Managing the Russian threat: Finland’s 100 years of independence

Finland, the small Nordic nation situated in the shadow of Russia, celebrated its 100th birthday last week. More specifically, Finland celebrated 100 years of being independent from its eastern neighbour. During its century of liberty, Finland has become talented at maintaining strong ties with the Western world while simultaneously having a decent relationship with the Kremlin. Being a member of the EU and therefore undoubtedly part of the West, the country cannot ignore the shared history nor the 1340-kilometre-long shared border with Russia. Certain sacrifices have had to be made to ensure the state’s independence throughout the years. And with the current tensions rising between Russia and the West, Finland finds itself in an interesting, yet increasingly challenging, position.

Helsinki and Moscow share a somewhat complex history which also directly correlates with the countries’ relations today. To understand the present day, a brief reflection of past events is essential.

Finland was under Swedish reign until 1809, which is when Russia overtook the region in a war against Sweden. As a part of the Russian Empire, Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy and Helsinki was made the capital of the province. It was also during this period that Finnish nationalism gained momentum and the Finnish speaking majority started demanding their cultural rights.

At the turn of the 19th century, there was a serious attempt of Russification of Finland which paradoxically instigated more united ideas of separatism in the Finns. This form of nationalism provided the groundwork needed for Finland to gain its sovereignty amidst the Russian Revolution; Finland was declared independent on the 6th of December 1917.

Helsinki today still has visible elements of its shared past with Russia. The Uspenski Cathedral, built in 1868, was designed by Russian architect A.M. Gornostajev and is said to be the biggest Orthodox church in Western Europe.

The time preceding the declaration of independence was only the beginning to the struggles the Finns have since faced with their neighbours. While WWII was ongoing, Finland fought the Soviet Union in two separate wars – the Winter War (1939-40) and the Continuation War (1941-44) – which resulted in Finland managing to keep its freedom, but having to cede some of its eastern and northern territory to the Soviets.

In 1948, Finland signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, which guaranteed Finland’s neutrality during the Cold War – meaning that the nation would not side with the West. It was also during the Cold War that the term “Finlandization” was coined; a term that is now widely used to describe a smaller country’s foreign policy of neutrality under the pressuring influence of a superpower, which was what the Western world saw between Finland and the USSR.

The Finno-Soviet friendship treaty came to an end after the fall of the Soviet Union and a new treaty with Russia was signed in 1992. Three years later, Finland joined the European Union and has aligned itself increasingly with the West ever since.

Considering these historical aspects as well as the current strains between Russia and the West, it is logical for Finland to remain cautious toward the next-door giant. Yet, unlike most countries around the Baltic Sea – such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Denmark, all of which are now members of NATO – Finland still holds onto its neutral status in 2017. Compared to these nations, Finland also appears to hold a fairly good relationship with Moscow: Russia has become one of Finland’s biggest trading partners and Finland is a popular destination for Russian tourists. President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has also praised Finland’s current national security policy. He stated that it offers the “optimum model for guaranteed and sustainable good relations for non-aligned countries.”

However, since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s amplified military activities in the Baltic Sea airspace, Finland has had to reconsider its position. Helsinki has supported the sanctions against Russia and increased its cooperation with Sweden and other Nordic countries, as well as with NATO. In the current political climate, joining the alliance doesn’t seem like a far-fetched idea. Yet, up to 59% of Finns say no to NATO, suggests a recent survey. Is this reluctance triggered by the fear of aggravating the Kremlin? Putin has expressed Russia’s views on Finland’s possible coalition with the military organization and his comment left little to interpretation.

“What do you think we will do in this situation? We moved our forces back, 1500 kilometres away – will we keep our forces there? How they assure the safety and independence of their own country is the Finns’ choice. Undoubtedly, we appreciate Finland’s neutral status,” he said during a press conference in 2016.

Meanwhile, in a recent interview with the Russian paper Kommersant, the Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini stated that Finland is neither afraid of Russia nor is the question of NATO a current priority to the government. He also then specified that Finland isn’t ruling out the possibility of joining the alliance.

“Every country should have that opportunity and that is why open-door politics is important to us,” he concluded.

The big difference between Finland and some of Russia’s other western neighbours seems to be that the country has upheld open dialogue with Russia. As the most recent example of this bilateralism between Helsinki and Moscow, a new telephone line was just established between the Finnish and Russian defence administrations, meant for disruptions and emergency situations. The presidents of the two nations also generally meet twice a year and are claimed to be able to discuss even difficult matters, such as the topic of Crimea.

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Sauli Niinistö in July 2017.

According to the Finnish government representatives, the smart way of approaching negotiations with the eastern superpower is by “finding a way to stand up to Russian provocations without provoking them in return.” Helsinki has been both praised and criticised for this foreign policy toward Moscow – some seeing it as a method of appeasement. To Finland, it seems to be more about being pragmatic and making the best out of a difficult situation. So far, this approach has worked well enough, future remaining uncertain. There isn’t a simple solution in sight to the potential threat of Russia, but the circumstances are something that Finland has gotten used to and manages constantly and carefully.

Aino Haavisto

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