Shadow Government

‘Finlandization’ Abandons Ukraine

With the Sept. 5 cease-fire tenuously holding in eastern Ukraine, discussion surrounding the conflict has refocused on the need for a negotiated settlement to prevent a resurgence of violence. Proposals concerning the "Finlandization," or neutralization, of Ukraine have received increasing attention, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has made plain that Kiev’s membership in NATO is ...


With the Sept. 5 cease-fire tenuously holding in eastern Ukraine, discussion surrounding the conflict has refocused on the need for a negotiated settlement to prevent a resurgence of violence. Proposals concerning the "Finlandization," or neutralization, of Ukraine have received increasing attention, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has made plain that Kiev’s membership in NATO is incompatible with his regime’s conception of Russian security interests. However, proponents of a non-aligned Ukraine misinterpret the Finland model; where control over Helsinki’s foreign policy alone in theory may have appeased the Politburo, the Putin government would ignore Ukraine’s domestic developments at great risk. Even as a neutral state, an economically prosperous and democratically flourishing Ukraine would threaten the Putin regime by exemplifying a viable alternative to Putin’s authoritarian-statist paradigm. If the transatlantic community accepts the Finlandization of Ukraine as an exit from the current crisis, it will be a sacrifice of Western values in order to implement a policy destined to fail, and at the cost of a successful Ukrainian democracy.

The debate surrounding the Ukraine crisis has centered on Russia’s objections to NATO enlargement to the point of marginalizing other salient issues. John Mearsheimer’s September article in Foreign Affairs illustrated this misperception in postulating a scenario in which by abstaining from further NATO expansion, the West could shift "gears and work to create a prosperous but neutral Ukraine, one that does not threaten Russia and allows the West to repair its relations with Moscow." While Mearsheimer outlines Moscow’s perception that the alliance’s expansion threatens Russia’s "core strategic interests," his vision of neutralization misinterprets the historical lessons of the Finnish experience, ignoring the potential for a nonaligned Ukraine to undermine hold on power.

Moscow’s demand of Helsinki’s neutrality through the Finno-Soviet Treaty of 1948 was a matter of protecting its border, not due to a connection with the Finnish people. The Finns were perpetual outsiders, both as part of the Russian Empire and as an independent state neighboring the USSR; they shared neither language, culture, nor significant history with Russians. Ukraine, however, differs considerably from the supposed Nordic parallel. For Russians, the territory of Kievan Rus’ represents more than a mere former outpost of empire. Ethnic Russians comprise approximately 17.3 percent of Ukraine’s population, and an even larger 29.6 percent of Ukrainians consider Russian their primary language. In Finland, conversely, a 2012 survey notes that Russian-speakers comprise only 0.2 percent of the population. Ukraine by its very nature stands apart from the cases of neutralization during the Cold War, reflecting ties that make it impossible for the Putin regime to perceive Ukraine’s internal affairs as irrelevant to governance within Russia.

Putin’s stakes in Ukraine entail more than military security. The potential for a democratically vibrant and economically prosperous Ukraine presents the Russian people with a feasible alternative to Putin’s path and, therefore, represents an existential threat to that regime. Given the belief among many Russians that Ukrainians are merely wayward Russians, Kiev’s decision to move toward the Euro-Atlantic community creates a direct challenge to the system that President Putin has held up as a model for Slavic and Orthodox peoples. A Ukraine that achieves robust rule of law, reduced corruption, and, over time, steady economic growth not dependent on resource extraction, would create a strong counter-narrative to the clash of civilizations notion promulgated by the Putin government. It would demonstrate that, despite the state’s propaganda, authoritarian rule does not reflect the sole path to stability and wealth for "Slavic civilizations." In this case, the Russian leader could only perceive Ukraine as a base for the fomenting of a color revolution in Moscow, undermining the Kremlin’s vigorous campaign to suppress civil society and independent media across Russia.

The belief that a neutral Ukraine could resolve the Russo-Western tensions is an illusion. The transatlantic community must understand that a liberal, reformed, and vigorous government in Kiev clashes with Putin’s interests. If the Sept. 5 cease-fire continues, the conflict in Ukraine will only advance to a new stage, where Russia will strive to subvert Ukraine’s progress on the path to recovery. Consequently, the West can expect Russian-backed efforts to maintain the frozen conflict in the eastern regions to divert attention and funds from combatting corruption and revitalizing the economy. Similarly, outbreaks of violence will help propel right-wing nationalists to the Rada in a strategy designed to promote disunity and undermine democratic rule. Putin’s model for Russia remains viable only so long as the alternative scenarios appear worse; thus, the Russian President’s prescription for Ukraine is violence, chaos, and poverty in order to secure his power at home.

Confronted with this challenge, the West must prepare for a lengthy struggle to support Ukraine’s democratic growth. Although we should not forget that the violence has not come to a complete end, the overarching transition of the conflict from the battlefield to the political arena is not a signal for the West to disengage from Ukraine. Kiev is not Helsinki; Ukraine possesses no option to surrender its foreign policy in exchange for Russia’s non-interference in domestic affairs, and the Kremlin will seek nothing less than the collapse of democracy in Ukraine. Consequently, embracing Finlandization would only serve to abandon Western values to chase the mirage of a true settlement.

Instead, the United States and the European Union must reject the complacency that has marked the transatlantic partners’ maintenance of European democracy. The West has assumed that the same magnetism that drew much of the former Eastern Bloc into the EU would remain unchallenged, and would again be victorious in Ukraine. However, in 2014 the West faces a climate of economic malaise and societal divisions, making a democratic and unified Europe no longer inevitable. Rather, this vision requires persistent cultivation and protection. Ukraine represents the frontline in the struggle against the spread of forces determined to undercut democracy. As seen in Ukraine and Hungary, the project that began in 1941 of ending tyranny and oppression in Europe is under assault. The West may no longer discount authoritarianism as a political system consigned to European history. Now more than ever, we must confront this insidious danger more of governance than military balances. Ukraine deserves the committed support of those dedicated to completing the work of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.

Mark P. Lagon, a faculty member at Georgetown University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, becomes president of Freedom House in January 2015. Will Moreland is a master’s candidate in Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Mark P. Lagon is on the faculty at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

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