The Ukrainian crisis bears many similarities to the Cold War. Once again, Russian tanks have rolled across an international border. Central and Eastern European countries openly fear Moscow’s revanchist and imperial foreign policy. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, long ago prophesied to go “out of area or out of business”, has found new purpose deterring an old adversary. Leaders in Moscow, Brussels, and Washington warn of an ideological conflict between East and West. And, in what must instill a sense of déjà vu among students of Cold War esoterica, the once-obscure term “Finlandization” is now being bruited about.

Usually intended as a pejorative, “Finlandization” describes the phenomenon that occurs when a small country living alongside a large and aggressive neighbor accepts a reduction of its sovereignty, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, in order to maintain independence. The term derives from the posture of neutrality that Finland adopted during the Cold War. In exchange for not joining NATO and other Western institutions such as the European Economic Community (forebear to the European Union), Finland enjoyed a degree of freedom unknown to the Soviet republics or communist satellite states. Defenders of the policy insist that it allowed Finland, a nation of just five million people sharing an 800-mile long border with Russia, to survive as a prosperous, free, and democratic country with a market economy and elected parliament, all the while maintaining good relations with both the Moscow and the West. While the Soviets were content with this arrangement, it disturbed some observers in the West, who saw it as a dangerous portent for non-communist Europe. In a 1980 defense of his country’s policies for Foreign Affairs, the late Finnish diplomat Max Jakobson complained that the epithet “Finlandization” was a “kind of character assassination”, deployed “to denote supine submission to Soviet domination.”

Decades after the term achieved seeming obsolescence, “Finlandization” is making a comeback as a proposed remedy for Ukraine, which, like Finland, faces a delicate geographic reality on the far eastern edge of the European continent next to Russia. Over the past few months, no less than three foreign policy wise men have recommended the Finnish model for Ukraine. Leading the charge has been former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Writing for the Financial Times in February, he suggested that the West offer up the “Finland option” for Ukraine, interpreted as “mutually respectful neighbors, wide-ranging economic relations both with Russia and the EU, but no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself—while also expanding its European connectivity.”

The following month, a little more than a week before Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued in the Washington Post that Ukraine emulate Finland so as not to antagonize Russia. “That nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia”, Kissinger wrote.

The most recent éminence grise to proffer Finlandization as a compromise solution to the Ukraine crisis has been Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. President Vladimir Putin, Ignatius wrote, “may be ready to accept a neutral country, between East and West, where Russia’s historical interests are recognized.” Ignatius had obtained an unclassified monograph prepared by the State Department’s Office of the Historian, which, while not specifically mentioning the applicability of the Finnish situation to Ukraine’s predicament, seems to have been written with just such a comparison in mind. “The success of the policy from Finland’s perspective, and its advantages to the West, have been generally lost in historical memory”, the paper concludes, offering what can only be considered a sympathetic judgment of Finlandization.

The official Russian perspective on this debate, as much as it can be divined, seems to share the positive assessment of Finland as an archetype for Ukraine. A signal that some newfangled form of Finlandization is what Moscow desires for Ukraine could be found in a recent Foreign Affairs essay by Alexander Lukin, Vice President of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Contemplating a solution to the Ukrainian crisis, he pointed to the “neutral status” of Austria and Finland, which, he asserted, “did not in the least undermine the democratic systems or the general European orientation of those countries” during the Cold War. As was the case in that era, when the Soviet Union upheld Finland as an example for what it hoped non-communist countries to be (that is, submissive and neutralist), Russia would today like the West to believe that the so-called “Finlandization” of Ukraine would preserve the country’s independence while also assuring Russia that its own “interests” are respected. This argument presupposes, to use Lukin’s language, that neither Finland’s democracy, nor its Western orientation, was at all “undermined” by Finlandization. As I will demonstrate, the retrospective polish applied to Finlandization is applied in service of a historic myth, a politically useful allegory for the Russians to peddle so as to keep Ukraine within their “sphere of privileged interests”, or, barring that, a failed state on Europe’s periphery.

