The Finlandisation of Ukraine

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In the debate on how to solve the complex crisis in Ukraine, influential figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger have put forward the idea of “Finlandisation”. Ukraine would be progressively integrated into Europe, but it would also maintain close economic relations with Russia and preserve its neutrality – which would mean staying outside of NATO. They suggest that this would placate Russia and, in so doing, contribute to order and stability in the region. The proposal enjoys the implicit backing of some in foreign and security policy-making circles in Europe.

[Supporters] suggest that this would placate Russia and, in doing so, contribute to order and stability in the region.

However, the proposal has major flaws. First, it is based on a narrow reading of the reality of Finland’s historical experience with the Soviet Union, which was considerably more complex and involved far more elements than either simple neutrality or pro-Soviet policymaking. Secondly, applying Finlandisation in today’s Ukraine in its relations with today’s Russia would be problematic, not least because of Ukraine’s centrality to the current conflict between Russia and the West.

Another flaw in the proposal is that it ignores the fact that the immediate trigger for Ukraine’s crisis was not the theoretical question of Ukraine joining NATO, but rather Ukraine’s pivot to the European Union, through the tools contained in the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. The Kremlin’s strategy does not allow for a Ukraine that is close to NATO, but neither does it want Ukraine to be any closer to the EU, even if it were to try to retain close relations with Russia as well. At base, Moscow does not even countenance the idea of an independent Ukraine. And finally, the idea of the Finlandisation of Ukraine does not take into account the opinions and wishes of the Ukrainians themselves on their country’s future, something that used to be given some importance in the now shattered post-Cold War European security system.

The Kremlin’s strategy does not allow for a Ukraine that is close to NATO, but neither does it want Ukraine to be any closer to the EU.

Finland and Ukraine

The historical experience of the Finns themselves and their own perspective on the past can shed some light on the problems with this proposal. The Finns are the first to object whenever Ukraine is compared to Finland. Coined by Germans critical of Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik”, the word Finlandisation has a pejorative ring, akin to capitulation or the appeasement policy. And for Finland, it has a tremendous collective psychological resonance. 

The Finnish experience was not just one of neutrality, let alone one of acquiescence to Soviet influence. Finland also struggled against invasion during the 1939 Winter War (and the Continuation War which lasted until 1944) and had to accept the loss of territory to the Soviet Union. In spite of its official position, Helsinki maintained a defensive posture (essentially, against the USSR), managed to hold onto its democracy (in spite of periods of “Sovietisation”, which are still the subject of domestic controversy), and largely pivoted towards the West and Europe, joining the EU shortly after the demise of the USSR. Now, after what has happened in Crimea, the Finns are even discussing the option of joining NATO, as are the Swedes.

Although Finland and Ukraine both share a border with a more powerful and encroaching neighbour, they are otherwise very differently situated.

After what has happened in Crimea, the Finns are even discussing the option of joining NATO, as are the Swedes.

Ukraine is not on the periphery, but rather, it is right in the middle of a major geopolitical contest between Russia and the West, with deep-seated revisionist elements driving the Kremlin’s approach. Ukraine is also central to the dominant vision in Moscow of Russian identity.

Moscow does not want Finlandisation

Ukraine is still a neutral state, albeit one that is leaning strongly towards the West, as confirmed by the recent parliamentary elections. The country has already tried unsuccessfully to follow the Finnish path – Viktor Yanukovych was the final victim of this approach. But the approach failed, first and foremost because Moscow has simply no interest in a Finlandisation of Ukraine. Even if, in accepting Finlandisation, Ukraine tried to maintain close ties with both Russia and Europe, Moscow will not accept a more European Ukraine.

For the Kremlin, in the candid words of its own representatives, the problem is not only NATO but also the EU and its partner relations with Kyiv, Chisinau, and Tbilisi. A basic problem with the proposed trade-off – Europe yes, NATO no – is that any significant step forward in the European perspectives of Georgia, Moldova, or Ukraine is interpreted as a step backward for Moscow’s influence and a weakening of Russia’s position in the region. These buffer zone countries’ relations with the EU are perceived as a potential threat to Russian security interests in its own backyard – of which Finland was never a part. In Putin’s words at Valdai, the “bear” is “the master of the taiga” and the bear “will not let anyone have its taiga”.

In Putin’s words at Valdai, the “bear” is “the master of the taiga” and the bear “will not let anyone have its taiga”.

Moreover, Finlandisation would require Moscow to accept its smaller neighbour’s independence. This has not been the case since the end of Cold War and Ukraine’s independence from the USSR. On this point, his remarks at the Valdai Club about Novorossiya and his many nuanced implications about Ukrainian statehood are simply revealing of a deep-rooted thinking in Russia.

Even if we were to accept Ukraine’s restricted statehood and the free choices that come with it (for Finlandisation is, at the core, tantamount to a limited independence), as a sort of bargaining chip with Russia, would European security and stability be guaranteed by Ukraine remaining indefinitely neutral? This is at best uncertain, given the revisionist agenda that now drives the power circles within the Kremlin and, certainly, its occupant. It is doubtful that the formal Finlandisation of Ukraine would satisfy the Kremlin’s agenda for Eastern Europe and beyond. A dispassionate analysis of Russian strategy and history points to the contrary.

Ukraine might not join NATO – not least because many of the alliance’s members are not seriously considering the option due to the implications it would have for relations with Russia. There are strong Realpolitik arguments against it. But the truth is, as things stand and barring an unlikely change of heart in Moscow, Ukraine’s powerful neighbour will not even allow it a loose integration within the structures of the EU.

Ukraine’s powerful neighbour will not even allow it a loose integration within the structures of the EU.

All in all, it adds up to quite a fortieth anniversary for the Helsinki Final Act, which included the principle of self-determination and the idea that states should be able to choose their own alliances. The proposal of Finlandisation asks Ukrainians to forego any guarantee of security mainly to placate their country’s invader, not to mention to forget about Crimea and part of the country’s east. First humiliated and then thrashed. Finding an appropriate strategy to guarantee the future of Ukraine will be difficult. Realpolitik justifies both some kind of Finlandisation and a containment policy of sorts against unbound, revisionist powers. But beyond the logic of force, alliances, and decisions made in the halls of power, the opinion of the Ukrainian people (and those of other Eastern countries) on their own future should surely count for something. Or at least it should do so for democratic countries – even if popular aspirations are ultimately balanced by broader considerations.

A Spanish version of this article appeared in the El Mundo newspaper on 2 November.

Read more on: Wider Europe,Russia,EaP,Ukraine,Ukraine Crisis

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