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Finlandization of Ukraine

In my view: Ukraine should be so lucky.

Concrete blocks spray painted with the French national motto "liberty, equality, fraternity" form a barricade in front of the National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet in Odessa on March 17.BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

It’s the f-word in foreign policy circles: Finlandization.

Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that Finlandization — meaning a Finnish-style Cold War neutrality — might be a realistic outcome for Ukraine, if and when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s terrorizing war ends. Macron later denied using the word, which has become a dirty word — especially in Finland.

The term encompasses a roughly 50-year period during which Finland, which shares an 830-mile long border with Russia, had to tailor both its foreign relations and its domestic policy to the will of its more powerful neighbor. Finland “lost” the 1939 Winter War against Joseph Stalin’s Red Army, but, like today’s Ukrainian warriors, the Finns were no pushovers. Stalin didn’t want to tangle with them a second time, so Finland managed to preserve its independence and most of its territory when the peace treaty was signed.

Why is this relevant? Because, let’s pray, the Russian-Ukrainian war comes to a negotiated end. Returning to the status quo ante is a pipe dream. Some portion of the contested provinces in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk, and Luhansk, will have to be ceded to Russia — possession is nine-tenths of the law. Russia may claim territory on the Black Sea, and it will definitely want guarantees that Ukraine stop flirting with NATO, forthwith.


Why can’t Ukraine be like post-World War II Finland? Russia and Finland have enjoyed peaceful, if occasionally tense, relations for 80 years.

Modern Finns beg to differ. “In Finland, Finlandisation remains largely a pejorative term,” authors Tuomas Forsberg and Matti Pesu write in their 2016 paper, “The ‘Finlandisation’ of Finland: The Ideal Type, the Historical Model, and the Lessons Learnt.” They drafted the paper, presciently, in response to the 2014 eastern Ukraine crisis, which turned into an endless war that has since claimed about 14,000 lives.


Finns remember Finlandization as a time when the nation’s leaders had to kowtow to the Soviet Union. Finnish governments never condemned the Russian invasions of Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), or Afghanistan (1979). They likewise refrained from publishing “anti-Soviet” authors such as the Nobel Prize winners Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Forsberg and Pesu note drily that the Finnish translation of Solzhenitsyn’s monumental “The Gulag Archipelago” was first published in Sweden. They write that the USSR even enjoyed a de facto veto power over the careers of Finnish politicians deemed insufficiently complaisant to the Soviet agenda.

I visited Finland many times before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; I would have lived there in a heartbeat. The society was prosperous, Finns could travel wherever they liked. The arts flourished. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the nation that would become the “world’s most technologically advanced country,” according to the United Nations Development Program, by the turn of the millennium.

Americans love to talk about freedom in absolute terms — “Give me all the guns I want!” “Let me say anything, anytime, anywhere!” — but most of the world doesn’t have that luxury, nor do they covet it. Would I live in Singapore, a country deemed “partly free” by Freedom House, in part because “all domestic newspapers, radio stations, and television channels are owned by companies linked to the government . . . and self-censorship is common”? Of course I would.


Pesu, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, knows where I’m going with this argument, and politely dissents: “Nothing should be imposed on the Ukrainians,” he told me. “It’s up to them to decide what their foreign policy will be.” That said, he added, “Finland’s Cold War experience is one model of how a smaller country can navigate in a challenging geopolitical environment. You should never compromise the core of your democracy, but there are lessons learned on how to be flexible.”

Finlandization? In my view: Ukraine should be so lucky.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.