Henrik Meinander: “Any kind of Ukraine’s neutrality would be a Russian-dependent one”
Finnish historian talks about the relations between Finland and USSR after World War II, the prospects of neutrality for Ukraine, and the future of a new Cold War
Did Finland have any alternative to neutrality after the WWII?
It is not an honest description to call Finland a neutral country in all respects. Finland lost in two wars against the Soviet Union, but was not occupied by the Red Army. Still, the soviet dominance was obvious in Finnish politics in the 1940s and 1950s. During those decades, Finnish politicians did not claim that Finland was a neutral country. It was only declared that Finland tried to stay aside of the confrontation between great powers.
In 1948, Finland signed a treaty with the Soviet Union by which it was obliged to defend its territory against all attacks that would be directed through Finland towards the Soviet Union. That is why Finland was not a neutral country as Sweden or Switzerland. It is really only in principle that a country can be totally neutral. In reality, it very much depends on its geographical and political position. From the 1960s and onwards, President Kekkonen was practicing a neutral policy, but there were double standards. The relations were very complicated and historians still struggle to analyze the whole thing.
Were the Finns happy with such developments?
Apart from those many obvious problems in this neutrality, the agreement suited Finland very well. As long as Finland did not annoy Soviet Union, it was allowed to maintain its parliamentarian democracy. Plus, the Soviet Union allowed it to integrate with Western Europe economically step by step. This happened very slowly as a result of a very prolonged dialog with the soviet government, but it happened. Finland was not a part of the Warsaw Pact, but it was neither a member of NATO, so it was a kind of an odd beast in the Cold War. The reason why Finland was able to remain aside was that it was actually in the geographical periphery from Moscow’s point of view.
This was favorable for the common people but had a very negative impact on our parliamentarian policy, because certain parties were never allowed to run in elections. Otherwise, Finland’s economic development was happening even faster than in Western European countries. Swift industrialization took place.
Does the modern Finnish society feel any consequences of this Finnish-Soviet “friendship” from the Cold War times?
“Friendship” may not be the right word, but it was a kind of acceptance of each other’s security needs. Finland has accepted the fact that the Soviet Union wanted to secure Leningrad. Again, the Soviet Union had to accept that occupation of Finland would demand too much blood and efforts. So this cooperation was based on the experiences of WWII. If the Red Army had occupied Finland, the story would have been totally different.
Therefore, there was no friendship in political rhetoric. But Finnish trade with the Soviets was reasonably deeper. Until the early 1980s, 20% of our foreign trade was with the Soviet Union. Finland was buying energy, and the Soviet Union was buying all kinds of consumer goods. Those agreements were very favorable for the Finns. At the same time, there was a requirement that the Soviet Union should not be openly criticized in our media and public life. Our pro-soviet leaders were supported by Moscow and therefore remained in power. This political culture was called a «Finlandization». After the end of the Cold War many things in public life of Finland were wounded by «finlandization». All our European neighbors claimed that Finland is still being pulled down by this tradition; that it tries to avoid the criticism of Russia.
I belong to those who think that we don’t gain anything from criticizing Russia. We have the longest border with Russia compared to any country of the European Union. We had several bloody wars with Russia and this is something we don’t want to experience again. At the same time, this doesn’t change the fact that Finland is a member of the EU now, it cooperates with NATO very closely. For example, our air forces are integrated with the U.S. Air Force.
Could «finlandization» be a viable way for Ukraine out of the conflict with Russia?
I don’t think that it is possible to export our experience to any other country. Our dealings with Russia began in the 19th century, when Finland, as well as Ukraine, was a part of the Russian Empire, but managed to maintain its Swedish societal structure. When Finland became independent, it managed to keep things going that way.
Those who are recommending Ukraine to advance the same way as Finland probably do not understand, that the cases are very different. Knowing how Russians tend to think, one can question whether they will ever let Ukraine get a position which could be called neutral. Any kind of backing off would be followed by Russian dominance, so any kind of Ukrainian neutrality would be a Russian-dependent one. If Ukraine wants to develop in the EU direction, it must continue moving this bold way you are now taking — fighting against corruption and developing a political culture where you respect different political opinions.
So we have to continue cooperation with NATO then?
One has to keep in mind that this balancing that Finland did after WWII was possible due to its peripheral position as long as it didn’t annoy Russia. That's not an option for your country. There is a crucial question: in case of neutrality how to convince the Russians that Ukraine will never be a starting point for a conflict with NATO in the future? I don’t think that is possible. Still, if Ukraine wants to stabilize its relations with Russia somehow, it should not talk about NATO membership that much.
Here you could look up for Finland and Sweden. They are technically already members of NATO. Their defense systems are well synchronized with NATO, and Russia knows it very well. But we never made a step and established this marriage official. It seems that Russia is trying to pretend that Finland has no dealings with NATO. It works for us.
Then again, Russia has experience with the Baltic States. Russia understood too late that membership in the EU and security issue goes hand in hand. It would not be realistic to think that Ukraine could become a member of the European Union without being a NATO-member, as it would not have happened in the Baltic case. There are many challenges in the current situation, but I don’t think that it would be correct to operate with the concept of neutrality.
The current tension between Russia and Western countries is sometimes called the new Cold War? Is that correct?
Indeed, it may be called the new Cold War, but I suspect that in a few decades it will be called in a different way, because the situation nowadays is very different in many ways. During the Cold War, there were two clear ideological alternatives that were competing with each other. The Soviet Union was reasonably understood as a threat for the Western military power and societal model. The concept of “welfare state” was considered to be a vaccine against communistic propaganda.
Modern Russia is not an alternative for our societies. Even if Russia is involved in the Ukraine war — that is undeniable — and acts aggressively, its military force (not counting nuclear weapons) is not a threat to the West. Russia wants to give an impression that it is a great power, but has no technology and military capacity to support this claim. Russia of course will be opposed to the USA and its allies in a future conflict, but it is definitely China that will be the leader of that side.
Henrik Meinander is a Finnish historian and journalist. He specializes in Scandinavian history, as well as in sociology and history of art. He is member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the holder of its Finland award from 2007. Mr. Meinander is Professor at the University of Helsinki. He is also an author of numerous books on modern history of Finland, including A History of Finland published in 2011 and Finland 1944: War, Society, Emotional Landsacpe published in 2009