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Finland, NATO and the evolving new world order – what small nations know


In the world of geopolitics, great powers make, break and play by their own rules. Smaller states largely have to make do with adapting to the world as determined by others.

Which caused Finland’s decision – a country of only 5.5 million peopleknown as one for decades neutral presence in Europe – Unpleasant join NATO is so important. It underscores how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has disrupted global realities long thought to have been settled, at least by the Western powers.

The vaunted”rule-based orderthat the United States and its NATO allies have touted as the best way to run the world is changing – which appeals to some, but in the eyes of nations uninitiated to club membership. Meanwhile, Russia and China challenge the hegemony of the US and the West over global affairs and seek a system in which power is divided regionally, with Moscow and Beijing holding sway over what they see as their parts of the world.

Smaller countries around the world are recalculate how they fit in this new division of the world.

Finland is such a state and has made a dramatic choice. For centuries it has had to weigh its own interests in conjunction with – and in line with – those of its giant neighbour: Tsarist Russia, then the Soviet Union, and now Vladimir Putin’s Russia. During the Cold War years, Finland adopted a model of neutrality and accommodation in order to coexist with Russia. That way of dealing with a neighboring great power was known as “Finlandization.”

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago, decision-makers in Helsinki seem to have hammered the last nails into Finlandization’s coffin. The concern for Putin – and perhaps the West – is that the model wasn’t just killed for Finland; it’s also dead as one possible off-ramp solution to the conflict in Ukraine.

The past is no longer a prologue

After more than a hundred years within the Tsarist Empire, Finland has gained its independence in 1917. For the next 20 or so years, it became an anti-Soviet outpost precariously placed next to the USSR.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin saw Finland as a gateway to the enemies of the communist state. In his mind Finland posed an existential threat – similar to how Putin sees Ukraine Today.

After the annexation of eastern Poland and the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – after the signing of the German-Soviet Pact of 1939Stalin demanded serious territorial concessions from Finland.

The resulting war saw the Finns lose much of their eastern provinces, but they managed to keep their independence – at a price. The price of preserving the democratic state and capitalist economy in internal affairs during the Cold War was Finlandization.

Through the modified neutrality model, Finland managed to convince Moscow for more than half a century that it was not a threat but a loyal trading partner.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, doubts about Finlandization grew under the Finns. They debated whether to consider joining the Western Alliance.

But it was Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 that was decisive, finally convincing Helsinki that its security would be improved by joining NATO.

The dilemma of neutrality

The invasion also destroyed any idea that Finlandization would also be a model for post-Soviet Ukraine.

For the past 30 years, independent Ukraine has been seen as a problem for Putin feared its gravity towards the west. Similarly, even before the invasion last year, Russia was a problem for Ukraine, with Kiev authorities fearing dominance from the East.

Before the current war, the Finnish model of independence and neutrality was touted as one viable alternative for Ukraine join NATO or move closer to the Russian-led strategic alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Finland’s experience of preserving its sovereignty by endangering its right to act fully independently in foreign policy could have provided a viable model for former Soviet states, some observers believed, especially with regard to Ukraine.

Findlandization, it was thought, would also have resolved Ukraine’s internal divisions over who was preferable: the West or Russia.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Ukraine fluctuated between a pro-Russian orientation favored in eastern Ukraine, and a more Ukrainian nationalistic identity evident in western Ukraine. A Finlandization of Ukraine, coupled with the federalization of Ukraine’s various provinces, could have lessened the political polarization with Ukraine and allayed the fears of the Russians, and Putin in particular.

Of course, history cannot be rewinded; such alternative possibilities cannot be tested. And federalism, which would require some decision-making to be left to regional governments, was viewed as suspicious by many in both Ukraine and Russia as a viable form of statehood. After all, a similar process of federalization was blame for the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In addition, the events forced the hand of Ukraine. Like Russia tended towards authoritarianism and used oil and gas as a weapon against Ukraine, the lure of the West—democracy, prosperity, and a gleaming modernity—seemed much more appealing.

At the initiative of the United States, the West vaguely promised Ukraine NATO membership, which Russia found completely unacceptable. And the European Union offered Ukraine closer economic and political ties, fueling fears in Moscow that this was the first step towards NATO.

After the Russian conquest of Crimea in 2014Ukrainians turned even more sharply to the West and became more receptive to Western promises of NATO membership.

‘Small nations can disappear’

In retrospect, the hope that Ukraine could “Finlandize” or federalize both fell victim to Putin’s increasingly hardening stance on Ukraine.

Finland’s entry into NATO marks the likely end of the Finlandization model. Even Finland has given up; neutral Sweden is now eager to join the Western alliance; and other states, even Switzerland, question the effectiveness of non-alignment in a polarized world.

Instead, we have the ‘NATO fication’ of Eastern Europe – something that Putin has unwittingly accelerated, leaving Putin’s Russia with less compliant neighbours. Meanwhile, countries like Finland and Sweden have fewer options. “A small nation can disappear,” wrote Czech writer Milan Kundera reminds us“and know it.”

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