Foreign Relations & International Law

Why Finlandization Is a Terrible Model For Ukraine

Antti Ruokonen
Thursday, April 21, 2022, 10:28 AM

Those inclined to urge Finlandization as a solution for Ukraine should understand what the term actually means.

Protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine outside of the Russian Embassy in Helsinki, Finland (Random Doctors,; CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

On April 3, after revelations of atrocities in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said, “We won’t close our eyes, we won’t be silent, we won’t forget.” Only a short while ago, such a statement from a Finnish prime minister about Russia would have been unthinkable. Finland has a long border with Russia and has been careful about offending Russian sensibilities. Yet recent events have seen the Finnish prime minister condemn Russian war crimes in the strongest language possible. And more astonishing still, Finland’s public and political decision-makers appear ready to apply for NATO membership. Ironically, even as Finland considers entering a formal military alliance with the Western powers, the country’s long-term neutral status is being branded as a possible model for Ukraine.

Even before the war started, on Feb. 7, French President Emanuel Macron reportedly suggested that the “Finlandisation” of Ukraine was one of the options on the table to solve the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Macron’s suggestion was not well received in Finland. The former prime minister of Finland tweeted, “The use of the term ‘Finlandization’ - whether in or out of context - is considered offensive in Finnish foreign policy discourse… Old terms for new situations rarely work. @EmmanuelMacron”. 

The word “Finlandization” is generally used to describe the Soviet Union’s attempt to maneuver and hold Finland in a position where it could be subjected to a maximum amount of influence from the Kremlin during the Cold War. Moscow’s influence and grip fluctuated during this period, but Finland was able to remain a parliamentary democracy and constitutional state throughout.

Those inclined to urge Finlandization as a solution for Ukraine should understand what the term actually means. For Finns, it meant the long-term subjugation of Finland’s politics to the will of an authoritarian neighbor as a cost of retaining independence as a democratic nation; it had consequences for Finnish territory, foreign policy, population, justice and even culture. There’s a good reason Finland may be moving decisively away from this policy now. 

What Was Finlandization?

The term “Finlandization” was first used by Austrian Foreign Minister Karl Gruber in the 1950s. He publically compared Austria’s position of forced neutrality to that of Finland’s, finding that Finland was worse off, since the Soviet Union had attempted to occupy it, whereas Austria had a measure of security under shared Allied-Soviet occupation. The term was popularized by Richard Löwenthal in Berlin in the late 1960s, but it really caught on as a political weapon in 1969, when right-wing politicians used it to criticize the American troop presence in West Germany and German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Eastern foreign policy focus. To a wide array of politicians, it became a term laced in negativity to warn against the dangers of becoming like Finland.

When contemporary advocates in the Ukraine context talk about Finlandization, it conjures images of a benevolent form of Swiss-like neutrality chosen by peace-loving Northern Europeans who opted out of the Cold War. It was, in fact, a product of Finland having been attacked by the Soviet Union, having lost a costly war, and therefore being constantly under threat of ceasing to exist as a sovereign state. 

The story of Finlandization starts during World War II. From the Finnish perspective, World War II had three distinct parts: the Soviet invasion, resulting in the Winter War of 1939-1940; the Continuation War of 1941-1944—in which Finland, with German assistance, tried and, after initial success, failed to retake areas lost in the previous war; and the War in Lapland of 1944-1945, in which the Finns sought to to drive out their previous comrades-in-arms, the Germans.

In the interbellum period after the Winter War, Finland was militarily and politically isolated and continuously bullied by the Soviet Union. Finland sought a defensive alliance with Sweden and later even a two-state union, both of which failed under Soviet and German diplomatic pressure. The Red Army also had its own interpretation of the redrawn Finland-USSR border. It wasn’t enough that the Soviet Union had invaded its sovereign territory and taken 10 percent of its land. Finland had to bend further each time the Soviet Union wanted more. The interbellum between the Winter and Continuation wars was only a precursor of what was to follow after the Continuation War. Finland was beaten and bruised, but it stood independent after two clashes against the Soviet Union. Unique among the nations that had been at war with the USSR, Finland maintained its independence and its system of government, and it was not forced to join the Warsaw Pact nations. But the flip side was that the Soviet Union had a vested interest in attaining and maintaining a maximum level of influence in Finnish affairs. If that sounds like the Russian long-term insistence on controlling Ukrainian affairs, it should. Finlandization was not simply a kind of treaty-enforced neutrality. It was a lot more. 

