Navigating Ukraine’s Civil War
Lt. Col. Donald Thieme, USMC
USNI | July 28, 2014
As summer rolls on, Russian-built anti-aircraft missiles continue to down aircraft over eastern Ukraine. While a great deal of ink has been spilled over exactly what kind of missiles are deployed, and who is giving the launch authorizations and actually launching them, one fact is salient: This is an escalation, intentional or not, that elevates the simmering Ukrainian civil war beyond Donetsk.
The downing of Malaysian airliner Flight MH17 is only one of a recent spate of shoot downs in the Ukrainian civil war. Make no mistake, this is a war, and it is not one that will be easily resolved. After Russia’s takeover of Crimea, other like-minded separatists are encouraged to make their own similar breakaways, or at least strive for greater autonomy. Ukraine, an ancient land but a relatively recent country, is beset with troubles that would bedevil even the most sagacious leader—and only time will tell if Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is one of them.
The fights on the floor of the Parliament and the resignation of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk only underscore the scope of the challenges facing Poroshenko and Ukraine. Put differently, even without a sustained insurgency in the east, Ukraine is struggling to maintain its integrity, and the government appears mired in a quagmire of inability to provide governance.
That only makes it even more difficult for Russian President Vladimir Putin to calculate his next move, although he has shown a canny ability to exploit every opportunity that comes in Russia’s near abroad. It is even more difficult for the United States and our European allies to consider policy responses. In the run-up to the NATO summit in Wales—just six weeks away—all of the leaders are no doubt wrestling with trying to first craft a strategy vis-à-vis a newly assertive and resurgent Russia, and then develop policies that will not be merely reactive, but proactive in sustained strategic engagement with Russia.
Even as NATO leaders seek strategic options and policy implementations, and as Poroshenko struggles to instill some sort of normalcy of governance in Kiev and the rest of the Ukraine, local battlefield commanders are ahead of both Moscow and NATO. Combat has a habit of getting ahead of policy deliberations, especially absent an overarching strategic construct. Among other Cold War legacy problems, one of the most significant for Ukraine is that most of its military forces are oriented toward the western borders, and poorly positioned to operate in the eastern steppes, valleys, and marshes.
Certainly, though, whether operated by Russians or Ukrainian separatists, the missiles over Ukraine have added a new challenge to the armed forces and government of Ukraine. The weapons mark a deployment of both an anti-access (you can’t get to the battlefield) and area-denial (you can’t operate freely in the area of operations) capabilities that reduce Ukraine’s ability to fight a combined air-land battle.
What Ukraine most likely will have to do is first decide to draw the line on enemy forces in eastern Ukraine. If Donetsk and Luhanshk today, what is to say that other regions will not follow? Donetsk is also home to a significant portion of Ukraine’s population and industrial/economic output—Ukraine really has no choice but to go to war over it. It is classic Westphalian politics that must be backed up with force.
The best way to defeat antiaircraft artillery is with integrated old-fashioned artillery, ground forces and armor. Ukraine will have to reposition and commit forces, and prepare for and sustain a campaign to crush the insurgents, and exert sovereign control over its spaces and borders. At the same time that enables Ukraine to contend with Putin in the “Battle of the Narrative” and prove that it is committed to maintaining control over the restive provinces and populations. At the strategic level, once it controls all Ukrainian ground space, then it will be far easier to prove that any more missiles over Ukraine came from the Russian side of the border.
That doesn’t solve the whole problem, though, as Ukraine is still in massive energy debt to Russia, and Russia could easily refuse to send energy when winter comes. Thus, for the United States and our allies, we have to prepare more for economic, energy, and diplomatic actions, rather than military ones, to aid Ukraine. Paying the debt to Russia grants the Russians a victory, although it could prove to be a Pyrrhic one. At the same time, Ukraine is very poorly postured to be able to receive emergency energy imports from the sea or any other venue, and Ukrainian winters are nothing to be laughed at. It will require a very large infrastructure campaign to build the capability to get energy imports into Ukraine from any source other than Russia—and Putin knows that all too well.
The wild card, then, will be trans-shipments of energy to and via Ukraine when the first snow falls. With the Baltic pipeline (and others in development) Russia has built, and continues to build, a strategic hedge that will allow it to deploy the energy weapon to decouple European policymakers from the regional situation in Ukraine and its restive eastern borderlands. If Ukraine freezes and starves this winter (Joseph Stalin employed precisely that construct in the 1930s holodomor) while the rest of Europe sits warm and cozy, then Russia will have won a war without firing (too many) shots. A century after the start of the Great War, at least one European power seems to have learned the lessons of August 1914.
