Finland, where I served as U.S. Ambassador for nearly four years, is making headlines thanks to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Friday, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö met with President Joe Biden at the White House. Finland’s defense minister is traveling to Washington this week for talks at the Pentagon. Finnish friends joke about where they will be stationed when the military reserve is called up. They share memes like the one showing Putin visiting Helsinki and being asked at customs “Occupation? He replies, “No, just visiting.”
Putin’s brutal bombardment of Ukrainian cities dramatically changed public opinion in Finland, a country that has maintained its neutrality outside of military alliances. For the first time, a majority of its 5.5 million citizens are in favor of applying for NATO membership.
The Nordic nation, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, is also in the news as a possible model for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.
When meeting with Putin before the invasion, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would offer so-called “Finlandization” as an option for Ukraine in its relations with Russia. The proposal was going nowhere with Putin, but it annoyed Finnish diplomats and many of my Finnish friends. More than a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, the term, first coined by a German politician in the 1960s, continues to be held up as a model, implying that submission to the The Soviet Union worked for Finland and could work for countries in Russia’s orbit today, like Ukraine.
Finland adopted neutrality during the Cold War because of its history and because it fought for its independence. It wasn’t so much a choice as a necessity, given the bloody crossroads of Northern Europe during World War II.
When I was our envoy to Helsinki in the 1990s, I frequently hosted visiting Congress delegations, and meetings with senior Finnish officials were an integral part of these trips abroad. I vividly remember a member of Congress asking the Finns, “How many Russian troops are stationed in Finland?” A former Finnish ambassador to the United States replied, “Many, many thousands, Congressman,” then stopped and added, “They are all dead.
Most Americans don’t realize that Finland was one of two European countries (the other was the United Kingdom) that were attacked and yet maintained their independence and freedom during World War II. In 1939, Nazi and Soviet foreign ministers signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which gave Germany free rein to attack Czechoslovakia and Poland while giving Russia carte blanche to attack Finland. But the Finns mobilized and blocked the Russian invasion during what was called the Winter War. They filled vodka bottles with gasoline, put rags in them, ignited them and threw them at Soviet tanks, coining the term “Molotov cocktails”.
As Ambassador, I paid an official visit to the Rajamäki distillery, where more than half a million bottles had been turned into explosive devices. Today, the factory houses the famous Koskenkorva vodka. It pains me to see Ukrainian civilians filling bottles of vodka to make Molotov cocktails to throw at invading Russian tanks in the 21st century.
During World War II, Russia seized and retained much of eastern Finland called Karelia. Few Finns chose to remain under Russian rule. More than 400,000 of them crossed the new border and were resettled in the west after a major division of lands and resources. In the treaty that ended the war, the Soviet Union received economic reparations from Finland, placed Soviet troops at a base in Finland, and gave Moscow influence over Finnish internal politics during the Cold War. .
Out of necessity, Finland adopted a policy of strategic neutrality to preserve its independence and manage its relations with the USSR. Finnish television recently made a drama series about this period called shadow lines (available on Amazon), featuring malicious KGB and CIA spies. It’s not entirely accurate, but looking at it will give you an idea of Finland’s efforts to maintain its freedom.
“Finland was far from being a vassal of the Soviet Union,” René Nyberg, Finland’s former ambassador to Russia, explained in a 2014 op-ed in The New York Times. “It has maintained its democracy, low-key military defense and above all its Western orientation.”
During the Cold War, Finland made a virtue of neutrality to maintain its independence and democratic government. He cooperated with the United States where he could. As Ambassador, I learned that every member of the Finnish Cabinet had traveled to the United States under the United States International Visitor Program (run by the State Department and now called the International Visitor Leadership Program ). During this time, no love was lost between most Finns and Russians. I remember being told the Finnish proverb: “You can cook a Russian in butter, but he’s still a Russian.”
