Finland and The Unpredictable Neighbor

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Russian President Vladimir Putin, March 22, 2016Great empires do not go away quietly. It was an anomaly that the end of the Soviet Union was virtually bloodless. Everything happened fast, and, with the exceptions of the two wars in Chechnya, conflicts in the periphery barely touched Russian lives. But finally, after more than two decades, the rule held. With the war in Ukraine, history caught up with Russia.

I agree with Henry Kissinger that:

“The relationship between Ukraine and Russia will always have a special character in the Russian mind. It can never be limited to a relationship of two traditional sovereign states, not from the Russian point of view, maybe not even from Ukraine’s.”

This does not mean that we should condone the use of force by Russia to change national borders, just to mention the most glaring transgression of international law. On the contrary, for Finland – which was on the receiving end of the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939 – claims about zones of special interest are unacceptable.

The ongoing war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea have changed Europe. Increased Russian military activity is also felt in the Baltic Sea area. The steps taken by NATO reassuring the security of the Baltic States are welcome stabilizing measures.

Despite the antagonisms and upping of the ante, the Kremlin’s strategic dilemma remains the challenge posed by Kiev, and not that the Baltic States are EU and NATO members or the purported Western machinations to cause regime change in Russia.

From the historical perspective, Ukraine poses the first serious Slavonic challenge to Moscow since Russia defeated the forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1612. The complexity of this fraternal feud is best demonstrated by the schism between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches. It is not a theological dispute, but a quest for independence. It is a revolt against Moscow and the rule of the Kremlin. Russia has lost Ukraine and the Ukrainians.

In other words, it is the attempt to leave the Russian orbit that Moscow perceives as a strategic threat. Other facts such as the low likelihood of Ukraine’s NATO membership or the fact that Ukraine will certainly not be joining the European Union any time soon matter little. No. The problem is that Ukraine, even ruled and ruined by oligarchs, has a vibrant civil society in contrast to the dearth of any unendorsed activity in today’s Russia.

Increased Russian military activity and heightened tension in the Baltic Sea are a political and military corollary to the war in Ukraine, not something emanating from the Baltic Sea region itself or indeed from the Baltic States. In this sense it is a side show ­– even with the proximity to Russia’s “Northern capital” St. Petersburg and the nexus of Russian military might, the second-strike capability based on the Murmansk coast.

The war in Ukraine triggered an intense security policy debate in Finland and Sweden, which are both close non-member partners of NATO. It is specifically this possibility of NATO membership that is today discussed with such intensity in Finland and Sweden, an intensity unlike anything seen since the Cold War.

Russia has fourteen contiguous neighbors and the longest land border in the world. Russia’s borders with Finland and Norway are the most stable and well managed. Indeed, the Fenno-Soviet/Russian border regime has functioned flawlessly since the late 1950s. That is until autumn of 2015, when to the great surprise of Norway and Finland, Russia suddenly allowed third-country nationals without proper visas to cross over. Not only did this breach of confidence call into question long-established border regimes and exacerbate the refugee problem, it seemed to be a hybrid tool to convey a message.

I took part in preparation of an independent expert report, entitled The Effects of Finland’s Possible NATO Membership. It was commissioned by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and released last April. At that time, we noted:

“The unexpected and unprovoked breach of the border regime (…) is an example of Russia’s propensity to create a problem, then leverage it and offer to manage it without necessarily solving it.”

The effect of this Russian move was devastating and surprise turned into anger. But there is a well-known Finnish political wisdom tested by time – never allow yourself to be provoked when being provoked. The border mess was eventually sorted and it now seems unlikely that Russia will use this particular messaging approach again.

It is important to note that both Finland and Norway have a broad bilateral agenda with Russia, while Sweden today has only limited contacts with Moscow beyond diplomatic relations.

Let me try to illustrate the fundamental differences between Finland and Sweden with what we might call the Two I’s: Ideology and Identity.

Regarding ideology, the Finnish creed is pragmatism, which as such is the antithesis of an ideology.