The price of Finland’s continued independence was heavy. Under the Moscow treaty of Sept. 19, 1944, Finland had to fight a war to disarm strong German forces defending Lapland, give up large swathes of land, hold war crimes trials for its wartime political leadership, demobilize its armed forces, rent a military base in Porkkala to the Soviet Union for 50 years, legalize the outlawed Communist Party and disband all associations hostile to the Soviet Union. Finland had to cede some 29,000 square miles to the Soviet Union and had to relocate roughly 420,000 people beyond the new border. The total population of Finland at the time was under 4 million people.

The military base at Porkkala, an area of 1,000 square kilometers, housed Russian troops equipped with tanks and even heavy coastal artillery that could reach downtown Helsinki, 40 kilometers away. A continuous trail of Russian troops moved to and from the base, creating potential for conflicts. Finnish President Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim privately even thought of moving the capital from Helsinki to Turku because of the base. The Soviet’s military presence was effectively a gun pointed at Finland’s head.

The base was given back to Finland early in 1956, partly because of Finland’s adherence to the terms of the peace treaty. Then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev also knew that he didn’t need heavy coastal artillery to threaten Helsinki; political pressure and missiles were more effective and cheaper than maintaining the base. 

The Allied Control Commission supervised compliance with the treaty. The Soviet Union even used the commission to spread its influence in the country. Members of the organization enjoyed diplomatic immunity and had the right to speak to any Finnish official and request any documents they saw fit. Finnish communists had thoroughly infiltrated the Finnish State Police, Valpo. During that period, Valpo was focused on hunting down perceived enemies of the Soviet Union, earning its moniker “Red Valpo.” The period under commission control is referred to as “the years of danger” because many in the Finnish military and political leadership feared an invasion and occupation of Finland was imminent. Finland’s sovereignty was under constant threat.

After the Paris peace treaty of Feb. 10, 1947, the geopolitical balance of power was solidified by the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance signed between Finland and the Soviet Union on April 6, 1948. Finland had little say in the matter. Similar agreements were also signed with what became the Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe in 1949. Of the eight articles in the treaty, the first two were most consequential. 

The first article stated that Finland was committed to the defense of its territory if Germany or any of its allies attacked Finland or, through it, the Soviet Union. If the situation warranted, the two parties would hold bilateral negotiations on how to mount a defense. The second article stipulated that if the threat of such an attack was observed, the two parties would negotiate a response. 

These two articles became tools of political, military and economic pressure during the years of the Juho Kusti Paasikivi and Urho Kaleva Kekkonen presidencies between 1948 and 1981, a litmus test, and a key foundation of the political aspects of Finlandization. It was a lever the Soviet Union could always pull if Finland wasn’t doing what the Kremlin wanted. 

Among the first notable effects of Finlandization was the rejection of assistance associated with the European Recovery Program, also known as the Marshall Plan. On July 4, 1947, France officially invited Finland to attend a conference in which participation in the program was to be discussed. By the time the Finnish Parliament discussed the issue six days later, the Soviet Union had made its view clear to the Finns, who could not risk damage to bilateral ties. This forced President Paasikivi’s hand, and he declined the offer despite a parliamentary vote favoring participation. In effect, the aid that Finland desperately needed was rejected due to Moscow’s fear and suspicion of Western aid.

Finnish Sovereignty Under Threat

In practice, the policy of Finlandization meant constant threats to Finnish statehood—exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants in Ukraine now. Finland ultimately navigated these threats successfully, but the fact that the hostage survived captivity does not make the policy an attractive one. 

Two infamous examples demonstrate Finlandization’s effects on foreign and domestic politics. The first one, known as the “Night Frost Crisis,” began with the effort to form a government after the July 1958 Finish parliamentary elections, which was exceedingly difficult. There were attacks against the Soviet Union and President Kekkonen in the Finnish press and also the Soviet press was similarly active.  Prime Minister Karl-August Fagerholm pressed on without Kekkonen’s support, and the fourth attempt to form a government finally succeeded, in August 1958. In the five-party coalition government, eight of the 15 ministers were viewed with suspicion by the Soviet Union. Despite winning 25 percent of the vote in the elections, the Finnish Communist Party was not included in the government. Moscow was not pleased. The Soviets canceled negotiations on the lease of the Saimaa Canal, connecting the Soviet-controlled Viborg on the Gulf of Finland to Lake Saimaa inside Finland. They also delayed the signing of the Gulf of Finland fisheries bill and refused to begin scheduled trade negotiations on Soviet imports to Finland. The KGB even told Kekkonen directly that a change of government was needed.

