In the world of geopolitics, great powers make, break and play by their own rules. Smaller states largely have to make do with adjusting to the world as determined by others.
Which is why the decision by Finland – a country of just 5.5 million people, noted for decades as a neutral presence in Europe – to join NATO is so important. It underscores just how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has upset global realities long thought settled, at least by the Western powers.
The vaunted “rules-based order” that the United States and its NATO allies have touted as the best way to run the world is changing – attracting some, yet more suspicious in the eyes of nations not privy to club membership. Meanwhile, Russia and China are disputing the hegemony of the U.S. and the West over global affairs and seek a system in which power is distributed regionally, with Moscow and Beijing holding sway over what they they see as their parts of the world.
Smaller nations all over the globe are recalculating how they fit into this renewed division of the world.
Finland is one such state and has made a dramatic choice. For centuries it has had to consider its own interests in conjunction with – and in accommodation of – those of its gigantic neighbor: czarist Russia, then the Soviet Union and today Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Through the years of the Cold War, Finland adopted a model of neutrality and accommodation in order to coexist with Russia. That way of dealing with a nearby neighboring great power was known as “Finlandization.”
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, decision-makers in Helsinki have seemingly driven the final nails into the coffin of Finlandization. The worry for Putin – and perhaps the West – is that the model has not only been killed off for Finland; it is also dead as a potential off-ramp solution to the conflict in Ukraine.
The past no longer as prologue
After more than a hundred years within the czarist empire, Finland gained its independence in 1917. For the next roughly 20 years it became an anti-Soviet outpost precariously positioned next to the USSR.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin saw Finland as a gateway to the communist state’s enemies. In his mind, Finland was an existential threat – similar to how Putin sees Ukraine today.
After annexing eastern Poland and the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – after the signing of the German-Soviet Pact of 1939, Stalin demanded serious territorial concessions from Finland.
The resulting war saw the Finns lose much of their eastern provinces, but they managed to preserve their independence – at some cost. The price for maintaining its democratic state and capitalist economy in domestic affairs during the Cold War was Finlandization.
Through the adapted model for neutrality, Finland was able to convince Moscow for more than a half-century that it was no threat but a loyal trading partner.
With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, doubts about Finlandization grew among Finns. They debated whether they should consider joining the Western alliance.
But it was Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 that tipped the scales and finally convinced Helsinki that its security would be enhanced by becoming a member of NATO.
The dilemma of neutrality
The invasion also killed off any idea of Finlandization being a model for post-Soviet Ukraine as well.
For the past 30 years, independent Ukraine was viewed as a problem for Putin, who feared its gravitation toward the West. Similarly, even before the invasion last year, Russia was a problem for Ukraine, with authorities in Kyiv fearing dominance from the East.
Before the present war, the Finnish model of independence and neutrality was touted as a viable alternative to Ukraine joining either NATO or drawing closer to the Russian-led strategic alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Finland’s experience in preserving its sovereignty by compromising its right to act completely independently in foreign policy might have been a viable model for former Soviet states, some observers held, especially in regards to Ukraine.
Findlandization might have also, so the thinking went, provided a solution to Ukraine’s internal divisions on the question of which to favor: the West or Russia.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Ukraine swung between a pro-Russian orientation favored in eastern Ukraine, and a more Ukrainian nationalist identity powerfully evident in western Ukraine. A Finlandization of Ukraine, coupled with the federalization of the various provinces of Ukraine, might have lessened political polarization with Ukraine and allayed the fears of the Russians, and Putin in particular.
Of course, history cannot be rewound; such alternative possibilities cannot be tested. And federalism, which would have required that some decision-making be handed to regional governments, was considered suspect as a viable form of statehood by many in Ukraine and Russia alike. A similar process of federalization was, after all, blamed for the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Moreover, events forced Ukraine’s hand. As Russia gravitated toward authoritarianism and used its oil and gas as a weapon against Ukraine, the attractions of the West – democracy, prosperity and a shiny modernity – seemed far more enticing.
On the initiative of the United States, the West vaguely promised Ukraine NATO membership, which Russia found completely unacceptable. And the European Union offered Ukraine closer economic and political ties, stirring up fears in Moscow that this was the first step toward NATO.
After the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014, Ukrainians turned even more sharply toward the West and became more receptive to Western promises of NATO membership.
‘Small nations can disappear’
In hindsight, hopes that Ukraine could “Finlandize” or federalize were both casualties of Putin’s increasingly hard line toward Ukraine.
Finland’s entry into NATO marks the likely end of the Finlandization model. Even Finland has abandoned it; neutral Sweden is now anxious to join the Western alliance; and other states, even Switzerland, are questioning the efficacy of nonalignment in a polarized world.
In its place, we have the “NATOfication” of Eastern Europe – something that Putin unwittingly accelerated and which leaves Putin’s Russia with less accommodating neighbors. Meanwhile, countries like Finland and Sweden have been left with fewer options. “A small nation can disappear,” the Czech writer Milan Kundera reminds us, “and knows it.”