The term “Finlandisation” was bandied around after the French president Emmanuel Macron’s talks in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. It is, on the face of it, a reasonable solution to the Ukrainian crisis. Thousands of Russian troops are massed on Ukraine’s borders, and Ukraine’s ambitions to join Nato are unacceptable to Russia; so why not make Ukraine a neutral zone, a kind of buffer state between east and west? Why not give it a status like Finland’s during the Cold War?
But Macron’s haste to clarify that he himself had never used the term gives some indication of how problematic it is.
“The Cold War connotations of Finlandisation are utterly misleading and inappropriate for today,” said Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Chatham House think tank. “Despite Finland’s reputation for being a bridge or intermediary between Russia and the West, one which its current president is keen to promote, there is no doubt at all that Finland is a full-fledged member of the Western community of nations: an EU member, a close partner of Nato, and not a kind of intermediate borderland in the way that Russia wants to present to Ukraine.”
During the Cold War, Finland struck a bargain with the Soviet Union, enshrined in a 1948 treaty. Finland would remain neutral and not seek to join Nato; in return, it wouldn’t be invaded. The treaty also gave the Soviet Union a voice in and influence over Finnish politics.
Yet neutrality “wasn’t Finland’s choice”, said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “It’s not that a small country chooses this because it’s some great option. It’s something it does under duress, of some form or another.”
It also led to a form of self-censorship in Finnish domestic politics. “People would compete for who was the closest to the Soviet leadership… and so there are probably cases where, even in Moscow, they were surprised: ‘We weren’t going to ask this from the Finns, but they’ve just volunteered this,’” Salonius-Pasternak said.
Today, Finland is a successful and prosperous EU member state. Although it is not in Nato, it cooperates closely with the alliance. In 2017, Nato lauded the announcement that a European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats would be launched in Helsinki. In 2018, when the then-US president Donald Trump and Putin met in the Finnish capital for their summit, the Finnish government took great pains to stress that Finland was not, in fact, neutral territory.
Ukraine, by contrast, is struggling. The Minsk agreements, intended to end the conflict in the east of the country, have stalled. The first of the two accords, from 2014, laid down the terms of a ceasefire that was never fully implemented. Thousands have since died in the low-level fighting. The second, from 2015, would bring the Russian-backed breakaway regions of Lugansk and Donetsk back under Kyiv’s control, but would give Russia a voice in Ukraine’s domestic politics. Even if the agreements were fully implemented, there is good reason to believe that the Ukrainian government’s sovereignty over its territory would be fatally compromised.
The Cold War helped forge the modern Finnish identity. Finland faced constraints on its actions and associations; nonetheless, it managed the pivot westwards without interference. Maintaining a working relationship with Moscow was key.
“That has to do simply with geography,” said Salonius-Pasternak. “Neighbours trade more, and there’s a larger border to contend with. You can’t just talk about strong defence… You also have to have a functioning relationship… not because you’d agree with the Soviet or Russian position but just because neighbours need to do this.”
As well as with Moscow, Finland built a relationship with Nato, with the reassurance that the door to membership remained open. It strengthened ties with other countries because “you never know who may or may not help you”, Salonius-Pasternak observed, adding that Kyiv is doing this too.
All of this explains why those searching for a way out of the Russo-Ukrainian impasse might look to Finland as a model. But there are fundamental differences. Putin has never claimed that the Finns and the Russians are one people, as he has done with the Ukrainians. And the terms of the 1948 treaty held; Finland was never invaded. The same cannot be said of Ukraine after 2014.
What’s more, if Ukraine was to sign a treaty like the one Finland had with Russia after the Second World War, “Russia would be pleased, but far from satisfied,” Giles said. Putin’s ambition is, he continued, far wider than just Ukraine: he seeks to roll back Nato’s protection for Russia’s neighbours so that it has undisputed hegemony in its region. “Finlandisation” describes a process that was unique to Finland. A solution for Kyiv will need to be unique to Ukraine.