A tale of polar diplomacy and suppressed sorrow:
The end of an era for Finland and the world
6th June 2022
Finnish troops inspecting destroyed Soviet vehicles, Finland, 17 Jan 1940 (Photo: Courtesy United States Library of Congress).
Finland’s decision to join NATO has put an end to at least a century of possibly the most remarkable case of small power diplomacy that managed to keep at bay the worst of Russian aggression. That a country with such a formidable track record for cautious foreign policy is now throwing it to the wind is an indication of the gravity of the historical moment: Russia’s war against Ukraine, both as a symptom and a cause of a world order that is falling apart, has left Finland with no other choice but to abandon precious neutrality.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has ended the sanctity of territorial integrity that governed international relations since at least the end of World War Two, setting a very dangerous precedent not only for Russia’s neighbours, but also for any other small country that is in the vicinity of powers of bellicose disposition.
‘Finlandisation,’ a term coined in German academic circles in the 1960s during the fraught days of then-Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, was a misnomer for a foreign policy perfected over a painful century of imperial subjugation and territorial loss that allowed the Nordic nation to eventually thrive and achieve some of the higher scores on several benchmarks of standard of living, from education to happiness. The succession of agreements with the Soviet Union constrained Finland to abstain from joining NATO or any blocs that could pass for anti-Soviet.
Since the 19th century, even before gaining independence in 1917, Finland, or at least its ruling elites, developed a finely tuned relationship with Russia. As their erstwhile imperial master went through two further iterations, first as the Soviet Union and then as the Russian Federation of today, Finland managed to build and preserve this delicate architecture of diplomacy, which spared the Arctic nation the catastrophes that befell other neighbours of Russia—all of whom are smaller than her, at least geographically—that incurred her anger.
“On the 24th of February, I said that the masks have fallen and we see only the cold faces of war,” said President Sauli Niinisto of Finland upon announcing the decision to join NATO. “Russia’s war in Ukraine has changed Europe and our security environment.” That Finns are laconic is well known, and that also explains so much suppressed sorrow over the hardships endured when they fought the Red Army undermanned and poorly armed. Yet the Finnish President’s comment may be the understatement of the year: he is unequivocally saying that we have now entered a new historical era. This is uncharted territory not only for Finland, NATO, Russia, and Ukraine, but for the entire world.
Once Finland overcomes Turkey’s veto over the rights its democracy affords to Kurdish activists and to anybody else who lives there, she will bring into NATO the largest artillery force in Europe. That, too, is a reflection of lessons learned from errors in history. Artillery was one of its weaknesses in the Winter War waged against the Soviet Union from November 1939 to March 1940. Yet tiny Finland made the Red Army pay dearly for its victory, which earned her the privilege of preserving its territorial integrity after painful concessions and its sovereignty —no matter with how many strings attached, but certainly not nominal as is often misrepresented in the international press.
As is often the case in world affairs, Finland’s progression towards a modus vivendi with her big neighbour to the east, with whom she shares a 830-mile, or 1,300-kilometer, border, had its share of missteps. Juho Kusti Paasikivi, a former president of Finland and its top negotiator with Russia in the crucial decades following independence and the Winter War, served his nation in a manner that ran counter to what conventional wisdom dictates on the national interest. On the eve of World War Two, he understood that having Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg) a mere 18 miles, or 30 kilometers, from the Finnish border exposed his country to potential Soviet aggression, and he came to regret his success in the negotiations of the Treaty of Moscow in 1920 during which the delimitation was agreed. This can only be seen as a mark of Paasikivi’s statesmanship. As Joseph Stalin would say in the failed talks that led to the Winter War, Leningrad could not be moved, but the Soviet border could be pushed further west to create a buffer, in anticipation of a possible German attack, which finally came.
While Paasikivi was keenly aware of the Soviet reasons for the demands on Finland on the eve of the Winter War, his diplomatic mission to the Kremlin did not have the mandate to make those concessions that he deemed necessary and his nation went to war. It fought heroically, as noted, yet it ended up ceding more land than what the Soviet Union was initially demanding. The leader of the military effort against the Soviet Union, Marshal Carl Mannerheim, had even suggested moving the border on the Karelian Isthmus further west before the Winter War as a sign of goodwill towards the Kremlin and to assuage its sense of insecurity, but his remained a minority view in the government. And while much is made of the Winter War, and for all the right reasons, analysts forget to mention that Finland did eventually join Germany as a co-belligerent against the Soviet Union in what is known as the Continuation War from 1941 to 1944.
Only history will tell if Finland’s decision to join NATO, abandoning a policy of neutrality that served it well for a century, may affect the country’s interests adversely. Anatol Lieven, a Russia scholar, argues so in an article in Responsible Statecraft. “Finland’s heroic fight against the Soviet army had convinced Moscow that Finland was too tough a nut to try to crush,” Lieven wrote. “There was no reason whatsoever to think that Russia was going to change this policy and attack Finland.”
Jörn Donner (d. 2020) a Finnish writer, actor and politician, began a speech he gave in London in 2017 by quoting from an old operetta Paasikivi used to cite in his political journals: “I may not catch on right away/ But, how wonderful it is to say/ That everything dawns on me eventually, clear as the light of day.”
“Neither Paasikivi and Mannerheim might be guilty of having hindsight, but both men, over time, developed a realistic understanding of what it meant to be part of Russia and neighbour, subsequently, of the Soviet Union,” said Donner five years before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “They would most likely feel the same way about Russia today, which is every bit as unpredictable as it was under Stalin’s time.”
The measure of success in diplomacy is not imposing terms after victory but extracting the maximum possible from the clutches of defeat and a position of weakness. In that, Paasikivi was second to none. Yet by abandoning the most robust policy of neutrality crafted under the shadow of the Soviet Union, the Finnish government possibly has understood that in an upended world order, destabilized not only by the nuclear superpower next-door but also by NATO’s reckless expansion eastward—which paradoxically left Finland with no choice but to join it to preserve its security—Paasikivi’s “tight-rope” diplomacy was no longer viable.