Whether Putin and Russia actually intended for the missiles to be employed against Ukrainian air forces or transcontinental civilian flights is important, but what is really important is how the Unites States and Europe decide to handle this challenge to European security and stability. As the late Margaret Thatcher famously said, this isn’t the time to “go wobbly.” Let’s hope we find our current Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan in Wales; if not, the missiles will continue to fly, civilians and soldiers will continue to die, and Europe, along with the Unites States, is in for a long winter of discontent—which will last long after the snow melts next spring.
Finlandization Is Not a Solution for Ukraine
The American Interest | July 27, 2014
The term “Finlandization” is making a comeback as a proposed remedy for Ukraine’s delicate position between East and West. A look back at Finland’s postwar experience shows us why this is a bad idea.
The Ukrainian crisis bears many similarities to the Cold War. Once again, Russian tanks have rolled across an international border. Central and Eastern European countries openly fear Moscow’s revanchist and imperial foreign policy. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, long ago prophesied to go “out of area or out of business”, has found new purpose deterring an old adversary. Leaders in Moscow, Brussels, and Washington warn of an ideological conflict between East and West. And, in what must instill a sense of déjà vu among students of Cold War esoterica, the once-obscure term “Finlandization” is now being bruited about.
Usually intended as a pejorative, “Finlandization” describes the phenomenon that occurs when a small country living alongside a large and aggressive neighbor accepts a reduction of its sovereignty, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, in order to maintain independence. The term derives from the posture of neutrality that Finland adopted during the Cold War. In exchange for not joining NATO and other Western institutions such as the European Economic Community (forebear to the European Union), Finland enjoyed a degree of freedom unknown to the Soviet republics or communist satellite states. Defenders of the policy insist that it allowed Finland, a nation of just five million people sharing an 800-mile long border with Russia, to survive as a prosperous, free, and democratic country with a market economy and elected parliament, all the while maintaining good relations with both the Moscow and the West. While the Soviets were content with this arrangement, it disturbed some observers in the West, who saw it as a dangerous portent for non-communist Europe. In a 1980 defense of his country’s policies for Foreign Affairs, the late Finnish diplomat Max Jakobson complained that the epithet “Finlandization” was a “kind of character assassination”, deployed “to denote supine submission to Soviet domination.”
Decades after the term achieved seeming obsolescence, “Finlandization” is making a comeback as a proposed remedy for Ukraine, which, like Finland, faces a delicate geographic reality on the far eastern edge of the European continent next to Russia. Over the past few months, no less than three foreign policy wise men have recommended the Finnish model for Ukraine. Leading the charge has been former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Writing for the Financial Times in February, he suggested that the West offer up the “Finland option” for Ukraine, interpreted as “mutually respectful neighbors, wide-ranging economic relations both with Russia and the EU, but no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself—while also expanding its European connectivity.”
The following month, a little more than a week before Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued in the Washington Post that Ukraine emulate Finland so as not to antagonize Russia. “That nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia”, Kissinger wrote.
The most recent éminence grise to proffer Finlandization as a compromise solution to the Ukraine crisis has been Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. President Vladimir Putin, Ignatius wrote, “may be ready to accept a neutral country, between East and West, where Russia’s historical interests are recognized.” Ignatius had obtained an unclassified monograph prepared by the State Department’s Office of the Historian, which, while not specifically mentioning the applicability of the Finnish situation to Ukraine’s predicament, seems to have been written with just such a comparison in mind. “The success of the policy from Finland’s perspective, and its advantages to the West, have been generally lost in historical memory”, the paper concludes, offering what can only be considered a sympathetic judgment of Finlandization.
