The war in Ukraine that brought about the ongoing European rearmament, be it in Germany or even Sweden, constitutes a sudden and dramatic historical shift. The all too short-lived debates about the need to remilitarize European armies with more robust equipment is alarming. Although the circumstances that brought about these rearmaments are urgent, hasty conclusions ought to be avoided. Keeping in mind that very rarely do well-equipped armies remain inoperative, the possible outcome of these decisions may be extremely consequential and should not, ideally, be taken in such a rush. After all, no matter how different, “Eastern”, “Othered,” “uncivilized” and outright crazy Russia may be, it will remain a European power that needs to be reckoned with. This contribution briefly unpacks the relevancy of the East/West intersectionality Finland represents for us today. The pragmatic manner in which the Finns have dealt with Russia – in all its previous versions, white, red or “federal” – is instructive in understanding the limits of moral, economic and physical power when facing a neighboring country that will most probably never be trusted, loved or changed, by outsiders.
The Finnish-Russian relationship is valuable as an example of a third “softer” way out of the current geo-political binarism between a wholesale European war on the one hand and the utter impotence in fear of escalation, on the other hand. Such binaries are familiar to international lawyers. International law is notoriously dichotomous and open-ended, easy to use in support of contradictory positions. It has, of course, been used to defend the harshest economic sanctions and weapon deliveries to the Ukrainians. Vladimir Putin has also referenced a series of international legal norms to defend the Russian incursion, even as those arguments do not really cross the threshold of the “laughing test” of the community of international lawyers.
International legal history moreover reminds us that whether the war ends tomorrow or in a year, some sort of rational dialogue will have to ensue. Turning Putin into Hitler or even Volodymyr Zelensky into a modern day heroic messiah is unhelpful, to say the least. The Suomi lesson here is much less passionate but also less bloody. The Finns, as I learnt during my long stay at the University of Helsinki, have always had a special relationship with their powerful “Eastern” neighbor. A special relationship, which never implied real friendship or devotion, even if both countries are predominantly Christian, European and often casted as Europe’s “Eastern Others”. Instead, the Finnish-Russian relationship implies levelheaded realpolitik pragmatism. One that cannot and should not be moderated through a black and white, good or bad zero-sum mindset.
Given the limitations of this blog contribution one could perhaps understand the magnitude of Finnish national anxiety of its neighboring Russia by recapping how during the Continuation War (1941-1944) that continued the earlier Winter War (1939-1940) Jewish Finnish soldiers – who knew well what the Nazis were doing to Jews across Europe – established a comradeship-in-arms with Hitler’s Wehrmacht soldiers in order to fight the Soviet Union. The relationship between Ukraine’s Jewish president, Zelensky, and the Ukrainian far right neo-Nazi Azov Battalion resembles this to an extent. Be that as it may, drawing on the Finnish experience is suggestive because the Finns turned their sour relationship with their Russian neighbors into a decent lemonade. Importantly, Ukraine, similarly to Finland but also to most other nation states, can do very little to choose or change our neighbors.
The History of Pragmatism and Neutrality (with an Interlude of Wars & Territorial Losses)
Finnish pragmatism goes back to the time when it was still the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. The Finns kept an open and constant dialogue with Imperial Russia in order to reassure the Tsar, who had his Dacha in Finland, that it is a peaceful and friendly neighbor. The Tsar responded, and Finland was for long periods of its autonomy treated as a privileged part of the imperial realm. Finland was allowed, as Matti Klinge’s discusses in many of his works, to “be Finns” by developing its own cultural and many of its political institutions as well. This modus operandi was sustained relatively smoothly at least until the Russification of Finland that ended with Finland’s independence (December 6, 1917). Significantly, Lenin, who understood political self determination to entail “freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., etc.” immediately accepted Finnish independence. To him, Russian Socialists who neglect this fact were “behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie.”
The Bolsheviks however never stopped hoping to spread the Communist Revolution through their ethnic and political brethren also in Finland. This impacted the Finnish independence process: a painful and bloody civil war commenced in the spring of 1918 that divided Finnish society between its own whites and reds for many subsequent years. The civil war left a traumatic schism in Finnish society although it was also useful later for the foundation of the Finnish national army. In 1939 the Soviets attacked Finland, with the intention of conquering all of it. Under the harshest weather conditions, the Finns fought back, indeed against all odds, the best they could. Just how pragmatic the decision to fight such an outmatched war is, is obviously debatable. The Finns knew however that the outcome of not fighting would be the complete loss of their independence.
There are multi-layered historical legacies of wars. For the Finns “‘the spirit of the Winter War’ is often referred to for revitalizing its potential to unite in defense of what are seen as joint national achievements.” After a short period of peace, the Finns then joined Germany in 1941 in order to reconquer the territories lost to the Soviets during the Winter War. That effort failed and the war ended in the Moscow Armistice in 1944. This meant that Finland needed to figure out a more lasting and peaceful relationship with its large neighbor.
