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'Finlandization' For Ukraine? Macron's Reported Comment Hits A Nerve In Kyiv, Stirs Up Bad Memories In Helsinki 


Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with his Finnish counterpart, Sauli Niinisto, following a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in August 2018.

KYIV -- Three years after the end of World War II, Finland, which had stunned the mighty Red Army at the opening of the war, signed a treaty with its eastern neighbor. With the cement hardening on a Cold War Europe divided between East and West, the deal fixed Helsinki's neutrality in place, kept it out of a nascent NATO, and affected Finnish politics for decades.

The situation spawned a geopolitical term: "Finlandization." In Finland, it’s a dirty word to some. In Kyiv these days, it’s practically an insult.

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This week, as he traveled to Kyiv, the French president reportedly used the term -- or raised the idea -- and said it was an option "on the table" for resolving the tension over Russia's military buildup near Ukraine and Moscow's insistence that the country be kept out of NATO forever.

Emmanuel Macron's visit, which was preceded by a stop in Moscow, was one of the latest top-level efforts by Western leaders to avert a major new invasion by Russia -- a development that could be disastrous for Ukraine and tectonic for all of Europe.

Macron later denied using the term. But according to press reports, he told journalists traveling with him: "It's one of the models on the table," adding: "We shouldn't be looking for a reference term just now. I think we'll invent something new, by definition.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy later backed Macron up at a news conference in Kyiv on February 8, saying he hadn't heard the French leader use the term.

But even a general discussion of anything close to resembling "Finlandization" raised eyebrows and concern in Zelenskiy's cabinet, according to one person with knowledge of the internal discussions.

"This is unacceptable for Ukraine," said Oleksiy Melnyk, who is co-director of the Foreign Relations and International Security Program at the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv think tank.

"If you accept something that is imposed on you, like permanent neutrality, logically you have to get something in exchange," he said. "So what should Ukraine receive in exchange? On this question, Russia says nothing."

In Finland itself, the term carries a mix of regret and embarrassment, an echo of a bygone era.

"From a Finnish perspective, it's a pejorative term," said Matti Pesu, senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki. "Finns, they don't like it. They would never offer it as a policy proposal. Finns would never want a system imposed from an outside power."

"On the one hand, they managed to walk the tightrope," he added. "On the other hand, it undermined Finnish democracy and it harmed Finland's international status."

'A Poisonous Impact'

Signed in 1948, the Soviet–Finnish Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance was the bedrock of Helsinki's postwar relations with the Soviet Union. Among other things, Moscow guaranteed it wouldn't invade Finland.

But it wasn't until the 1960s that the term "Finlandization" began to circulate, first in Germany, as a shorthand description to explain how countries in proximity to the U.S.S.R. could maintain their sovereignty and independence without being ramrodded by the Soviet Army or the Warsaw Pact.

Finnish troops during the Winter War with the Soviet Union in 1939-40.
Finnish troops during the Winter War with the Soviet Union in 1939-40.

"If you view it as a mechanism by Finland to make life work in an asymmetrical relationship [with Moscow] -- a survival mechanism, a tool -- you could tell a positive story about it," said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a Helsinki-based researcher of international policy, security, and defense.

"But it also had a poisonous impact...on domestic politics," he said.

That was most clearly felt in the 1970s, Pesu said, embodied by President Urho Kekkonen, whose 25 years in office spanned much of the Cold War.

Under Kekkonen, Finnish politics became uncomfortably accommodating and "sugarcoated" toward Moscow, according to both Pesu and Salonius-Pasternak. Among lawmakers, advancing higher into Finnish politics -- in parliament or elsewhere in government -- was impossible with any sort of vocal public criticism of Moscow. Finnish media were rarely critical of Soviet policies.

Finnish troops capture a Russian tank in a snow-covered forest on the Eastern Front in January 1940. The Russians lost more than 300 tanks in the first month of the Winter War. Eight years later, the two nations would sign the Soviet–Finnish Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance.
Finnish troops capture a Russian tank in a snow-covered forest on the Eastern Front in January 1940. The Russians lost more than 300 tanks in the first month of the Winter War. Eight years later, the two nations would sign the Soviet–Finnish Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance.