The official Russian perspective on this debate, as much as it can be divined, seems to share the positive assessment of Finland as an archetype for Ukraine. A signal that some newfangled form of Finlandization is what Moscow desires for Ukraine could be found in a recent Foreign Affairs essay by Alexander Lukin, Vice President of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Contemplating a solution to the Ukrainian crisis, he pointed to the “neutral status” of Austria and Finland, which, he asserted, “did not in the least undermine the democratic systems or the general European orientation of those countries” during the Cold War. As was the case in that era, when the Soviet Union upheld Finland as an example for what it hoped non-communist countries to be (that is, submissive and neutralist), Russia would today like the West to believe that the so-called “Finlandization” of Ukraine would preserve the country’s independence while also assuring Russia that its own “interests” are respected. This argument presupposes, to use Lukin’s language, that neither Finland’s democracy, nor its Western orientation, was at all “undermined” by Finlandization. As I will demonstrate, the retrospective polish applied to Finlandization is applied in service of a historic myth, a politically useful allegory for the Russians to peddle so as to keep Ukraine within their “sphere of privileged interests”, or, barring that, a failed state on Europe’s periphery.
Proponents of Finlandization present it as the most reasonable and realistic option for a country stuck between East and West. NATO membership for Ukraine, they argue, is unnecessary, and Moscow would view it as “provocative.” Kiev should instead pronounce its neutrality in return for a security guarantee from Moscow. Twenty years ago, Kiev signed just such a guarantee (the Budapest Memorandum), giving up its sizeable nuclear weapons arsenal only to see Russia blatantly violate the agreement with its annexation of Crimea and ongoing support for violent separatists. Understandably, Ukrainians are less sanguine about Russian promises than are Western advocates of nonalignment.
Recommending Finlandization for Ukraine is bad advice on several levels. First, it misunderstands and misinterprets Finland’s experience, either downplaying or outright ignoring the costs that this policy imposed upon the country’s democracy. Proponents of Finlandization discount the danger that it posed to the European continent as a potential model for other countries susceptible to Russian pressure and influence. Furthermore, compelling neutrality upon an unwilling Ukraine is a stark moral capitulation to foreign aggression. Foreclosing the possibility of EU and NATO membership to Ukraine would shred the basic precepts of Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture, enshrined in agreements stipulating that countries be allowed to choose their own political and security alliances free from foreign intimidation and threats.
The latter-day, rosy interpretation of Finlandization rests on three faulty assumptions. The first is that Finlandization was a strategy cannily devised by the Finns themselves, rather than one imposed on them by the Soviets. Second is that it resulted in the country’s neutrality, meaning a political equidistance between East and West, as opposed to its actuality: a softer form of the subservience endured by satellite nations occupied by Soviet troops. The third is the belief that, whatever Finland gave up in terms of foreign policy autonomy, it was able to maintain a healthy, western-style society and form of government.
By all outward appearances, Finland was a model social democracy throughout the Cold War, boasting multiple political parties, (perhaps too) frequent elections, and a free press. But this picture of a fiercely independent country was belied by a more complicated reality. A former duchy of the Czarist Empire, Finland won its independence in December 1917 amid the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. Twice during World War II, Finland fought off Soviet incursions onto its territory, losing 100,000 men and 10 percent of its territory but ultimately maintaining independence. Through this massive sacrifice, Finland staved off the fate that would later befall every other country that bordered Russia, all of which were eventually incorporated by force into the communist bloc.
In 1948, Helsinki signed a “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance” with Moscow that would set the terms of “Finlandization” over the ensuing decades. Though the agreement recognized Finland’s existence as an “independent state”, it also mandated military cooperation between the Soviet Union and Finland should “Germany or its allies” (a diplomatic euphemism for NATO) attempt to invade the Soviet Union or Finland through Finnish territory. Even before this treaty was signed, Finland proved its deference to the Soviets by refusing much-needed Marshall Plan aid, following the lead of other countries in the Eastern Bloc that faced more concrete forms of Russian pressure.
The 1948 Mutual Assistance Treaty laid the basis for the “Paasikivi-Kekkonen line”, named after Finnish Presidents Juho Paasikivi and his successor, Urho Kekkonen, which sought above all to keep Finland neutral in international affairs. Kekkonen, who served as President from 1956 to 1982 and with whom the policy of Finlandization is most closely associated, went to great, and at times surreptitious and autocratic, lengths to preserve this plicy. Using language evocative of dictatorships, Kekkonen repeatedly claimed that the country’s very survival as an independent nation depended upon his steady hand and that only he was capable of maintaining healthy relations with the Soviets. This adamancy about his own indispensability, the insistence that he was the only thing standing between an independent Finland and a Soviet occupation, sparked two political crises early in his tenure that corroded Finnish democracy over the long term.
