The view from the ground.

How Finland Became Europe’s Bear Whisperer

Helsinki has figured out how to stand up to Russia without provoking Putin’s wrath. Its neighbors call that appeasement.


HELSINKI — When Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for the first time since April elections, Lavrov was prepared. Word had already reached the Russian diplomat that the new government in Helsinki was preparing a report on whether to join NATO.

HELSINKI — When Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for the first time since April elections, Lavrov was prepared. Word had already reached the Russian diplomat that the new government in Helsinki was preparing a report on whether to join NATO.

As far as Baltic defense policy white papers go, this was big news. Since World War II, Finland has remained militarily neutral, walking a political tightrope between Moscow and Western powers. Lavrov wasted no time in prodding Soini over the report’s implications, worried that more than 60 years of Finnish foreign policy was about to be upended.

Soini was able to assure Lavrov that no decision had been made; the report is still being prepared and is set to be released in spring 2016, when it will be debated in parliament. With the NATO question out of the way — for now — the two foreign ministers went on to discuss cooperation on a variety of issues, from building nuclear power plants together to managing the flow of refugees across their shared border.

The exchange highlights the contradictions at the heart of Helsinki and Moscow’s relationship. Over the last 25 years, Russia has emerged as a top trading partner — a multibillion-dollar market for Finnish exports like dairy products and machinery. Hundreds of thousands of Russians visit Finland each year for tourism and shopping. But if geography has made Moscow one of Helsinki’s most vital partners, it has also made Russia Finland’s greatest potential military threat. And that threat is higher now than it has been in recent memory.

The Baltic region’s fears about a military confrontation with Russia have exploded since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine, and Russia’s intervention in Syria. Finland’s neighbors to the south have sounded the alarm that their region could be the next flashpoint with Russia, and a September 2015 U.S. Defense Department review showed that, should there be a confrontation, Moscow would win. Moscow seems to feel the same, judging from its recent provocations, including incursions into Baltic airspace by Russians jets. Sweden — Finland’s closest military ally and another non-NATO member — recently shifted its defense posture, remilitarizing the remote island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea for the first time since the end of the Cold War. From Oslo to Warsaw, NATO countries have appealed to Washington for military assistance; the Pentagon has responded with plans to boost its defense spending in the region.

Yet Finland has so far remained an exception among Russia’s Western neighbors by continuing to reap the economic benefits of friendly relations without making any overt shows of force. How has Finland managed to keep the bear next door so tame? In interviews with Foreign Policy, top officials from the Finnish government say the secret for any small country bordering Russia is to find a way to stand up to Russian provocations without provoking it in return. Helsinki has faced accusations that such a policy amounts to appeasement — but Finnish officials prefer to say it’s simply good sense.

“As a small nation, we know when big countries are fighting that it’s better to be in the audience than in the ring,” Soini said. “You can think whatever you want about Russia — and we do — but it’s very important to maintain good relations. It’s just good policy.”

Cultivating a strong relationship with Moscow is one of Soini’s most important responsibilities as foreign minister. It’s a task, he says, that requires him not to underestimate Russia’s military capabilities or its resolve. “Their economy is horrible, the price of oil is very low, and there are still some limitations on what they can do militarily. But if they make a decision, they do it. No Western power can rival that type of commitment, and one should always keep that in mind.”

Helsinki and Moscow share a complex history going back to when Finland — previously under Swedish control — was a made a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire in 1809. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, Finland declared independence in 1917 and, after a brutal civil war, emerged from the ashes intact. But danger always loomed to the east. Total war returned in 1939, after a Soviet invasion to claim parts of eastern Finland in what came to be known as the Winter War, which took more than 400,000 lives. The Soviets annexed parts of eastern Finland in 1940 only for Helsinki to return to war in 1941, this time allied with Nazi Germany, in an attempt to take that territory back. After World War II, Moscow demanded reparations from Helsinki. “It’s important to know the Russian way of thinking. They are a country of chess players, and whether we accept it or not, they will make the moves that are strategic for them at the time,” Soini said.

During the Cold War, Helsinki followed a policy of neutrality, allowing it to balance further integration with Europe with its insistence on maintaining good relations with the Soviet giant next door. The country notably refrained from joining NATO and often bowed to Moscow’s wishes to preserve its independence, a stance that some Western detractors condemned as too accommodating to the Soviets. Cold Warriors even dubbed it, derisively, “Finlandization.” Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2014, the term has returned to the security debate around Russia, with foreign-policy heavyweights like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski suggesting Kiev could look to Finland for lessons on how to manage relations with Moscow. (In Helsinki today, the term Finlandization is dismissed as an oversimplification that glosses over the difficulties of Helsinki’s balancing act during the Cold War, including its resistance of Soviet pressure to join the Warsaw Pact.)