For example, the writings of Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were never published in Finland, Pesu said. They were instead translated into Finnish and printed, but only by a Swedish publishing house.

After the Cold War, Finland drifted toward closer ties with the West, joining the European Union in 1995. But 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and fueled war in eastern Ukraine, was a watershed moment for Helsinki.

"It really changed the discourse on how Russia was viewed," Pesu said, adding that "the narrative about Russia and its actions since 2014 has been highly critical, portraying it in a highly negative light."

Finland remains outside of NATO, but experts said it has integrated more closely with the alliance than outsiders realize. That was highlighted by its announcement in December that it would spend $9.4 billion to buy 64 F-35 fighter jets from the United States -- a decision that will place super-advanced U.S. weaponry on Russia's borders.

Last month, Finland's military raised eyebrows when it published a series of videos showing forward air controllers staging test drills, guiding Finnish Air Force pilots to their targets. The videos were all in English.

"We haven't been neutral since EU membership," Salonius-Pasternak said. “Politically, we have incredible cooperation with NATO, with the U.S. Most parliamentarians don’t even realize how close it is. We’re far more interoperable than many NATO members know.”

Finnish society has also moved noticeably toward support for NATO membership, though public opinion polls also show substantial uncertainty -- and opposition in some quarters. And Finland’s prime minister said recently that NATO membership would be "very unlikely" during his tenure.

For Ukraine, the problem is much more complex. While the Kremlin may simply look askance at Finland edging closer to European political and economic groupings, Moscow has taken steps to halt moves by Kyiv in the same direction -- and is threatening to do more if Ukraine is not kept out of NATO forever.

Allowing Moscow to impose a "Finlandization" policy on Ukraine would set a dangerous precedent, Salonius-Pasternak says.

"Once you go down your path, the next argument is going to be about the EU, and that's bad if Russia is starting to get a veto on your foreign policy decisions," he said.

'Things That Finns Would Happily Offer To Ukraine'

A spokeswoman for Zelenskiy did not immediately respond to a query from RFE/RL.

"Finlandization" remains a dirty word for the United States, which is Ukraine's biggest supplier of military aid and a stalwart backer.

And for NATO, as well, whose leadership has repeatedly rejected Moscow's demand that it never make Ukraine or any other country near Russia's borders a member. Western officials have also said Moscow was essentially demanding a veto over another country's foreign policy -- Ukraine, in this case.

NATO officials say the alliance's door is open to Ukraine and will stay open, but they have made clear it won't join the alliance in the near future.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in Kyiv in September 2019.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in Kyiv in September 2019.

"President Macron has said that that was not the formulation that he used, and that ending NATO's 'Open Door' policy would actually be a problem, and we agree with that," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter said when asked about "Finlandization." "And as we've said previously, we're committed to the right of sovereign nations to make their own decisions about their security."

In the meantime, Ukrainian public opinion, after years of tepid support, has hardened and moved noticeably toward backing NATO membership.

And Zelenskiy, who won election in 2019 after pledging to end the conflict with Moscow, has moved toward a harder line -- including more frequent public calls for Kyiv to join NATO.

For this reason, accepting anything close to the "Finlandization" of Ukraine would be politically dangerous for Zelenskiy, says Melnyk of the Razumkov Center.

In 2015, after Zelenskiy's predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, signed the second installment of the Minsk accords, violence erupted in Kyiv's streets in protest, amid perceptions that Poroshenko had given in to Russian demands.

"But could Ukraine learn something from Finland? I would say, Finland has a history of navigating a tense situation with a strong neighbor," Pesu said. "Finland has robust defense ties, with Sweden, Norway, our neighbors, NATO. Finland has a very functional society, one of the least corrupt countries in the world. These are things that Finns would also happily offer to Ukraine."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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