Following parliamentary elections in 1958, the ardently anti-communist leader of the Finnish Social Democrats, Karl-August Fagerholm, formed a government that excluded the Finnish Communist Party. In protest, the Soviet Union recalled its Ambassador, cancelled several contracts for Finnish imports, and halted trade negotiations. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev summoned Kekkonen to Moscow, where he suggested to his Finnish counterpart, “Without wishing to intrude in Finland’s internal affairs”, that Finland must “have a well-disposed government.” Taking the hint, Fagerholm resigned, and Kekkonen returned to Helsinki to approve a new cabinet more palatable to Moscow. Dubbed “night frost” by Khrushchev, this incident created a precedent for future Soviet meddling in Finnish affairs. It is important to note that, throughout the duration of this crisis, the Soviets never threatened to use force, nor was there was never any indication that they would. But caving easily to Soviet demands suited Kekkonen’s own domestic political agenda, as it enabled him to dispense with Fagerholm, a political enemy. The 1958 election set an ominous precedent for future Soviet interference in Finland, as Kekkonen would continue to use this “Moscow card” throughout his long political career. From that point forward, Moscow enjoyed an effective veto power over the composition of the Finnish government.
Indeed, just three years later, Kekkonen allegedly conspired with the Soviets to ensure his re-election. In October 1961, two months after its unilateral construction of the Berlin Wall, Moscow sent a diplomatic note to Finland asking for immediate military consultations under the 1948 treaty in light of a trumped up military threat from West Germany. The “note crisis”, as it came to be known, was intended to shore up support for Kekkonen, Khrushchev’s favored candidate, over his more anti-Soviet opponent, who had the support of a six-party coalition in the eduskunta, the Finnish parliament. Kekkonen used the note as a scare tactic, claiming that only he could be trusted to steward the delicate Finnish-Soviet relationship. Upon his return from Russia, Kekkonen relayed the message that a small group of anti-Soviet politicians should resign for the good of the country. “When they retire from the stage”, Kekkonen intoned, “they know they will be fulfilling the highest duty of a citizen—safeguarding the security of their fatherland.” Thus did Kekkonen disguise subservience to a foreign power behind a nationalistic gloss. His opponent promptly dropped out of the race.
To this day, it remains unclear whether Khrushchev or Kekkonen came up with the idea of Moscow demanding consultations under the auspices of the 1948 treaty. Either way, the Soviets were happy to keep Kekkonen in power, and by the mid-1960s, the Finnish President had essentially become an elected autocrat. In 1973, using emergency legislation at the urging of Moscow, the eduskunta extended Kekkonen’s six-year presidential term to ten years, establishing one of the longest presidential tenures in the democratic world. (A disturbingly amusing remnant from the Kekkonen era is this video of the reading of ballots in the 1978 presidential election, which, needless to say, Kekkonen won handily.)By the time he resigned in 1981, Kekkonen had served as President for 26 consecutive years, and would have likely ruled even longer had poor health not forced him to step down. In their 1992 book based upon files in the Soviet archives, Christopher Andrew and KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky claim that the Russians considered Kekkonen their highest-ranking foreign asset. For his efforts, Kekkonen was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, the only Western leader to be garlanded in such fashion.
Such was the extent of Soviet pressure that Finnish politicians, Kekkonen chief among them, began behaving as if the Politburo was their constituency, not the Finnish people. (Throughout his term in office, only a handful of Finnish writers openly criticized the President. Those who did used terms like “Kekkolandia”, “autocratic”, a “non democracy” and “a kind of monarchy” to describe the nation over which he reigned.) The need to appease the Soviets in order to succeed in Finnish politics was so great that every politician required a “kotiryssa” (literally, a “home Russian”), which were always in abundant supply at the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki. Finnish politicians who refused to play the game paid the consequences. A group of 12 such figures, known as the “the Black Dozen” for their unacceptability to the Soviets, was effectively barred from participation in government. “Increasingly in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, politicians began to define their credibility and standing on what was their relationship with Moscow and how were they viewed by Soviet officialdom, rather than going to the voters for a mandate”, says Jason Lavery, a specialist in Finnish history who teaches at Oklahoma State University. “And this is what I think very often is not understood about the downsides of Finnish politics during the Soviet era. A lot of it was imposed by the Finns themselves in terms of negotiating their own domestic political problems.”
