I was a teenager when my godmother Olga first told me about the “Winter War” of 1939-1940 between the Soviet Union and Finland. She was a nurse in a Moscow hospital when Joseph Stalin launched his ill-prepared conquest of Finland under a false pretense.
“It was awful,” she said. “All these young soldiers with terrible frostbite and incurable wounds from sniper fire. The Finns really beat our army, but we weren’t allowed to talk about it,” my godmother told me. “They had to cede territory to us but we never conquered them.” It was a shock for me. There was a paragraph about this war in our school textbooks.
Yes to cheese, no to NATO
Growing up in the late Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, Finland was considered the friendliest of “capitalist” countries. Finnish products, such as “Viola” processed cheese and winter jackets, were the Western products that a Soviet citizen could sometimes hope to buy. After Olga’s story, I could no longer regard the Finns as harmless cheese producers.
Years later, I heard a famous Finnish war song from 1939 with a refrain “Nyet, Molotov” (“No, Molotov”) – a popular rebuke to Stalin’s foreign affairs commissar, Vyacheslav Molotov. The Finns did indeed manage to preserve their independence but at the cost of so-called Finnishization which meant adhering to certain limitations and conditions imposed by Moscow.
Staying non-aligned (in simple terms, not joining NATO) was the main restriction after the alliance was established in 1949. Even in 1991, when the USSR collapsed, Finnish public opinion remained lukewarm towards NATO membership.
Konstantin Eggert from DW
Finland has always enjoyed extensive economic cooperation with Russia. It imports most of its oil and gas from its eastern neighbor. Rosatom, a Russian nuclear power plant construction company, planned to build one in Finland, a rare project for a Western country.
Maintaining constant political engagement with the Kremlin was an essential part of Finnish politics. As recently as January, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto remained one of the few Western leaders to talk to and meet regularly with President Vladimir Putin.
But these days, a remix of that old war tune from 1939 is playing in Helsinki. Finns say “Nyet” again – this time to Putin. They are ready to join the North Atlantic alliance.
“Finlandization,” one of the most enduring features of Europe’s post-World War II security landscape, became obsolete within weeks of the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine.
This is a huge political defeat for Putin. Since his first official visit to Finland in 2001, he has invested a lot of effort in cultivating the country’s politicians and businesses only to see this policy crumble in a matter of weeks. Symbolically, Finland recently canceled the Rosatom nuclear power plant project
Moscow would now threaten to soon cut off its energy supplies to Finland. But the Finns are ready for temporary difficulties by reorienting themselves towards other suppliers. Their long experience with the Russians has taught them that the Kremlin only takes seriously those who are willing to make sacrifices and stand their ground.
Putin’s policy failed
Putin’s military blackmail won’t fare any better. The war against Ukraine revealed the pitiful state of the Russian army. At the same time, the Finnish armed forces train regularly with NATO, possess state-of-the-art weaponry and are fully interoperable with the armies of the alliance.
If the Kremlin increases its military presence along the more than 1,000 kilometer (621 mile) long border with Finland, the Finns can expect their new allies, including the United States, to strengthen their defense expanding into the region.
Russia’s strategic position in the region will become much worse. With Sweden likely to follow Finland, the Baltic Sea will effectively become NATO’s backyard. The Kaliningrad region, the Russian enclave surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, would be even easier to isolate if the alliance so wished.
The historical irony is inescapable: Putin made opposition to NATO enlargement his key policy — only to find himself with NATO forces stationed some 130 kilometers from St. Petersburg. Molotov would have definitely disapproved.
Edited by: Rob Mudge