Soon on one leg? : Finland’s balancing act between Russia and NATO

Soon on one leg?
Finland’s balancing act between Russia and NATO

In Europe, only Ukraine has a longer border with Russia, so the much smaller Finland has had to learn to deal with its oversized neighbour. However, the long-standing and relatively stable arrangement with Russia is now beginning to falter.

If your own house adjoins a powerful neighbor for 1340 kilometers, you hesitate to lose it. This realization has always shaped Finland’s relationship with Russia and ultimately prevented the Nordic country from becoming a NATO member. Then Russia attacked Ukraine, triggering a rapid change of opinion among Finns – and suddenly the EU’s northernmost country is about to apply for NATO membership. Because if an overwhelming neighbor suddenly becomes an acute danger, then you need to act.

The Finns know this from their own history: they fought the Russians twice in the last century, first in the Winter War of 1939 and then again on the side of Nazi Germany. With an extraordinary balancing act, the country still managed to get along well with Russia and the West in the post-war period. A Finnish candidacy for NATO, which could possibly intervene in a few days, would now considerably modify this East-West balance. The changing Finno-Russian history thus faces a conflicting new chapter.

“It’s a complicated story,” says Henrik Meinander of Finnish-Russian relations. The historian from the University of Helsinki has recorded the history of his country with all its turning points in a book. In it, he describes, among other things, how Finland was able to escape “Sovietization” after World War II and how Stalin worked to ensure that the country did not fall into the orbit of the West and the NATO.

“Mauled and wounded, but independent”

Finland has long been part of the Kingdom of Sweden. This kingdom was attacked by Russia in 1808, after which the Finns fell under the rule of the Russian Empire for more than 100 years. For the Russians, this was important due to the proximity of Finland’s southern border to their metropolis, St. Petersburg. As a Russian Grand Duchy, however, Finland managed to remain largely self-governing: Swedish laws, the constitution and Western religion continued to apply, but the Russians made Helsinki the Finnish capital instead of Turku as before.

During the October Revolution in 1917, Finland declared itself independent. However, Finnish-Russian relations remain complicated. After a fake Finnish provocation in the border town of Mainila, Russia carried out its last military attack on Finland in 1939, but was surprised by the vehemence with which the Finns fought in the Winter War.

In the Continuation War, the country entered into an ambivalent brotherhood of arms with Nazi Germany, but later concluded a peace treaty with Moscow, during which it had to cede territories. Finland’s civilian population undoubtedly suffered from the war, but it fared slightly compared to many other countries, writes Meinander. “Finland was maimed and injured but remained independent.”

The end of the “Finlandization” of Finland?

The post-war period in Finland is characterized above all by the development of a welfare state and a new Ostpolitik. A friendship agreement was concluded with the Soviet Union in 1948, which obliged Finland to support its large neighbor in the event of a German attack. At the same time, the Finns established growing trade relations with the West. They have thus diligently refined their neutral state profile.

This policy was notably shaped by longtime President Urho Kekkonen. It represented continuity and predictability from the Soviet Union. He believed that the better the relations with the Soviets, the better the chances of developing Western relations. Kekkonen liked to call this balancing act between East and West “the Finnish paradox” – critics, on the other hand, spoke contemptuously of a “Finlandization”.

Even if Finland remained militarily non-aligned, it then oriented itself more and more towards the west: the reunification of Germany was a good reason for ending the friendship agreement with the Union Soviet.In 1995, Finland was finally admitted to the EU, which connected the country much more strongly with Western and Central Europe. The Nordic country, like neighboring Sweden, has been a close NATO partner for a long time – but is not yet an official member.

“Putin practically decided that Finland should join NATO himself”

Finland’s history with Russia has many layers, Meinander sums up. The relationship with the big neighbor to the east is characterized more by pragmatism than by fear, with one objective always central: “The whole Finnish identity is built on the idea that we want to prevent Finland from becoming part of the Russia. It is crucial that we do not want to become Russian.”

According to historian Kimmo Rentola, the once good relations between Russia and Finland slowly deteriorated under Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin. He is a leading expert on Finnish-Russian relations and believes that Finland’s entry into NATO would certainly create tension, but would ultimately be a consequence of Putin’s own actions.

“In fact, Putin practically decided on his own that Finland would join NATO,” says Rentola. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a majority of Finns had never come out in favor of NATO membership. “February 24 completely changed that.” The paradox is that Putin really wanted to prevent countries like Finland and Sweden from doing just one thing: joining NATO.

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