Finnish “neutrality” meant turning a blind eye to Soviet imperialism and, occasionally, actively furthering Soviet interests in northern Europe. Finland did not join the majority of countries at the United Nations that denounced the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Likewise, the Finns remained silent during the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1952, when he was Prime Minister, Kekkonen delivered a speech implicitly calling on Norway and Denmark to leave NATO, creating the “neutral” Scandinavian zone that had long been a major aim of Soviet foreign policy, the easier by which to Finlandize it. “Scandinavian neutrality—such as Sweden has followed for almost one a half centuries—would be in Finland’s interests because it would remove even the theoretical threat of an attack against the Soviet Union via Finland”, Kekkonen warned. The Swedish Ambassador to Stockholm reported back that Soviet diplomats there were “in ecstasy” over Kekkonen’s speech; Soviet newspapers and other propaganda organs praised the Finnish Premier’s strategic foresight.
A more tangibly unpleasant aspect of Finlandization was the policy of repatriating Soviet refugees who had escaped to Finnish territory, implemented not at the insistence of Moscow but on Kekkonen’s own initiative. One of the more infamous cases involved a conscientious objector, Alexander Shatravka, who crossed the Finnish border in 1974 only to be handed back to the Soviet Union, where he was deposited in a mental hospital. A former Financial Times correspondent in Finland decried this as a “disgraceful era we should never repeat.”
Kekkonen died in 1986, and in its obituary, the New York Times observed that from 1962 onward, presidential elections in Finland were a mere “formality” and that “normal elections proved impossible” until after his abrupt resignation. Defenders of historic Finlandization, as well as those prescribing a similar arrangement today for Ukraine, should ask themselves: In what other democratic country has a single person been President for a quarter century? Is this the ideal model for Ukraine, a country repeatedly stymied by a strong presidential system?
Another manifestation of pernicious Soviet influence could be found in censorship, both official and informal, of the press and culture. Throughout the years of Finlandization, the Finnish government invoked the preemptive right to censor any material that could “damage or jeopardize relations with a foreign power.” No one required any elucidation as to which “foreign power” needed to have its reputation protected from denigration via prior restraint. The government rarely had to exercise this power, however, as the Finnish press, willingly and shamefully, bowdlerized itself. Early into the years of the Cold War, a culture of self-censorship quickly took hold over the country’s media, and not-so-subtle threats from Kekkonen and other leading politicians instructing journalists to report “responsibly” about the Soviet Union meant that nary a critical word of that country or its allies could be found in Finnish newspapers or heard on Finnish television and radio. Almost 2,000 books were banned over the course of the Finlandization era, as were films ranging from Dr. Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate to Renny Harlin’s 1986 blood-splattered action flick Born American, which followed the fate of three American adventurers vacationing in Finland who mistakenly cross the border into the Soviet Union (a 2008 book revealed that Harlin’s film was banned at the express request of the Soviet Ambassador). No Finnish publisher would release Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.(Copies of the Finnish translation had to be imported from a Swedish publishing house.) Not for nothing did the Finnish satirist Kari Suomalainen define Finlandization as “the art of bowing to the East so carefully that it could not be considered mooning the West.”
In the minds of its advocates, the appeal of Finlandizing Ukraine is that it would allow Kiev to maintain a significant degree of autonomy without unnecessarily antagonizing Moscow. But the “independence” that Finland achieved after World War II, while certainly preferable to the fates of Hungary or Czechoslovakia, was of a curious type. “While it is admirable that so much freedom has been preserved, Finland is not independent in any accepted sense of the term”, Walter Laqueur wrote in a perceptive 1977 appraisal of the Finnish predicament. “It is, as Soviet leaders have themselves long contended, a country in a category apart, neither satellite nor neutral, a country whose ‘adaptation’ to the dictates and wishes of the Soviet Union has become part of the national fabric.” It is entirely understandable how a small country would pursue appeasement, and there should be no compunction about using that much-maligned word to describe what Finlandization was, and would be today in the Ukrainian case. But, as Laqueur observed, appeasement often goes much further than it needs to, and is often deceptively advertised as a policy of wisdom and heroic achievement rather than regrettable, grubby reality.
