Learning the Russian language, among other places, in Sestroretsk northwest of St Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was then), I became interested in Finnish-Soviet relations. Just north of Sestroretsk is Repino, a village where the famous painter Ilja Repin had built a beautiful wooden house (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) with a spacious painting studio, where he lived until his death in 1930, close to Leningrad, but shielded from the Communists’ rule. This village had been part of Finland until 1939, called Kuokkala. After having finished my dissertation on North European Security after WWII, I got my first paid job at the University of Jyväskylä in central Finland.
Thus I was able to understand the geopolitics from both the Soviet and Finnish sides. In December 1979 I left Finland to join a Research Institute of International Relations in Bonn. It was just at the time when the Soviet Union started its military intervention in Afghanistan, and I remember well how worried some of my Finnish friends were: would Finland become the next victim of Soviet aggression?
After Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine 42 years later, I am amazed how history in a certain way repeats itself, of course under very different conditions. Ukraine, like Finland, has long border with Russia and is experiencing today what Finland went through in late 1939 – the brutal aggression of its big neighbour. Without significant outside help, after several weeks of heroic resistance, Finland had to beg for peace and had to give up about 10 percent of its territory. Later, while Nazi Germany was about to lose the war against Soviet Russia, Finland managed to conclude a separate peace treaty with Stalin on 6 April 1944, which confirmed its territorial losses after the Winter War of 1940 and forced it to accept a ‘special security relationship’ with the Soviet Union. This stipulated that Finland would never allow enemies of Soviet Russia to use its territory and would have to accept the stationing of Soviet troops in case of another major European war. By claiming neutrality and a nuclear weapons free zone, Finland sought to escape this clause in the mutual ‘Friendship’ treaty. Still, while preserving its Western-oriented identity, it always had to pay close attention to Soviet security concerns – which some (not so benevolent) Western observers called ‘Finlandization’. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Russia’s President Yeltsin agreed to cancel that clause and concluded a ‘normal’ treaty of good neighbourhood.
Putin’s radical change of Russia’s policy towards its neighbours since 2008 (the war in Georgia), especially in 2014 (the annexation of the Crimea), fundamentally changed public attitudes in Finland. Before the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, just 20 percent of Finns had favoured joining NATO; afterwards a clear majority was for it. The Social Democratic Prime Minister Sanna Marin and President Sauli Niinistö (from the conservative National Coalition Party) both now openly advocate membership of the Western alliance. A similar change of minds happened in neighbouring Sweden, with the government now ready to give up Sweden’s neutrality, a tradition of more than 200 years.
This is a remarkable change of minds. Traditionally quite close to the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, both Finland and Sweden clearly understand the threat from revanchist and aggressive Russia. And what an irony: Putin is now just getting what he has claimed to fight against: another member of NATO as direct neighbour in the north, along a border of more than 1,300 km in length.
Let’s be clear, for Finland, like the other European NATO allies, membership is about reassurance of its security and independence, not aggression. Before 2022 the Western alliance had no permanent military presence in Russia’s direct neighbourhood. And the only country stationing nuclear weapons in northern Europe was Russia – in its exclave of Kaliningrad. This is changing now. NATO has already started to strengthen its conventional military presence. As I argued back in May 2021, the state terrorist Putin needs to be thoroughly contained and deterred.
All major NATO members have welcomed Finland’s and Sweden’s application, including the USA, Britain, Poland, and Germany. Only Turkey’s President Erdogan is still hesitating, because of Swedish support for Kurdish groups which he considers “terrorist organisations”. While this may delay official membership (because all Parliaments of NATO member states have to ratify the accession treaty), Finland and Sweden are already closely cooperating with NATO’s efforts to strengthen the defence of the three Baltic states who have most reason to fear Putin’s aggression after the heinous attack against Ukraine.
We can only hope that Western support of Ukraine will remain strong enough, that they will not have to experience Finland’s fate in 1940-44 – giving up significant parts of its territory to the aggressor.
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