Proponents of Finlandization present it as the most reasonable and realistic option for a country stuck between East and West. NATO membership for Ukraine, they argue, is unnecessary, and Moscow would view it as “provocative.” Kiev should instead pronounce its neutrality in return for a security guarantee from Moscow. Twenty years ago, Kiev signed just such a guarantee (the Budapest Memorandum), giving up its sizeable nuclear weapons arsenal only to see Russia blatantly violate the agreement with its annexation of Crimea and ongoing support for violent separatists. Understandably, Ukrainians are less sanguine about Russian promises than are Western advocates of nonalignment.

Recommending Finlandization for Ukraine is bad advice on several levels. First, it misunderstands and misinterprets Finland’s experience, either downplaying or outright ignoring the costs that this policy imposed upon the country’s democracy. Proponents of Finlandization discount the danger that it posed to the European continent as a potential model for other countries susceptible to Russian pressure and influence. Furthermore, compelling neutrality upon an unwilling Ukraine is a stark moral capitulation to foreign aggression. Foreclosing the possibility of EU and NATO membership to Ukraine would shred the basic precepts of Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture, enshrined in agreements stipulating that countries be allowed to choose their own political and security alliances free from foreign intimidation and threats.

The latter-day, rosy interpretation of Finlandization rests on three faulty assumptions. The first is that Finlandization was a strategy cannily devised by the Finns themselves, rather than one imposed on them by the Soviets. Second is that it resulted in the country’s neutrality, meaning a political equidistance between East and West, as opposed to its actuality: a softer form of the subservience endured by satellite nations occupied by Soviet troops. The third is the belief that, whatever Finland gave up in terms of foreign policy autonomy, it was able to maintain a healthy, western-style society and form of government.

By all outward appearances, Finland was a model social democracy throughout the Cold War, boasting multiple political parties, (perhaps too) frequent elections, and a free press. But this picture of a fiercely independent country was belied by a more complicated reality. A former duchy of the Czarist Empire, Finland won its independence in December 1917 amid the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. Twice during World War II, Finland fought off Soviet incursions onto its territory, losing 100,000 men and 10 percent of its territory but ultimately maintaining independence. Through this massive sacrifice, Finland staved off the fate that would later befall every other country that bordered Russia, all of which were eventually incorporated by force into the communist bloc.

In 1948, Helsinki signed a “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance” with Moscow that would set the terms of “Finlandization” over the ensuing decades. Though the agreement recognized Finland’s existence as an “independent state”, it also mandated military cooperation between the Soviet Union and Finland should “Germany or its allies” (a diplomatic euphemism for NATO) attempt to invade the Soviet Union or Finland through Finnish territory. Even before this treaty was signed, Finland proved its deference to the Soviets by refusing much-needed Marshall Plan aid, following the lead of other countries in the Eastern Bloc that faced more concrete forms of Russian pressure.

The 1948 Mutual Assistance Treaty laid the basis for the “Paasikivi-Kekkonen line”, named after Finnish Presidents Juho Paasikivi and his successor, Urho Kekkonen, which sought above all to keep Finland neutral in international affairs. Kekkonen, who served as President from 1956 to 1982 and with whom the policy of Finlandization is most closely associated, went to great, and at times surreptitious and autocratic, lengths to preserve this plicy. Using language evocative of dictatorships, Kekkonen repeatedly claimed that the country’s very survival as an independent nation depended upon his steady hand and that only he was capable of maintaining healthy relations with the Soviets. This adamancy about his own indispensability, the insistence that he was the only thing standing between an independent Finland and a Soviet occupation, sparked two political crises early in his tenure that corroded Finnish democracy over the long term.