Trumpeting appeasement in such fashion has significant consequences, as it renders acceptable any and all infringements on freedom as long as they can be justified in the service of pleasing the foreign aggressor. And there is no limit in pursuit of such a nebulous goal. Laqueur likened the uniformity of public and political opinion in Finland to the phenomenon of gleichschaltung, or “bringing into line”, which saw millions of Germans voluntarily join the Nazi Party and its affiliated structures soon after it came to power in 1933. Finland’s formal neutrality as an actor on the international stage may have been a defensible, if difficult, pill to swallow in order to keep the country safe from external threat, but Finlandization went much further, morally corrupting the country’s politics and society. Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, says that Finlandization’s effect on society was “deeply corrosive” in that “nothing of consequence happened in domestic politics without [Kekkonen’s] acquiescence.” And it has had lingering effects, “seen even today as a [foreign policy] discussion culture is only now emerging. (Before, engaging in it was a recipe for going nowhere in your career as a politician or civil servant.)”
Today’s proponents of Finlandization write as if all it entails is foreign policy neutrality; they have either forgotten or are completely unaware that it also involved frequent and substantive Soviet meddling in Finland’s domestic affairs and would entail constraining Kiev’s sovereignty beyond a mere formal commitment not to join certain multilateral organizations. For example, Brzezinski proposes Finlandization in the same breath as he calls for the West to make clear that “overt or covert Russian participation in its neighbor’s domestic conflicts” would carry a high diplomatic and economic price for Moscow, an assertion that betrays ignorance of how the two are mutually exclusive. For what else were Night Frost, the Note Conflict and the Black Dozen if not examples of “overt” Russian intervention (“participation” too salubrious a word) in the sorts of activities that, in a normal, sovereign country, are the exclusive domain of democratically elected politicians?
Were the proposed Finlandization of Ukraine limited to its foreign policy—that is, a formal commitment to stay out of NATO and the European Union—then it might be a compromise acceptable to the majority of Ukrainians. To be sure, such concessions would, on their face, violate the spirit of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, the 1990 agreement signed by the Soviet Union that “fully recognize[s] the freedom of States to choose their own security arrangements.” Nonetheless, one might argue that, as with Finland during the Cold War, staying out of Western multilateral organizations and embracing a neutralist foreign policy is the most “realistic” option, a reasonable price to for a small and weak country with a big and aggressive neighbor to pay.
But the more one understands the history of Finlandization and grasps the Kremlin’s present-day agenda, the less “realistic” this option becomes. Putting aside Ukraine’s need for rock-solid security guarantees in light of the Crimean annexation and Russia’s further designs on its territory (the sort of guarantee that only can be found in Article 5 of the NATO charter), not to mention Russia’s history of blatantly ignoring the security commitments it has already signed, the most deleterious effect of swearing off Western integration would be on Ukraine’s internal development. For the past 25 years, the lure of European integration has been the greatest incentive for liberalizing the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The prospect of EU membership helped transform governments making the transition from corrupt, sclerotic, controlled systems to open, liberal societies that value the rule of law and human rights. Viewed in this light, any sort of Finlandizaton scheme would be disastrous for Ukraine’s future aspirations as a healthy, Western European-style democracy. Given the baleful domestic effects that Finlandization brought upon Finland—one of the most homogenous countries on earth, and one that boasts record low corruption, a generally open economy, and all the other enviable attributes of Scandinavian social democracy—imagine the effect that shutting the door to Europe would have on impoverished, corrupt, disunited Ukraine.
A policy that offered Russia veto power over the composition of Ukrainian governments (such as it exercised over Finnish ones) would mean the inevitable corrosion of honest administration, democratic practice, individual liberties, and an open market economy. For Ukraine, it would mean maintaining the sort of oligarchic system that has doomed it for the past 25 years. In spite of its many shortcomings, Finnish democracy under Finlandization was resilient enough, and its society sufficiently cohesive, to withstand the pressures of Soviet hegemony and their resultant debasements. Finland emerged from the Cold War era intact as a Western democracy. Ukraine, on the other hand, given its massively corrupt political culture, regional divides, and easily manipulated ethno-linguistic differences, is one of the worst possible candidates for Finlandization. Forcing such an arrangement on Ukraine would effectively surrender the country to the Russian sphere of influence. A Ukrainian Kekkonen would not be content with politely asking his political opponents to leave politics for the good of the country; he’d throw them in jail. (This sort of thing has a precedent in Ukraine.)
There is also the moral case against Finlandization. That there is even debate over whether or not this is a suitable model for Ukraine is indicative of a paternalistic attitude on the part of Western observers, who speak as if the fate of this country were theirs to dictate. It should go without saying that Ukraine’s future ought to be for Ukrainians to decide, not armchair observers of international politics. Finlandization would contravene the express wishes of the Ukrainian people, who demonstrated their overwhelming preference for a European future in May’s presidential election, in which more than 80 percent of the voters supported pro-Western candidates.
