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Don’t mention the word “Finlandisation” to a Finn.
I learnt this the hard way shortly after Russia had annexed Crimea in 2014, when I (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) suggested on social media that a meeting of Finland’s prime minister Alex Stubb and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was a sign of the creeping Finlandisation of Ukraine. That triggered a mini Twitter firestorm from Finnish colleagues and a bilateral tongue-lashing from Stubb himself when I ran into him at an EU summit.
Finlandisation is back on the lips of diplomats after France’s Emmanuel Macron, on a flight back from Moscow, suggested to reporters that the Finlandisation of Ukraine was one of the models he discussed with Vladimir Putin to convince the Russian president to end his brinkmanship along the Ukrainian border.
Macron has since backed away from that idea. However, I decided to give Stubb a call to revisit our dust-up because the tempest-in-a-teapot over the French president’s remarks is a warning sign that, for all the talk of Nato unity over Putin’s aggression, there are dangerous signs of allied divergence over how best to end the stand-off. And Finlandisation is a useful window into those alliance cracks.
For most non-Finns, Finlandisation has lost most of its pejorative baggage, becoming shorthand for how a small country (Finland) manages to fend off an overweening superpower next door (the Soviet Union) through a mix of military neutrality and diplomatic jujutsu, without giving up its national identity or political values. It was that version, stripped of its derogatory connotations, that I had been referring to back in 2014.
Stubb’s annoyance is rooted in the term’s origins in German foreign policy circles, where Stubb (and other Finns) believe it was tarred by two mistaken assumptions: first, that Finland’s postwar neutrality (it never joined Nato) meant it somehow gave up its western orientation. And, perhaps more importantly, that Finland’s postwar foreign policy was imposed upon it by outside powers rather than decided by Helsinki’s leaders.
Stubb, who has long been an advocate for Finnish membership of Nato, argued that while Helsinki never joined the transatlantic military alliance, it also never ruled it out — which kept the Soviets at bay. “What Finland did very well is to flag the Nato option,” he said from Florence, where he is setting up a school of transnational governance at the European University Institute.
Stubb is reluctant to offer any Finnish advice to Ukrainian leaders, insisting that the comparison between the two countries is not only flawed, but harks back to cold war-era rhetoric that only exacerbates an already tense situation. “There’s a lot of ‘big power politics’ in the air right now,” Stubb said derisively. “A lot of foreign policy analysts are trying to describe the current situation with old cold war concepts — and, to a certain extent, that’s what Putin wants.”
But at the risk of provoking Stubb yet again, I’m going to take a stab at it anyway. And here’s why: the things that Finns object to about the concept of Finlandisation — the failure to recognise Finland’s long-term western orientation, and the failure to acknowledge Helsinki had agency during the Soviet period — are at risk of being repeated in Ukraine.
Ukraine, like Finland, has made its choice: its future is with the west. This was the case even before the Maidan revolution, when successive Ukrainian governments attempted to negotiate association agreements with the EU and align more closely with Nato. When a Russian-backed president reversed tack, Ukrainian citizens took to the streets and overthrew him. It is sad that this needs repeating, but any suggestion that the current stand-off could be resolved by pushing Ukraine into a nebulous unaligned status is a betrayal of Ukraine’s sovereign choice.
Similarly, Ukraine, like cold war-era Finland, has agency. The sight of one of Europe’s most prominent leaders beating a path to the Kremlin’s door gives the appearance that the future of Ukraine will be decided without Ukrainian input. This violates the basic principle of international law and undermines the foundations upon which the modern international system is built. It’s also worth noting that every post-Soviet security agreement signed by the Kremlin with the west has acknowledged Ukraine as an independent actor. Even if Putin wants to renege on this, Nato leaders must not.
To its credit, the Biden administration has held true to both principles: it has insisted that the Ukrainian government participate in all talks on a resolution and that its choice of joining European and transatlantic security organisations — if it continues to pursue that path — be respected. But Macron’s language and actions risk creating the kind of daylight between allies that will benefit Putin and betray Kyiv. If that’s the kind of Finlandisation the Finns object to, then I’m in full agreement.
My question for you, Rana, is whether I’m overreacting. We’ve been through “Mars and Venus” periods in US-European relations within very recent memory, and maybe I’m just suffering a bit of PTSD from those spats. Nobody wants a war, but a hot conflict would have far more of an impact on Europe’s economy and security than on America’s. Should we worry that the White House could end up losing European allies, who may be more willing to compromise for peace, the longer this Ukraine crisis persists? Or do you agree with those who believe Putin, if nothing else, has given Nato the gift of relevance again?
Edward Luce is on book leave and will return in mid-March.