In October 1958, the Soviet ambassador to Finland, Viktor Lebedev, was recalled and no successor was appointed. All bilateral negotiations had effectively ceased, and with eastern trade foundering, the Finnish economy had started to sputter to a halt. Moscow also told other communist states to keep their distance from the Fagerholm government. Kekkonen’s role during the crisis was essentially twofold: He tried to manage the crisis but also benefit from it by trying to weaken the domestic opposition against him. Without support from the president and with a tightening screw of external pressure applied, the Fagerholm government’s days were numbered. 

The Fagerholm government fell in December 1958. Forming a new government was tricky, since the Western powers had warned the Finns not to form a government with the Finnish Communist Party included and the Soviet Union would not accept a government with the Social Democrats or the conservative National Coalition Party. Finally, a government was formed in January 1959, essentially handpicked by Kekkonen from his own Agrarian Party. Khrushchev made it clear to Kekkonen that he did not trust the new government but that he did trust Kekkonen personally. A new Soviet ambassador was soon appointed, bilateral talks continued and the Night Frost Crisis passed. 

The second example of Finlandization’s effects was the so-called Note Crisis of 1961, which took place against the backdrop of the intensifying arms race between Western powers and the Soviet Union (a standoff that culminated in the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the building of the Berlin Wall). On Oct. 30, 1961, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko gave a formal notice to the Finnish ambassador to Moscow, E.A. Wuori. The notice ended with the suggestion of “consultations of measures to secure the borders of both nations from the threat of West-Germany and of its allied states, as stipulated by the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance between the Soviet Union and Finland.” Foreign Minister Ahti Karjalainen was dispatched home. He was soon able to meet with Gromyko, and the message was that the Soviet Union wanted political assurances that Finland’s current political focus would not change and that nothing would impede friendly Finnish-Soviet bilateral ties. In other words, the Soviet Union wanted to project strength and solidify its northwestern flank against the perceived threat of the United States and NATO. The notice was public, so it also served as an international reminder of Finland’s position. 

It also suited President Kekkonen’s own plans of quickly breaking up his domestic opposition. On Nov. 14, 1961, the government accepted his proposal for the dissolution of Parliament in preparation for new parliamentary elections on Feb. 4, 1962. This act combined with the pressure brought to bear by the Soviet notice had a chilling effect on Kekkonen’s domestic opposition, known as the “Honka alliance,” named after its presidential candidate, Olavi Honka. As this alliance began to crumble due to the pressure of the notice and upcoming elections, the stage was set for a meeting between Kekkonen and the Soviet leader in Novosibirsk on Nov. 24, 1961. 

At the talks at Novosibirsk, Kekkonen hammered home his point that respect for neutrality from the West and continued friendship with the Soviet Union guaranteed the USSR’s security, thus making military consultations moot. After giving a long speech, Khrushchev agreed and said his desire for peace and trust in Kekkonen’s judgment decided the issue, though he qualified the USSR’s acquiescence: “Should we not merely agree to state that we will merely delay (the consultations) and not forsake them. Let us agree only that, if the situation would grow dire for some reason, we would get in touch with one another again.” With that, the consultations were called off and the crisis was over. Later that day, Olavi Honka withdrew his candidacy for the Finnish presidency. This crisis and its swift resolution solidified Kekkonen’s position at the helm of the ship of state, but the USSR also retained its status as hostage-taker of Finland with the consultations of the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance a source of threat. 

President Kekkonen had gained a position of trust in the eyes of the Soviet Union, and his power and personal relations with the Soviet leadership helped to keep him in power until 1981.

Even today, two different sources on any event from the Kekkonen presidency are likely to give conflicting narratives and conclusions with even the facts partially disputed. Depending on the account being read, an observer of the period might find Kekkonen to be a supremely gifted protector of Finnish independence, a lapdog of the USSR with an authoritarian bent, a combination of these or something in between.