In contrast and irrespective of party politics, the Swedish view of the world remains strongly influenced by Olof Palme’s legacy and social democratic philosophy.

Identity for Finns is predicated on survival, while Swedes see “neutrality,” even today, as very much a part of their national identity.

It is evident that the geographic locations of Finland and Sweden partly explain the differences in the tone and substance of the ongoing debate about NATO. The Swedish debate sounds more alarmist and is dominated by activists. Anna-Lena Laurén, the Moscow correspondent for Sweden’s leading daily, put it this way:

“The Swedes are more worked up than worried about Russia, while the Finns are more worried about Russia than worked up.”

The positions of both the Swedish and Finnish governments are robust and unequivocal. The conclusion of our report mentioned earlier was very clear on this, noting that an uncoordinated move, an Alleingang if you will, by either nation with respect to NATO would affect negatively the security of the other.

A decision to join the Alliance would represent a sea-change in policy that would transform Finland’s security policy overall, and its relationship with Russia in particular. A small country such as Finland has good reason to be careful when considering choices of grand strategy. Our report included a caveat, however, which corresponds to the Finnish government’s view:

“The possibility to apply for membership remains a tool to master the geopolitical dilemma posed by an unpredictable neighbor.”

In any case, any policy of neutrality is a thing of the past. As an EU member, Finland is not neutral, it is just not militarily allied. Indeed, what started with joining NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” has become an integral part of Finland’s security policy. The Finnish Armed Forces today are fully NATO compatible. There is no blueprint of accession, but the stated policy remains not to forsake the possibility to apply for membership.

Simultaneously, Finland and Sweden, which form a common strategic space, have deepened defense cooperation in an unprecedented way. Very much like Sweden, Finland has concluded a bilateral cooperation agreement with the UK and is negotiating a similar agreement with the United States. These agreements are technical in their nature, but their significance cannot be denied as military manoeuvers with NATO and US forces well demonstrate.

What is missing in my presentation? The line in the sand. The line, which if crossed would trigger a Russian response and induce a severe crisis or even break in relations with Moscow.

Is there a line in the sand? Very much so. It is joining NATO. Why am I so sure? In finalizing our report, we were convinced that there would be a Russian response of sorts. Yet no reaction ensued. Not a single troll appeared. Sputnik media sites and news had no comments or yarns to spin. Not even the White Paper on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy, which a month later repeated and affirmed the Finnish position on NATO cooperation, triggered a reaction from “the unpredictable neighbor.”

It was only in early July, when a Finnish correspondent asked President Putin point blank in a press conference in Finland why Russia was pushing Finland and Sweden into NATO. Finally, we got our answer. The line in the sand is NATO membership.

Putin’s curt reply closed this cycle of the NATO debate. It confirmed the existence of a red line, but specifically failed to mention Finland’s cooperation with NATO, ever-closer cooperation with Sweden, or transatlantic linkages.

Finland is not defenseless and we never gave up territorial defense or abandoned conscription. In a speech at the end of August, President Niinistö summarized the importance of credible national defense as a key source of Finland’s national security. 

“We have learned to think that a credible defense creates a threshold and deterrent for intruders. It is equally important that, if a serious crisis should break out, a credible Finnish defense also provides strong incentives for partnership.”

Survival and avoiding occupation are perhaps Finland’s biggest achievements. Certainly, finding a modus vivendi with a former enemy and a successful dismantling of a Feindbild over the course of decades are what makes the Finnish story so compelling. In parallel, Finland’s unflagging resolve in integrating with Western structures has been a cornerstone of its economic success. Close cooperation with NATO is the logical continuation of this effort.

The possibility of applying for NATO membership remains a tool for managing the unpredictable neighbor. This must surely seem odd to those without the geopolitical background I’ve tried to provide you with today, and, unless you have your own unpredictable neighbor, it probably still does.

René Nyberg served as Finland’s ambassador to Russia (2000-2004) and Germany (2004-2008). This essay was originally published on his website.

Image: Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Russian President Vladimir Putin, March 22, 2016 (photo: Office of the President of Russia)