Finland’s Lesson for Ukraine

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René Nyberg

HELSINKI, Finland — If you want to get a rise out of a Finn, start talking about “Finlandization” and small countries’ subservience to their larger neighbors. The former American national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has used the term to suggest that accepting Russian domination is the only course Ukraine can take. I disagree.

Finlandization — or the challenge of surviving as a small nation in the shadow of a larger one — can be an inspiration for Ukraine, but it doesn’t work the way Mr. Brzezinski thinks.

Russia has had problems over the past 20 years with all of its neighbors with one notable exception — Finland. And this is a Finnish rather than a Russian achievement.

Despite escaping occupation during and after World War II, Finland’s continued survival depended on dealing with Stalin’s heirs without becoming subservient to them. Small countries living in the shadow of larger and stronger neighbors must find their own way to survive. And Finland’s experience is unique because of the crucial fact that it was never occupied by the Red Army. Finlandization isn’t a synonym for capitulation; it’s the key to managing an asymmetric power relationship.

As the Swedish historian Kristian Gerner has argued, centuries of Russian history demonstrate that Moscow has two approaches to neighboring countries: the models of Kazan and Manchu. Under the first model, Russia absorbs, overwhelms or keeps bullying its neighbor as it did in 1552 when Ivan the Terrible conquered the Khanate of Kazan. Under the second model, it recognizes the neighbor as equal or too big to confront as it did in the 1689 Nerchinsk Treaty, Russia’s first border treaty with China. For centuries, there was nothing in between. But Finland proved in the postwar years to be the exception.

It’s not difficult to sort Russia’s present neighbors into Mr. Gerner’s categories. Russia has demonstrated on several occasions in its handling of conflicts in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine that is has no compunction when it comes to attacking weaker neighbors and seizing territory.

Finland survived and prospered after World War II because it was ahead of its time. In an era of near total polarization, it adapted the principles of asymmetric defense to its very difficult geographic situation. Finland was far from a vassal to the Soviet Union. It maintained its democracy, a low-profile military defense and above all its Western orientation. How we were able to do this is the true story of Finlandization.

The strategy worked because Finland remained true to its principles: credible defense and a strong free-market system. After Stalin’s death, Finland’s president, Urho Kekkonen, used two arguments to turn the tables on Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.

First, he made clear to the Soviets, without explicitly saying so, that Finland would defend its independence, as it had done in repelling two Soviet attacks in 1939 and 1944. Second, he convinced them that Finland’s economy would suffer and that Russia’s own interests would be harmed if the Soviet Union prevented Finland’s integration into postwar West European economic arrangements such as the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Community. Finland remained the Soviet Union’s largest Western trading partner until the 1970s. Joining the European Union in 1995 was a homecoming.

Viewed from this perspective, President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine is following the right course. After assuming office, he moved rapidly to sign the association agreement with the European Union, leaving no doubt about Ukraine’s choice to be part of the West. At the same time, Mr. Poroshenko fortified Ukraine’s defenses against a Russian military intervention in the East.

One result of Moscow’s aggression has been the emergence of a strong Ukrainian national identity. Russia has grabbed Crimea and destabilized Eastern Ukraine — but it has lost the Ukrainians. In a globalized world, Russia cannot prosper as an angry island, however large it may be. Russia has already wrecked its relations with Europe and the United States. Banking sanctions are particularly painful, and its economy is bound to suffer.

Renewed interest in NATO membership in Finland and Sweden, which are not part of the alliance, is only one of the unintended consequences. As we have observed in recent months, Russia is pivoting toward China. But this does nothing to diminish Russia’s isolation; the role of a junior partner to the Middle Kingdom isn’t an enviable one.

Russia’s inability to deal with its neighbors is its predicament. The maxim of defining security by total control of its perimeter and attempting to direct the policies of its neighbors by diktat is no solution to modern Europe’s problems. It provides neither security nor stability.

The best Russia can now hope for is a deal in the form of a peace treaty, which would effectively give it title to Crimea. Otherwise Crimea will remain toxic for investors and a no-go destination — harming Russia more than Ukraine.

Ukraine’s best defense is to pull together and show, as Finland did in the 1960s and 1970s, that Russia’s insistence on preventing Ukraine’s economic integration with Europe will foster dysfunction and chaos that Moscow can ill afford.

René Nyberg was Finland’s ambassador to Russia from 2000 to 2004 and to Germany from 2004 to 2008.