The Impact on Finnish Law and Politics

Advocates for the Finlandization of Ukraine should consider the profound negative impacts that the policy had on Finnish politics and law. Finland during the Cold War, as today, had a multiparty system governed by coalition governments. The government adhered to a policy of Finlandization due to an executive branch that fully controlled foreign policy, the government’s dedicated compliance with the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, and the reality of the ever-watchful eyes of Moscow. 

At that time, the president had strong powers; the office alone was in charge of foreign policy. The president also appointed the prime minister and could dissolve Parliament and order new elections to be held. The executive also brought legislation from the government before Parliament and had a strong right of veto. During Finlandization, the president and the Soviet government viewed any anti-Soviet attitude with apprehension, so forming coalition governments was especially difficult as any perception of anti-Soviet attitude was viewed with apprehension by both the president and Moscow. In addition to the Finnish Communist Party, even political opposition parties had internal elements that tried using Moscow as a subtle or blunt instrument for their own political gain. With good reason, President Kekkonen is sometimes referred to as a “conductor of a symphony orchestra” while in power. It was not until after the Cold War that Finland could contemplate a constitutional arrangement with less robust presidential power. 

Finlandization also required profoundly unjust accomodations from the Finnish justice system. The Soviet Union’s demand for war-responsibility trials had no basis in existing Finnish law. Therefore, such action needed to be prepared with haste, and the trials eventually targeted leaders who had fought defensive wars to maintain Finnish territory. The first draft of the war-responsibility legislation was sent to Parliament on Aug. 23, 1945, and the legislation was implemented just about three weeks later. The eight articles of the law on war responsibility created a 15-person special court headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Between Nov. 15, 1945, and Feb. 21, 1946, this court decided on the guilt and innocence of the accused in a total of 23 sessions.

The goal of the trials is made apparent in Article 1:

Those who have decisively influenced Finland being drawn into a state of war in 1941 against the Soviet Union or The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or stood in the way of peace during the war, is to be judged for misuse of their office to the detriment of the nation to a prison sentence of no more than eight years or in case of aggravating circumstances to a penitentiary for a term or for life.

The officials who were on trial included former President Risto Ryti; former prime ministers Jukka Rangell and Edwin Linkomies; former government ministers Henrik Ramsay, Väinö Tanner, Antti Kukkonen and Tyko Reinikka; and the former Finnish ambassador to Berlin, Toivo Kivimäki. Under severe pressure from the Allied Control Commission, their guilt was a foregone conclusion. In the Feb. 21, 1946, court decision, Ryti received a 10-year penitentiary sentence. The rest were prison sentences from six to two years in length. All of them were released from prison by May 1949. Ryti was released due to health reasons.

Finlandization also had implications for free speech. In 1948, a paragraph was added to the Finnish Criminal Code, stating that “[t]he denigration of a foreign state in a public and intentional manner by means of a printed product, writing, a visual depiction or other means of expression” was punishable by up to two years in prison. There were only two instances of this subsection being applied. 

In one instance, President Paasikivi, on the advice of the government, pressed charges against editor-in-chief M.E. Juusela and editor Reima Nuosiainen of the Keskisuomalainen magazine. They had run a story of the death of Colonel-General A.A. Zhdanov, former head of the Allied Control Commission in Finland in August 1948. The story insinuated that he had died due to Stalin’s persecutions. Juusela and Nuosiainen were duly convicted and ordered to pay fines. This part of the criminal code was not expunged until 1995.

Finlandization even had impacts on Finnish culture. Books published in Finland were under strict scrutiny during the Cold War. In the autumn of 1944, over 20,000 books were removed from library shelves due to guidance from the government that works of literature “that could be considered hostile to the USSR” should be made unavailable to the general public. Some 300 works of literature were also removed from book shops because they were deemed to be of potential harm to Finnish-Soviet relations. These restrictions were mostly lifted in 1958, but some works were still banned. The “Gulag Archipelago,” the famous work by Aleksandr Solženitsyn, for example, had to be translated and published in Stockholm, because the original Finnish publisher, Tammi, refused to publish it in 1974 in Finland on the advice of Finnish Prime Minister Kalevi Sorsa. 

