Shadow Government

Is Finland Rejecting ‘Finlandization’?

As Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine and renewed bellicosity at many points elsewhere draw growing comparisons to the Cold War, an old Cold War term itself might be getting a new definition. "Finlandization," originally a term of derision that eventually became a term of art, described Finland’s status as a neutral buffer state during the ...

Lars Baron/Getty Images
Lars Baron/Getty Images

As Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine and renewed bellicosity at many points elsewhere draw growing comparisons to the Cold War, an old Cold War term itself might be getting a new definition. "Finlandization," originally a term of derision that eventually became a term of art, described Finland’s status as a neutral buffer state during the Cold War. Reflecting Finland’s precarious geography of a long shared border with the Soviet Union, further complicated by a shared history of some years under Russian territorial control, the term Finlandization represented an implicit bargain by all parties in the Cold War conflict to resist any provocative steps to change the status quo. For the West this meant not inviting Finland into NATO; for the Soviet Union it meant not invading or otherwise seizing control of Finland; for the Finns themselves it meant keeping their heads down, accepting a significant measure of Soviet influence on their domestic governance and foreign policy, and not making any overt efforts to align with the West.

The concept of Finlandization has been resurrected in the past year by some prominent voices (such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and David Ignatius) as a potential compromise model for the unfolding Ukraine crisis. This Finlandization solution as invoked today would allow Russia to consolidate its territorial gains from invading Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, while dampening any further conflict by securing an agreement from Kiev, NATO, and the United States not to take any steps to align (what remains of) Ukraine with Western institutions. Given that the Finlandization bargain seems to have worked in preventing Finland from becoming a flashpoint that turned the Cold War into a hot war, on one level it is understandable how that analogy could have a facile appeal for addressing the Ukraine crisis today.

However, as a useful term Finlandization may soon be passing its "sell by" date — and one reason lies in Finland itself. Leery of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest round of aggressive moves spanning the Arctic Circle to the Caspian Sea, the Finns themselves are making overtures towards increasing their defense budget, possible bidding for NATO membership, and otherwise pursuing more explicit ties to the West. Perhaps Western policymakers of uncertain resolve on how to respond to Putin today would do well to listen to the concerns of those countries that lie most directly in the shadows of Russian mischief-making.

Meanwhile, Russia seems to be taking some other pages out of the Cold War playbook, such as (allegedly) covert funding of protests against shale gas exploration (since the shale revolution threatens Russia’s chokehold on European energy supplies, a substantial source of revenue as well as geopolitical leverage) in ways reminiscent of the KGB’s secret funding of Western nuclear freeze groups at the height of the Cold War. Or as Jakub Grygiel describes in a perceptive recent article, Putin’s unrelenting territorial carve-outs seem to evoke the old tactic of "salami-slicing" that effectively erodes NATO’s deterrence capabilities and credibility.

Such is the view from Helsinki, which may help explain why Putin’s enlistment of Cold War tactics makes Finland reluctant to fall back into its own Cold War nomenclature — and why Kiev presumably does not want to succumb to "Finlandization the sequel."

If present trends continue, I wonder if the term Finlandization might soon come to have a new meaning: a geographically vulnerable country threatened by Russian aggression decides to increase its defense budget and bids to join NATO?

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