For an alternate take on Ukraine, I recommend a new piece in Foreign Affairs magazine by Samuel Charap, a Russia expert at Rand, who was part of a multinational group of academics who tried to chart their own course out of the crisis. Charap argues that the US-led effort to pry former Soviet republics away from Moscow has been a remarkable success, but will remain a flashpoint with the Kremlin for the foreseeable future. As a result, Charap believes something institutional needs to change to mitigate future conflicts. He also advocates for non-aligned status for Ukraine and Georgia. I don’t agree, but it’s worth a read.
Three years ago, my FT colleague Mehul Srivastava broke the story of a then-obscure Israeli tech company called NSO Group that had discovered how to hack into WhatsApp and was marketing its technologies to governments with questionable human rights records. A new New York Times investigation calls the company a seller of “the world’s most powerful cyberweapon” and reveals that the US government actually contracted with NSO to test its cybertools.
Nancy Pelosi’s decision to back legislation to limit stock trading by US lawmakers is significant because the House Speaker was one of the measure’s biggest roadblocks. Her husband, Paul Pelosi, runs a real estate and venture capital investment group in San Francisco, which may account for the Speaker’s reticence. But Washington is awash with revelations of policymakers trading stocks under questionable circumstances, particularly at the Federal Reserve, which has forced Pelosi’s hand. I highly recommend the FT Washington bureau’s in-depth analysis into the growing scandal.
Rana Foroohar responds
Peter, welcome back to the Swamp! I hope you brought your Wellies.
The part of the Finlandisation story that most interests me is the question of how small countries will survive and thrive in a new era of Great Power politics. It’s not only Ukraine, but countries from Taiwan to the United Kingdom that are grappling with this issue. If you are outside the core of one of the three main geopolitical poles — the US, the EU and China — the future feels uncertain. In Europe, it’s particularly so, since the continent is being pulled between the China-Russia axis and the US (not only in economic terms, but now, in security).
To answer one of your direct questions, I don’t think that transatlantic relations are going to reset to the 90s, nor should they. I think we are heading towards a tri-polar world in which the US, Europe and China will make some fundamentally different decisions about the balance of power between companies and the state, surveillance capitalism and civil rights, efficiency and resiliency, and so on. You can see the tri-polar world developing most clearly in the regionalisation of chip production, for example. But I am hopeful that Europe is starting to realise that it has more to gain from strengthening its long-term partnership with the US than in cutting quick and easy trade deals with China (witness the freeze on that last year), or in letting Russia control gas supply to the continent (Nord Stream 2 is one of Germany’s more cynical and ill-advised economic decisions in recent years).
The Ukraine situation certainly brings to the fore the flaws in Europe’s security and economic positions. I’m not crazy about the way in which Macron has tried to play both sides of the fence with Nato and Russia. But I can see the logic in the “Finlandisation” of Ukraine argument, given that there is an internal divide between loyalty to and identification with Russia versus the west. I don’t think that such an arrangement will become official, but my best guess is that as you lay out, all sides will eventually realise that a hot conflict is just too devastating (indeed, it has the potential to become Europe’s Vietnam, in which Russia would suffer most — and Putin knows this).
My bet: Ukraine won’t join Nato but it and other countries will still be allowed to apply as a sort of diplomatic posture, and things will go back to the way they’ve been for the past several years.
Not great, but not terrible. Still, to me, Ukraine is a harbinger of more big regional battles, in which existing poles of power are reorganised. As when icebergs break apart, there will be splinters of border nations up for grabs. We have clearly entered what the historian Arthur Schlesinger would have called “a crisis of the old order.” The new one has yet to be built.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘When will the music stop?’:
“You are right that holders of reserve status should think over a longer term, but boy would that require patience across presidencies! And when regulatory agencies act as though indifferent to political changes, they get howled at to excess. Of course, the Chinese model is a counterpoint to short-termism but has nothing else to recommend for itself (nor do I think Rana suggests as much). How do we then deal effectively with the yo-yo nature of a democratic republic? Probably by picking better political leaders and having more skilled people in politics generally.” — J. Sterling, Levels, West Virginia
“We are surely too late for a new Paul Volcker at the Federal Reserve. And politics is not going to embrace a Volcker-as-president without an almighty economic shock which will make the great financial crisis look like the overture to the tragic opera proper. The odds of avoiding that shock are low. Central banks have been joyfully topping up the punch bowl as capitalism supped, not removing it. Can we get some of Ed’s helpful policy suggestions into law? I’m not that hopeful, until central banks make it clear to governments that politics is risk management writ large. And that central banks deal with financial risks, only. The societal ones are down to government to manage.” — Mike Clark, Oxfordshire
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