As soon as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, Finland joined Western institutions. I was with Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen on Finnish National Broadcasting in October 1994 when it was announced that Finland had voted to join the European Union. The campaign around the vote featured an advertisement with a map of Finland in red saying “No” and a map of Finland in blue with the word “Yes”. The message could not have been more explicit. For Finland, joining the EU and becoming the EU’s border with Russia was a vote of security even if it avoided NATO membership. I testified publicly before the Foreign Relations Committee of the Finnish Parliament about NATO, saying that the country would be welcome to join if it so decided. He chose not to join, believing that Finland’s own military preparedness and EU membership were sufficient guarantees of security. In 2002, Finland adopted the euro as its currency, further integrating with the EU.
Finland has prospered as a member of the EU. The country consistently ranks at or near the top as “the happiest nation in the world”. Its educational system is among the best in the world and is widely studied by other nations. Finland produces world-class conductors, modern architects, NHL hockey players and designers like the talent of Marimekko, the textiles, clothing and home furnishings company. My Finnish-American grandson, Viggo, loves his beautifully crafted Fiskars knives and scissors. It also reminds me that the popular video game Angry Birds is a Finnish creation. My Finnish-American granddaughter Jasmine brings us Fazer’s world-class chocolates when she returns from summer visits to see her Finnish grandmother. Finland is a decent and highly egalitarian Nordic country – the first in Europe to grant women the right to vote – and a testament to the benefits of peaceful European integration.
As Ambassador, I worked to bring the Finnish military into Partnership for Peace, a program that allows countries to cooperate in designated ways with NATO without applying for full membership. During my tenure, Finland purchased the F-18 fighter jet from McDonnell Douglas. When the planes were delivered, I flew supersonic with a Finnish pilot. I also visited the Finnish pilots who were training there at an airbase in my home state of California. I arranged a visit to Finland for then Defense Secretary William Perry, who took a sauna with the Prime Minister. After sweating it out, we sat on the porch of the PM drinking beer and chatting about the world.
To allay Russia’s concerns about NATO enlargement, we organized the Clinton-Yeltsin summit in 1997 in Helsinki. The President of Finland lent us the Finnish White House for the talks during which the Russia-NATO framework was agreed, which included the assignment of Russian officials and soldiers to NATO headquarters in Brussels and transparency on NATO’s war plans. We have made it clear that NATO is aiming for peace in Europe, not Russia. This was before Putin assumed the presidency in 1999 and put Russian expansion and enmity towards NATO at the center of Russian foreign policy.
Finland has been proposed as a model for Ukraine. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, former US national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski brought up the concept of Finnishization, prompting a strong reaction from Finnish diplomats. In a letter to FinancialTimesthey wrote:
Finland has been a member of the European Union for two decades and shares its common foreign and security policy. This means, in our case, that there is no equidistance between Brussels and Moscow. Admittedly, we are not a member of NATO. It was our own free and carefully deliberate choice. Not because we view NATO as institutionally hostile to any country, including Russia. Quite the opposite is true. In the opinion of the Finnish government, as expressed in its white papers, NATO plays a constructive role in the European security architecture.
Niinistö said NATO membership was a decision Finland should make freely, and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said Finland reserved the right to join. However, Putin left little doubt that a decision by Finland to join NATO would trigger a harsh response. Finland would rather no longer pop Molotov cocktails or endure the brutal bombardment of Ukrainian cities. It would be better to serve as part of a diplomatic solution to the current situation, perhaps by organizing peace talks in Helsinki.
In my opinion, the real Finnish lesson for Ukraine is that EU membership matters as much as NATO membership. Finland combines a strong EU membership with a strong national defense, including a policy of citizen mobilization, the purchase of modern weapons and a good working relationship with NATO countries. Above all, Russia knows the Finns will fight to protect their country – and now Putin knows the Ukrainians will fight to keep theirs.
There could be a diplomatic way out of the current situation, leading to Ukraine joining the EU while agreeing not to join NATO. Such an agreement could include guaranteeing the rights of the Russian minority, making Russian the second official language (just as Swedish is Finland’s second official language—road signs are in Swedish, there is a business school and the People’s Party is represented in parliament) and, of course, the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine.
The unexpected united front displayed by the United States and the EU against Putin’s invasion could force him to accept such a diplomatic solution. The alternative is for Russia to become a pariah state and a new iron curtain dividing Europe. If so, it will be Putin’s legacy. Either way, Finland has shown what it stands for.