Some movies with perceived anti-Russian sentiments from wartime and the 1930s remained banned until the 1980s. The movie “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” based on the Solženitsyn novel was banned by the Finnish authorities in 1972. Even the transmitter of the Swedish national television company in the Åland Islands was momentarily shut down by the Finnish Broadcasting Company to prevent the movie’s presentation in Finland. It was finally screened in Finland in 1993. “Born American,” directed by the Finnish director Renny Harlin, was banned even longer. Although the film was originally released in 1986, it was not officially released in Finland until 2006, long after the Soviet Union collapsed. 

The End of Finlandization

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union are clear moments of historical demarcation. The end of Finlandization is harder to discern. The Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance was discarded and replaced by mutual agreement with a treaty with Russia in 1992. The powers of the Finnish presidency were curtailed, term limits were instituted in 1991, and Parliament was equally empowered via comprehensive constitutional reform in 2000. Yet Finland has remained nonaligned and cautious about offending Russian sensibilities. It can sometimes be hard to discern motivations. Is a Finnish politician’s reluctance to call out Russian aggression in Ukraine the product of lingering Finlandization, is it merely being cautious about a country with which Finns share a long border, or is it both?

Finlandization can be viewed as an act of survival, as a realpolitik necessity in the hands of President Paasikivi. In the alternative, it can be seen as a tool likened to both a feather internationally and a sledgehammer domestically in the hands of President Kekkonen. Despite Finlandization, or perhaps because of the perceived friendly attitude of the Finnish political elite toward the Soviet Union, Kekkonen was able to maintain Finland’s independence while also maintaining good relations and extensive bilateral trade connections with members of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. This foreign policy tightrope, generally referred to as the “Paasikivi–Kekkonen line,” allowed Kekkonen to host the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in Helsinki in 1975 and to make Finland into a peacekeeping powerhouse, a tradition that still continues today. Kekkonen’s foreign and trade policies allowed Finland’s economy to keep pace with Western Europe and guided Finland toward a path of integration with Europe via Nordic cooperation and especially associating with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) via a separate agreement in 1961 and by signing a free trade agreement with the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. Finland became a full member of EFTA in 1986.

Finlandization was born of circumstances specific to Finland and its difficult position in the postwar world order. Flippant usage of this loaded term, and its suggestion as a solution to the situation in Ukraine, offends the sovereignty and dignity of any independent nation. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine once again places the very survival of a democratic nation in Europe at stake in a way not seen since World War II. It has galvanized public discourse throughout the region. In an opinion poll published by the Finnish MTV channel on Jan. 26, 30 percent of Finns supported membership in NATO. After months of military buildup on the Russia-Ukraine border, a poll by YLE, released one day before the Russian invasion, found that proportion had grown to 53 percent, and the latest poll published on March 14 saw support rise to 62 percent. Finnish politicians have taken notice. 

In an interview on Jan. 20, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin noted that “it is ‘very unlikely’ that Finland would apply for a NATO membership during her current term of office[,]” which ends in 2023. On March 9, she said, “[T]he conversation will occur in Finland during this spring.” On April 13, she also commented that the decision regarding the application would be made in “weeks, not months.” In the same article by YLE, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö estimated that the application would be presented to NATO well before the upcoming NATO summit in Madrid, scheduled for late June 2022. Support for membership within the Finnish Parliament has grown to reflect popular opinion, with 112 of 200 members in support, according to an April 5 piece by YLE.

As a result of Finland joining the NATO Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and steps taken afterward, Finnish Defense Forces are “pretty much totally compatible with NATO,” according to the former chief of staff to the Finnish Ministry of Defense, Jukka Puusti. In fact, Finland recently procured F-35 fighter jets

This change is best articulated by Finnish Member of Parliament Anders Adlercreuz, who wrote on April 5:

We are perceived as part of the West, but we do not have the protection offered by Article Five. Membership would be a big change psychologically, but small on a practical level. It would increase security and strengthen Nordic co-operation, especially if Sweden joined. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has transformed the region’s security calculus so much so that Finland is in the process of de-Finlandization. It’s ironic that so many analysts seem ready and willing to place Ukraine beneath the same yoke from which Finland is finally emerging.

Antti Ruokonen holds a Master of Engineering degree from Finland. He works for the city of Vaasa as a civil engineer with over ten years of experience in environmental issues, infrastructure, and its resilience in the public sector. He is also a military historian and the author of several books.

Subscribe to Lawfare