Finland and Russia

Last week I spent a few days in Helsinki, where I took part in a panel discussion about European foreign policy organised by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. It was an interesting time to be there. The issue on everyone’s minds, just like everywhere else right now, was the Ukraine crisis and in particular the implications of the Russian annexation of Crimea last month. St. Petersburg is less than 200 miles away from Helsinki and Finland was part of the Russian empire for 108 years until it became independent in 1917. Russia still feels very present in Helsinki – for example a statue of Tsar Alexander II stands in front of the neo-classical Lutheran cathedral in the centre of the city. So during my time there, I was particularly interested to hear from officials, analysts and journalists about the complex relationship between Finland and Russia.

What I wondered about in particular was why Finland’s approach to Russia seemed to be so different from that of the Baltic countries or Poland. Like Finland, those countries have good reason based on their own histories to fear Russia. Two and a half decades after the end of the Cold War, they now suddenly feel they face a real threat to their security again. Since the annexation of Crimea, borders in Europe once again seem to be vulnerable. “Countries do get invaded”, Estonian President Toomas Ilves said last month at the Brussels Forum. The day I arrived in Helsinki, Latvia and Lithuania announced an increase in defence spending in response to the crisis. Yet although, unlike the Baltic states or Poland, Finland is not a member of NATO, it does not seem to fear Russia as much as they do or feel an urgent need to reconsider its security policy.

My colleague Kadri Liik argues that the Russia policy of each EU member state is influenced by its own set of collective memories, which act as a soft constraint on foreign policy – a kind of path dependency. In particular, each member state’s approach is influenced by a kind of cumulative wisdom based on what is perceived to have worked in the past – especially during the Cold War. A good example of this is German policy towards Russia, which continues to be influenced by the Ostpolitik of the 1970s – even though, as I have argued elsewhere, the situation is now completely different and the policy is no longer applicable. Finland seems to have its own version of that kind of path dependency based on its own complex relationship with Russia.

What struck me, however, was how German the Finnish approach seemed. Like Germany, Finland fought the Soviet Union during World War II (the Winter War from 1939 to 1940 and the Continuation War from 1941 to 1945, in which Germany supported Finland). Like West Germany, but unlike the Baltic states or Poland, Finland was not occupied by the Soviet Union after 1945. Instead, by developing a close relationship with the Soviet Union it maintained its independence – “ingeniously”, according to the CIA. Though “Finlandization” was seen elsewhere as a danger, the policy is perceived in Finland as a success somewhat like Ostpolitik in Germany. Like the Germans, therefore, the Finns seem to have drawn the lesson from their post-war history that the best way to deal with Russia is through co-operation and accommodation. But after Crimea, does that policy still make sense?


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