With Russia’s activities in Ukraine and the Baltic region, Finland has recently found itself in a very sensitive geopolitical and economic position. This position is one that they are not entirely unfamiliar with; during the Cold War Finland had to navigate on tricky political waters. In order to keep a distance from the neighbouring Soviet Union, Helsinki had to apply the policy of Finlandisation. Recently, analysts and the media have been discussing the return to those practices in regard to both Finland and Ukraine. But how valid is it to use the term today? Is Finland, an EU member and a close NATO partner, facing the risk of Finlandisation once again?
Finlandisation is a term originally used to describe Finland’s self-imposed foreign policy approach during the Cold War. As a non-member of the Soviet Bloc, yet in very close proximity to a big and powerful USSR, Finland tried to avoid challenging Soviet foreign policy after the Second World War in order to preserve its national sovereignty. In reality, this required a big deal of compromise such as self-censorship in Finnish media and cultural life. The term today is also used in relation to other countries, meaning a foreign policy approach which does not challenge a powerful neighbour. Its use today is controversial; in Finland it is often regarded as criticism, which further complicates its application to present situations.
During the Cold War, Finland found itself in a unique and quite delicate position in the international system. For example, the country had to sign an Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with Moscow, but could avoid becoming a member of the Warsaw Pact. The relations were slowly changing during the decades and after Stalin’s death, the control loosened a little. It became possible for Finland to slowly improve its economic relations with Western Europe, although it was never allowed to join any military or defence alliance, (including NATO) and not even an economic cooperation such as the EEC (later EU).
With the fall of the Soviet Union all those opportunities opened up. Finland became a member of the European Union in 1995 and has developed a close cooperation with NATO – although today it is still an officially neutral country (which can however be debated given the Common Security and Defence Policy of the EU). Russia is still its big and quite powerful neighbour, albeit now without a friendship treaty. Therefore, there are issues in Finnish politics where this fact has to be considered.
One such issue is the NATO membership. Even if in practice, Finland is not a neutral country anymore, its official status of being alliance-free is very important to Russia, as the two countries share a long border. Moscow’s activities in Ukraine and the Baltic region, however, have once again heated up the debate in Finland about whether the country needs the protection provided by NATO. Prime Minister Alex Stubb is clearly pro-NATO, although he has said he would not push the question forward during his current term.
It seems now that the Ukraine crisis could cause a change in Finnish defence policy towards closer cooperation with Sweden, possibly with other Nordic countries (NORDEFCO), and within the EU framework (CSDP), rather than towards NATO. Joining NATO would infuriate Russia, which would most likely answer with a trade war against Finland – a very dangerous option given the structure of the already shaken Finnish economy. Finland has very close trade ties with Russia, which represents 14 % of Finland’s total trade; the EU’s decision to impose new heavy economic sanctions on Russia would hit Finland’s trade sector significantly. The food ban Russia imposed on EU earlier this year has already been creating problems for Finland’s economy. Therefore, Finland argued for the EU to delay the implementation of its latest sanctions.
Moreover, the Finnish government faces internal debates regarding both NATO membership as well as the sanctions, and in addition, the plan for a Russian-built nuclear reactor in Finland is stirring up emotions and bringing back memories of Finlandisation. The environment minister Ville Niinistö himself used the word Finlandisation regarding the issue, saying that the decision would put Russian interests before Finnish values by making Finland more dependent on Russian energy. Niinistö’s comment could be considered strong wording by a Finn given that in Finland, the term is understood as a synonym of appeasement policy. In fact, when earlier this year senior foreign policy analysts such as Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski suggested a Finlandisation plan for Ukraine, it enraged both international scholars and Finnish politicians, including Prime Minister Alex Stubb.
Active Twitter user Alex Stubb comments on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s suggestion regarding Ukraine
So how fair is it to refer to Finlandisation in the present situation? Finland’s position in the international system today is fundamentally different than before. Regarding the geopolitical situation, while being a trustworthy NATO partner and EU member, the country is firmly integrated into the Western security system. This means that Helsinki does not have to follow Russian foreign policy anymore in order to preserve its national sovereignty. However, regarding “economic Finlandisation”, interdependency with a powerful neighbour in the field of trade or energy is natural. But sometimes the contradiction between economic interests and values can cause political dilemmas, and Finland is definitely not the only EU-member facing such problems. Others, like Germany, also receive most of their energy from Russia and have extensive economic ties to Moscow, and as such, can be hurt by Brussels’ sanctions.