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, told FP. “The deteriorating economic situation since then has helped recruitment, and now, they’re officially approaching the objective.”

Many contract soldiers are, of course, recruited from the conscript ranks. And there, dedovshchina and low morale prevail. Based on the number of guilty verdicts per year on hazing-related charges, dedovshchina has declined, Zysk said. But, she added, “a much more pervasive problem is the culture of the Russian military. You have to know your place until you’re fully part of the hierarchy, and then you display the same attitude towards conscripts. And violent crime by commanders towards subordinates is growing.”

The lesson is that quality matters, not just quantity. Two systems that look the same on paper, like Russia and Finland, can be dramatically different in real life. While Russia has a formidable fighting force backed up by nearly 300,000 new conscripts each year, in Ukraine, that force has turned out to be less than meets the eye. That makes an enormous difference should Putin decide to announce general mobilization, as many commentators have suggested he will. This would allow him to use conscripts and reservists—that is, ex-conscripts—in the war. “It’s not necessarily the case that those who’re called up for military service will have low commitment in battle,” Persson said. “But serving is not exactly something people look forward to.”

Contrast that with the motivated, determined reserves of Finland. If Russia ever did invade, the Kremlin knows that Helsinki would field a small force of professional soldiers backed up by highly motivated and well-trained reservists and conscripts who would put up a resistance as determined (and better equipped) than their forefathers during the Winter War of 1939-1940. That’s a hearty deterrent to Moscow’s imperial ambitions—and a model that other neighbors might look to learn from.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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