The bitterness of this capitulation was accepted with humility. The existence of the Soviet Union across a 1000-mile boundary with Finland had to be accepted. In the armistice and the 1947 Peace Treaty of Paris, Finland was made inter alia to legalize its communist parties; ban parties that were considered fascist by the Soviets; but most importantly, the Finns lost the Karelian Peninsula and the “Maiden” of Finland lost its arm. As a consequence, Finland’s geographic space diminished. However painful these losses were, the independence of Finland mattered more. Finland also agreed to pay almost 4.5 billion in today’s US dollars in manufactured produce as war reparations to the Soviets. This agreement eventually contributed to the diversification of the Finnish industry, which was still very much agrarian at the time. Slowly but thoroughly, also thanks to Finnish reliance on Soviet natural resources, the Finnish-Soviet relationship became constructive. Notwithstanding the occasional tensions, by the 1980’s, the Finnish economy had not only recovered from the wars and from the loss of its territories, it flourished! By 1985 the magnitude of the Finno-Soviet trade relationship was almost miraculous. It constituted one fourth of all Soviet trade with the West. Finland became one of the richest countries in the world.
Given however that miracles only happen in the Bible (where we are also told to “love thy neighbor as thyself”), the Finnish success did not follow from a miracle. It was instead the hard work of several politicians: Juho Kusti Paasikivi (1870-1956), who was a conservative monarchist, was quick to understand that basing the Finnish foreign policy on open antagonism to the USSR would lead to the end of national independence. Paasikivi, who later became Finland’s 7th president, shrewdly crafted fact-based policy thinking that secured Finland’s de facto neutrality as an East/West buffer zone during the Cold War. Famously stating that “the Kremlin is not a court of law”, implicating thereby that when negotiating with Russians, salvation would hardly come from lofty legal principles. This approach was then embraced by Paasikivi’s successor, Urho Kaleva Kekkonen (1900-1986). Kekkonen understood further that political neutrality would permit Finland to expand its economic room to maneuver and strengthen its cultural ties with the West. The equation was rather simple: complete political and economic neutrality — dodging NATO and the European Union — equals national independence and economic growth, which availed Finland its special formation of a Nordic welfare state.
First Generation Makes it, Second Maintains it, Third Generation destroys it?
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland’s relations to its Eastern neighbor also changed. But the Finns hardly shared the West’s End of History sentiment. The Finns suffered extremely from the collapse of their extensive trade with the Soviet Union. By the beginning of the 1990’s Finland’s GDP dropped about 14% from its peak and by 1994 Finland’s unemployment was at 20%. Finland shared, if only to a fraction, the sufferings of those who stayed behind the curtain that was no longer made of iron. Apart its economic decline, Finland also faced grave difficulties in reorienting its foreign policy after 1990. How could it now stay neutral? And what would that neutrality mean? Needless to mention, NATO, the military alliance originally intended to protect the West from the Eastern Soviet Bear, was not dismantled now that the threat collapsed. Admittedly, the Americans, even when governed by democrat administrations, still use NATO to internationally standardize weapons produced with their 800$ billion national defense budget. Ergo, spreading and arming NATO further East (14 countries joined NATO since 1990) has numerous economic and political advantages that exceed the original intention of isolating the USSR.
Post-iron-wall Finland still tried its best to hold to its policy of neutrality, it nevertheless received several thousand ex-Soviet ethnic Finns by laws of “return”; joined the Council of Europe as early as May 1989; then the European Convention on Human Rights in 1990 and the EU in 1995. Membership in the EU and the need of solidarity with the Common Foreign and Security Policy made neutrality practically impossible. Instead of neutrality, the Finns began speaking of “military non-alignment”. A very large majority of the Finns were, through the 1990s and up until the present Ukraine war, steadfast against NATO membership. The current popular solidarity with the Ukraine surged a rather surprising national patriotism and hasty rearmament. In spite of this, most Finnish politicians still seem to be undecided about joining NATO. The majority of Finns today remember the economic breakdown of the 90’s just as they remember Paasikivi’s foreign policy. Obviously, I am in no position to know, let alone say, what Finland’s best interest is. I do believe however that any major policy shift should not be done with reactionary urgency. I can only hope that some of the awareness previous Finnish generations had for the limits of their power is still ingrained deeply enough today. Finns today, like the rest of the world, should certainly not forget the Russians‘ survivalist stamina during the 20th century.
Pragmatic Fences make Good Neighbors
Neighbors are mostly difficult. Had it been otherwise, the Bible would not have had to command us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” When things get difficult and dangerous with neighboring sovereign states, pragmatism is essential. Yet political pragmatism needs to be tempered with some legal formalities, even if that feels less heroic and less nationalistic. After all, although legalism will never redeem us, it remains helpful in keeping dialogue channels open both nationally and internationally. Keeping these channels open is essential. We are not privileged (or religious enough) to demand intuitive love or friendship of our neighboring countries. The focus here needs to be modest: less hate, and more mutual respect and realistic pragmatism. Ultimately, nation states cannot be packed up and moved away, especially when they are powerful states with nuclear weapons and imperialist desires.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine remains morally indefensible. While for the Ukrainians it remains a soul/body crushing tragedy, it is also a huge political, legal, economic and military fiasco for the Russians. Needless to say, this war has colossal global consequences. We must not over-romanticize the Finnish example, Ukraine’s history with Russia is clearly very different. Finland’s history nevertheless remains informative of how at times, even when we feel trapped in an either/or situation of complete impotence, or under the threat of a total war, there are other more pragmatic alternatives to rely on.