Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto and his wife,

Finland’s permanent dilemma: Russia

The greatest achievement of Finland’s 100 years of independence? Survival.

What has largely been a distant threat to many countries in the West has been a matter of life and death in the northeastern corner of the European Union. For Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, safeguarding its sovereignty remains its focus, a century after the then-Grand Duchy of Russia declared its independence.

“Russia is a permanent dilemma for Finland — a problem without a solution that it needs to manage,” said retired diplomat Rene Nyberg.

In the worst of worlds, Finland’s 100 years of history now risks repeating. How it has managed to stay independent could hold valuable lessons. Russia’s annexation of Crimea has raised tensions on the continent to their highest level since the Cold War, and President Donald Trump’s election is raising doubts about the post-WWII order.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined the stakes last week by saying that Europe now has to stand up for itself. Trump alarmed fellow NATO members by declining to explicitly reaffirm his commitment to Article 5, NATO’s pledge of collective defence. He has repeatedly complained about the fact that most NATO allies are not honouring a promise to devote at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product to military spending.

That’s a complaint that would resonate in Finland. While it has officially stayed out of the alliance in deference to Russia, it’s one of the few European nations that plan to boost military spending above that threshold. Finland is in the process of replacing its ageing fleet of F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets with next-generation F/X military aircraft.

Finnish anxiety is deeply rooted in a bloody modern history that’s unprecedented in the Nordic region.

 A civil war that pitted socialist Reds against nonsocialist Whites in 1918 left nearly 40,000 people dead, while more than 93,000 Finns died fighting two wars against the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1945, according to the National Archives. The peace accords of 1947 meant ceding about a 10th of its land to the east and paying onerous war reparations by delivering costly industrial goods to its eastern neighbour.

In the decades that followed, Finland focused on remaining outside the Warsaw Pact, seizing every opportunity to move closer to the West without angering Moscow. Deference to the Soviet Union, in the form of a policy known as “Finlandization,” became a pragmatic survival strategy. The country’s “special relationship” with the USSR was manifested in, for example, Moscow’s influence over Finnish Cabinet appointments and self-censorship by local policymakers and the media.

Such acquiescence helps explain why Finland never joined NATO and only became a member of the E.U. in 1995, alongside Austria and Sweden.

“Security policy perspectives permeate Finnish thinking — for a good reason,” Nyberg said.

By Kati Pohjanpalo Bloomberg News
JUNE 3, 2017 — 5:36 PM


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