Perhaps the strongest case against Finlandization is the example of Finland itself. After the term began surfacing on op-ed pages and at international security conferences, I heard from a variety of Finnish political figures and defense experts who were taken aback at the ways in which their country’s experience was being used to shape the fate of another land. Carl Haglund, the Finnish Minister of Defense, told me that he was “surprised and astonished that they tried to make this comparison.” Part of this anger derives from a sense that the plan’s proponents have not taken care to distinguish between the Finland of the Cold War and the Finland of today. “This Finlandization thing is passé, outdated”, Haglund told me. “I understand that they are trying to make an example, but it’s not applicable to the world in 2014.”
Indeed, if Finlandization were such a success, one might expect the Finns to be at the forefront of those pushing it on the Ukrainians. Yet it is difficult to find anyone in Finland suggesting that Ukraine follow its example. Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland immediately began wresting itself out of the Finlandization straightjacket. It made a mad dash for EU membership, formally joining the organization in 1995. And while opposition to NATO membership has usually enjoyed support from a plurality of Finns over the past 25 years, the annexation of Crimea has turned the debate on its head; immediately after taking office, the country’s new Prime Minister said that the country ought to have joined the alliance back when it entered the European Union nearly two decades ago. “When the Cold War ended, Finland dropped this policy directly and the Finns themselves are ashamed that they had to be so submissive to the Soviet Union”, says Stefan Olsson, Director of the Stockholm Free World Forum think tank. “I have not heard any Finnish foreign policy expert advocating this as a solution to the Ukraine situation.”
Finlandization was unique to its time and place. Finland has an obscure, homogenous, non-Slavic culture and language that had long resisted Russian domination. Ukraine, meanwhile, has deep historic, cultural, and linguistic ties to Russia that would make its resistance to Russian political and military subjugation next to impossible were it not for the strong, external pull of the West. A “Finlandized” Ukraine would therefore be significantly less independent, democratic, and prosperous than Finland was during the Cold War period. To understand the inimitability of the Finnish situation, we need only return to Max Jakobson, the most erudite defender of 20th-century Finlandization. In his 1980 essay defending Finnish foreign policy from its detractors, Jakobson wrote, “The pattern from which Finland is believed to have deviated is constructed from the course of events in countries with which Finland never has had much in common.”
Finlandizing Ukraine would also have severe, long-term consequences for the region. The Soviets upheld Finland as a model for their relations with non-communist countries for a reason: A compliant, politically neutral government in Helsinki—one that censored its press for any negative comments about the Soviet Union or its communist allies, returned escaped dissidents, and traded on terms favorable to Moscow—was the next best thing to having one-party communist rule à la Poland or East Germany. That all this could be achieved without having to station a single Soviet soldier in the country made it all the more attractive to Moscow.
During the years of détente, when political movements across Western Europe were calling for unilateral disarmament and the dissolution of NATO, there was real fear of what the “specter of Finlandization,” to use Lacqueur’s term, posed for the continent. Today, the signs of creeping Finlandization across Europe are abundant. With the rising popularity of anti-EU parties (some of which enjoy warm relations with, if not actual monetary assistance from, Moscow), a plurality of Germans favoring neutralism over the Western alliance, and the City of London effectively an oblast of the Russian Federation, sacrificing Ukraine on the altar of better relations with Moscow would reinforce a disquieting trend. Relinquishing Ukraine to this fate amounts to a massive strategic and moral failure on the part of the West.
Nor would it repair relations with Moscow. For the Kremlin’s appetite will not be satisfied by a Finlandized Ukraine; it will next demand similar arrangements for all the countries in its “near abroad.” For most Europeans, Jean François Revel wrote in his 1983 classic How Democracies Perish, Finlandization offered “the vague suggestion of a comforting compromise, a chance to become accustomed to their inevitable servitude.” A relic of the Cold War, Finlandization was an unfortunate overreaction to Soviet aggression. And like the expansionist communist ideology that provoked it, so to the dustbin of history should Finlandization also be discarded. Far from being the scrappy strategy of fond memory, Finlandization was a kind of imperialism. Our foreign policy mandarins ought to study what exactly it was, the costs it entailed, and the threat it posed to the Western democracies before so casually wishing it upon others.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative and a correspondent for The Daily Beast.
Leave a comment
No comments yet.