In his recent visit to Finland, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that it was up to Finland whether the country would choose to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or not. At the same time, he suggested that his country would adjust its military deployment if it does.
This statement has been read by some as a warning to Finland. Since the breakout of the Ukraine crisis in 2013, the relations between Russia and the European Union have been at a low point, including the EU member Finland. President Putin’s remarks, despite being tough, showcased the great attention he gives to Russian-Finnish relations and brought to light again the special relations between the two countries.
“So far from God and so close to Russia?”
Finland began its civilization only in the 12th century when Swedish people ruled the region, but it’s Russia that has played a decisive role in the formation of Finland. Russia and Sweden fought against each other in the Great Northern War (1700 to 1721), which led to the transfer of Vyborg, a Finnish town then, to Russia by the defeated Sweden. Russia later occupied a large part of Finland from 1721 to 1743. The disintegration of Finland in effect spurred the national consciousness of its people, and Swedish law practiced in Finland set the region apart from other parts of Russia, reinforcing again its national awareness. In 1809, Russian Emperor Alexander I occupied all of Finland, which led to the formation of the Grand Duchy of Finland, the predecessor of modern Finland. In 1835, the Kalevala, an epic written in Finnish and compiled from Karelian (located between Finland and Russia) and Finnish oral folklore, was published, vaulting the status of the Finnish language into equal status of the Swedish language in the country. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to say that modern Finland was created by Russia.
Finland won independence during Russia’s revolution in 1917, but the victory was soon undermined by the upper force of Russia and Finland. Finland adopted an anti-communist policy before World War II, for instance the Lapua movement from 1929 to 1932. The Soviet Union retaliated by banning Finnish ships between Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland, which hurt the Finnish economy. The scuffles between the two sides escalated to a full-fledged war from 1940 to 1944, which made Finland return all the land it took from the Soviet Union and cede Petsamo and lease Porkkala to the Soviet Union. But the victory did not come easy on the Soviet Union side as tens of thousands of soldiers were killed during the wars. This made the Soviet Union realize that taking control of Finland may do more harm than good.
Therefore, the two countries established a special relationship featuring neither alliance nor confrontation. The two signed a slew of agreements in 1947 and 1948 which stipulated that the Soviet Union could be somewhat involved in Finland’s internal affairs, that there should be no anti-Soviet Union activities in Finland, and that Finland should stayaway from NATO and the Marshall Plan. In return, the Soviet Union would not change the social systems in Finland, and returned the Porkkala area in advance. The relations between the two were seen as a role model of the peaceful coexistence of countries of different systems in Europe, which was quite unusual in tension-filled Europe at that time.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, some said that Finland was “so far from God and so close to the Soviet Union (Russia),” implying that the Soviet Union sat on top of Finland. But it was just because of the “neutral” ties that Finland did not have to spend much on military, nor handle the presence of foreign troops. Moreover, Finland was able to reach out economically to both the East and the West and reinforce its presence in the world. The country was not too close to the Soviet Union to be away from God, but was instead one of the most developed economies in the world at that time. To some extent, Finland was the greater winner of the two.
Is it sensible to give up neutrality?
Finland did not join the EU until 1995, and has so far remained outside NATO. But since the Ukraine crisis in 2013, Finland, along with other EU countries, has levied sanctions on Russia. The country has now shown signs of joining NATO, suggesting an intention of giving up neutrality.
The move does not come as a wayward one. Due to the historically complicated ties between the two countries, it’s natural that Finnish people do not want to stay under Russia. Russia, on the other hand, has lost the power it used to have during the time of the Soviet Union. Moreover, as the Ukraine crisis has escalated into a local war, it is increasingly possible that a war may break out between Europe and Russia. With a great expanse of land bordering Russia, Finland is naturally concerned about its own security, which prompted its attempts of seeking closer ties with European countries.
However, I’d argue that it is not sensible for Finland to give up its neutrality and join NATO now.
First of all, if Finland joins NATO and allows its troops to be stationed at the Finnish-Russian border, it means that Russia will need to watch out for additional thousands of kilometers of border, not to say that the strategically important cities St. Petersburg and Murmansk are behind the border. If conflicts occur, it’s possible that Russia will disrupt the order in Finland as it did in Ukraine.
Second, the Finnish economy is dependent on its good relations with both the West and Russia. Its trade and economic ties with Russia and the real estate investment and tourism brought by Russians to Finland has always been an important economic source. Thus, if it becomes a NATO member, it will take a toll on its economy, which is already sluggish given the depression in Europe. Moreover, the country would have to increase its military costs to tackle Russia’s threats.
Lastly, Finland is not confronted with military threats currently, and Russia won’t be powerful enough to threaten it like it did in the time of the Soviet Union. But if Finland joins NATO, it would jeopardize the strategic balance in northern Europe and add more tension in Europe and the world.
In a word, the neutrality of Finland will not only benefit the country itself and Russia, but also the peace in northern Europe. It should learn from the lessons in Ukraine and stick to its peaceful policies so that it can maintain security and prosperity.