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Finland quickly moved to join the European Union and adopt the euro, but stayed militarily neutral toward NATO, even as Baltic neighbors like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined in 2004. Meanwhile, Helsinki moved fast to expand trade links with Moscow, with Russia becoming a top destination for Finnish exports, and Finland deepening its dependence on Russian energy. Even today, Finland imports all of its natural gas and more than 90 percent of its oil and coal from Russia, meaning that around half of the country’s energy use is dependent on its eastern neighbor.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has praised Finland’s security policy for providing the “optimum model for guaranteed and sustainable good relations for nonaligned countries.” In Helsinki, the comments were seen as a veiled threat against pursuing NATO membership. But for many of Finland’s Baltic neighbors, it was confirmation that the essence of Finnish neutrality was weakness toward Russia. Prominent Estonian academic Andres Kasekamp, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, denounced Finland’s approach in December 2014 when Helsinki did not summon the Russian ambassador over airspace violations in Sweden. Kasekamp dismissed the “traditional Finnish approach” as turning a blind eye to Russia’s aggressive tendencies.

But government officials say Finland’s neutrality policy should not be mistaken for complacency. The country has boosted its military arsenal by acquiring cruise missiles from the United States and coastal mine hunters from Italy, all while maintaining its conscription-based defense force of 230,000 soldiers, designed to repel a full-scale land invasion. It has also built friendly relations with NATO as a nonmember, cooperating with the alliance in Afghanistan and routinely conducting joint exercises with its member states in the Baltic region. Moreover, the Pentagon’s proposed boost to European defense for 2017 means that the U.S. Air Force will be conducting exercises with Finnish forces. While modest, the exercises, which will occur about 100 miles from the Russian border, will be the largest to ever take place in Finland involving U.S. aircraft.

“Only very few people in the world could have anticipated everything that happened in Ukraine, but we were not totally taken off guard by it,” said Jussi Niinisto, Finland’s defense minister. Since taking his position, Niinisto pushed through Finland’s first increase in military spending in three years after repeated incursions by Russian fighter planes into Finnish airspace in the aftermath of Putin’s annexation of Crimea. “Our aim is to have a defense capability so strong that no enemy would want to attack us,” Niinisto said. “Finland doesn’t feel threatened by Russia right now, but, of course, we are concerned by recent negative developments and are improving our preparedness.”

It’s clear that suspicions of Russia run deep in the Finnish government especially after Russia’s provocations in Europe over the last two years. Carl Haglund, Finland’s former defense minister, raised the alarm in parliament last spring about Russian investments in land near military sites in eastern Finland, saying they could be used as staging grounds for an attack. According to Niinisto, the Finnish government is considering legislation that would allow it to seize private land near military sites to prevent such infiltration.

Still, opinion polls show that a majority of Finns remain opposed to joining NATO with only about a quarter of Finland’s 5.5 million people in favor. Many Finns are enthusiastic about hosting the flocks of Russian shoppers and tourists who spend money in Finnish border towns — and, if they’re concerned about anything, it’s the way that falling oil prices and economic sanctions have cut into what had been a bright spot in a contracting Finnish economy. “We are now trying to adjust to the Russian economic down spiral,” said Alexander Stubb, Finland’s finance minister and a former prime minister. “Given the price of oil and lack of modernization in the Russian economy, it will be a long-term adjustment.”

For Stubb and his colleagues, the challenge has been trying to salvage what they can from Finland’s eastern trade while still taking a stand against Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine. “Finland has always been a middle-ground country on Russia sanctions. We haven’t been the most hawkish, but we haven’t been the most dovish, either,” said Stubb, noting the balance Finland has tried to strike between its economic interests and European Union unity. Despite the hit to its own economy, Helsinki has condemned Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its role in the outbreak of war in Ukraine while embracing targeted sanctions.

Still, Finland’s distinctive history with Russia is reflected in its insistence on using diplomatic carrots, in addition to sticks. Unlike some other European countries, like Estonia and Lithuania, Helsinki seems less inclined to treat sanctions against Russia as a punishment than a bargaining chip for better behavior.

European governments will convene in July to reconsider the existing sanctions against Russia. Finland’s Baltic neighbors, including Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, are presumed to want to see the sanctions extended, but Italy and France have already suggested they would like to have them lifted. For now, the Finnish government is reserving its judgment. “I think Crimea is a lost cause no matter how much we want to believe otherwise, but if Russia proves that it is easing off on Kiev and eastern Ukraine, then I think that can cause some movement on removing sanctions,” Stubb said.

As for most of the 20th century, Helsinki is not trying to solve its problems with Russia so much as keep them at a manageable level. Soini, Niinisto, and Stubb are well aware that the Russian bear will always be next door and that it has a history of lashing out. They are happy to acknowledge the potential bully’s superior force if they think, together with commerce, deterrence, and quick-footed diplomacy, that will help them avoid its wrath. What’s much less clear is whether this is a model that others in Europe can, or even want to, emulate.

Photo credit: EPA

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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