Following parliamentary elections in 1958, the ardently anti-communist leader of the Finnish Social Democrats, Karl-August Fagerholm, formed a government that excluded the Finnish Communist Party. In protest, the Soviet Union recalled its Ambassador, cancelled several contracts for Finnish imports, and halted trade negotiations. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev summoned Kekkonen to Moscow, where he suggested to his Finnish counterpart, “Without wishing to intrude in Finland’s internal affairs”, that Finland must “have a well-disposed government.” Taking the hint, Fagerholm resigned, and Kekkonen returned to Helsinki to approve a new cabinet more palatable to Moscow. Dubbed “night frost” by Khrushchev, this incident created a precedent for future Soviet meddling in Finnish affairs. It is important to note that, throughout the duration of this crisis, the Soviets never threatened to use force, nor was there was never any indication that they would. But caving easily to Soviet demands suited Kekkonen’s own domestic political agenda, as it enabled him to dispense with Fagerholm, a political enemy. The 1958 election set an ominous precedent for future Soviet interference in Finland, as Kekkonen would continue to use this “Moscow card” throughout his long political career. From that point forward, Moscow enjoyed an effective veto power over the composition of the Finnish government.

Finnish President Urho Kekkonen (left) and General Secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party and chairman of the Supreme Soviet presidium Leonid Brezhnev after signing Russian-Finnish documents at the Grand Kremlin Palace. Photo: Scanpix

Indeed, just three years later, Kekkonen allegedly conspired with the Soviets to ensure his re-election. In October 1961, two months after its unilateral construction of the Berlin Wall, Moscow sent a diplomatic note to Finland asking for immediate military consultations under the 1948 treaty in light of a trumped up military threat from West Germany. The “note crisis”, as it came to be known, was intended to shore up support for Kekkonen, Khrushchev’s favored candidate, over his more anti-Soviet opponent, who had the support of a six-party coalition in the eduskunta, the Finnish parliament. Kekkonen used the note as a scare tactic, claiming that only he could be trusted to steward the delicate Finnish-Soviet relationship. Upon his return from Russia, Kekkonen relayed the message that a small group of anti-Soviet politicians should resign for the good of the country. “When they retire from the stage”, Kekkonen intoned, “they know they will be fulfilling the highest duty of a citizen—safeguarding the security of their fatherland.” Thus did Kekkonen disguise subservience to a foreign power behind a nationalistic gloss. His opponent promptly dropped out of the race.

To this day, it remains unclear whether Khrushchev or Kekkonen came up with the idea of Moscow demanding consultations under the auspices of the 1948 treaty. Either way, the Soviets were happy to keep Kekkonen in power, and by the mid-1960s, the Finnish President had essentially become an elected autocrat. In 1973, using emergency legislation at the urging of Moscow, the eduskunta extended Kekkonen’s six-year presidential term to ten years, establishing one of the longest presidential tenures in the democratic world. (A disturbingly amusing remnant from the Kekkonen era is this video of the reading of ballots in the 1978 presidential election, which, needless to say, Kekkonen won handily.)By the time he resigned in 1981, Kekkonen had served as President for 26 consecutive years, and would have likely ruled even longer had poor health not forced him to step down. In their 1992 book based upon files in the Soviet archives, Christopher Andrew and KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky claim that the Russians considered Kekkonen their highest-ranking foreign asset. For his efforts, Kekkonen was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, the only Western leader to be garlanded in such fashion.

Such was the extent of Soviet pressure that Finnish politicians, Kekkonen chief among them, began behaving as if the Politburo was their constituency, not the Finnish people. (Throughout his term in office, only a handful of Finnish writers openly criticized the President. Those who did used terms like “Kekkolandia”, “autocratic”, a “non democracy” and “a kind of monarchy” to describe the nation over which he reigned.) The need to appease the Soviets in order to succeed in Finnish politics was so great that every politician required a “kotiryssa” (literally, a “home Russian”), which were always in abundant supply at the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki. Finnish politicians who refused to play the game paid the consequences. A group of 12 such figures, known as the “the Black Dozen” for their unacceptability to the Soviets, was effectively barred from participation in government. “Increasingly in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, politicians began to define their credibility and standing on what was their relationship with Moscow and how were they viewed by Soviet officialdom, rather than going to the voters for a mandate”, says Jason Lavery, a specialist in Finnish history who teaches at Oklahoma State University. “And this is what I think very often is not understood about the downsides of Finnish politics during the Soviet era. A lot of it was imposed by the Finns themselves in terms of negotiating their own domestic political problems.”
The article will continue in Maailma Vaade No 25

John Kirchik
is a journalist