Finland, where I served as the U.S. ambassador for almost four years, is in the news thanks to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Friday, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö met with President Joe Biden in the White House. The Finnish defense minister is coming to Washington this week for meetings 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 has dramatically shifted public opinion in Finland, a country that has maintained neutrality outside of military alliances. For the first time, a majority of its 5.5 million citizens favor 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.
Meeting with Putin before the invasion, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would offer what is called “Finlandization” as an option for Ukraine in its relationship with Russia. The proposal didn’t go anywhere 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 raised as a model, implying that subservience to the Soviet Union worked for Finland and might 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 was not so much a choice as a necessity, given the bloody crossroads of northern Europe during World War II.
When I served as our envoy to Helsinki in the 1990s, I frequently hosted visiting congressional delegations, and meetings with high Finnish officials were a standard part of these overseas trips. I remember vividly a congressman asking the Finns, “How many Russian troops are stationed in Finland?” A former Finnish ambassador to the U.S. replied, “Many, many thousands, Mr. Congressman,” then paused and added, “All of them are 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 independence and freedom during World War II. In 1939, Nazi and Soviet foreign ministers signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which allowed Germany free rein to attack Czechoslovakia and Poland while giving Russia carte blanche to attack Finland. But the Finns mobilized and stalled the Russian invasion during what was called the Winter War. They filled vodka bottles with gasoline, placed rags in them, lit them, and hurled them onto Soviet tanks, coining the term “Molotov cocktails.”
As ambassador, I made an official visit to the Rajamäki distillery, where more than half a million bottles had been converted to explosive devices. Today, the plant is the home of the world-famous Koskenkorva Vodka. It pains me to see Ukrainian civilians filling vodka bottles to make Molotov cocktails to hurl at invading Russian tanks in the 21st century.
During World War II, Russia seized and kept a large part of eastern Finland called Karelia. Few Finns chose to remain under Russian rule. More than 400,000 of them moved across the new border and were resettled in the west after much sharing of land 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 domestic politics during the Cold War.
Out of necessity, Finland adopted a policy of strategic neutrality to preserve its independence and manage its relationship with the USSR. Finnish television has recently made a dramatic series about this period of called Shadow Lines (available on Amazon), featuring malevolent KGB and CIA spies. It’s not entirely accurate, but watching it will give you a feel for Finland’s effort to maintain its freedom.
“Finland was far from a vassal to the Soviet Union,” René Nyberg, former Finnish ambassador to Russia, explained in a 2014 op-ed in The New York Times. “It maintained its democracy, a low-profile 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. It cooperated with the U.S. where it could. As ambassador, I learned that every member of Finland’s cabinet had been to the U.S. on America’s International Visitor Program (run out of the State Department and now called the International Visitor Leadership Program). Meanwhile, 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 fell apart, Finland joined Western institutions. I was standing beside Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen at the Finnish national broadcasting house in October 1994 when it was announced that Finland had voted to join the European Union. The campaign around the vote featured an ad with a map of Finland in red showing “No” and a map of Finland in blue with the word “Yes.” The message couldn’t have been more explicit. For Finland, joining the EU and becoming the EU border with Russia was a security vote even as it eschewed 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. It chose not to join, feeling that Finland’s own military readiness and EU membership were sufficient security guarantees. In 2002, Finland adopted the euro as its currency, further integrating with the EU.
Finland has prospered as an EU member. The country consistently ranks at or near the top as “the world’s happiest nation.” Its educational system is among the best in the world and is widely studied by other nations. Finland produces world-class concert conductors, modern architects, NHL hockey players, and designers like the talent at Marimekko, the textiles, clothing, and home furnishing company. My Finnish-American grandson, Viggo, prizes his superbly crafted Fiskars knives and scissors. He 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, highly egalitarian Nordic country—the first in Europe to give 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 the 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 supersonically with a Finnish pilot. I also visited the Finnish pilots training on it at an airbase in my home state of California. I hosted a visit to Finland by then Secretary of Defense William Perry, who took a sauna with the prime minister. After getting sweaty, we sat on the PM’s porch drinking beer and discussing the world.
To assuage Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion, we held the Clinton-Yeltsin summit in 1997 in Helsinki. The president of Finland loaned us the Finnish White House for the talks at which the Russia-NATO Framework was agreed, which included posting Russian officials and soldiers at NATO headquarters in Brussels and offering transparency on NATO’s war plans. We made clear that NATO was about peace in Europe, not aimed at Russia. This was before Putin’s ascension to the presidency in 1999 and putting Russian expansion and enmity toward NATO at the center of Russian foreign policy.
Finland has been offered as a model for Ukraine. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the former U.S. national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski brought up the concept of Finlandization, drawing a sharp response from Finnish diplomats. In a letter to the Financial Times, they wrote:
Finland has been a member of the European Union for two decades sharing its common foreign and security policy. That means, in our case, there is no equidistance to Brussels and Moscow. True, we are not a member of NATO. That has been our own free and carefully deliberated choice. Not because we see NATO as institutionally hostile toward any country, Russia included. The very contrary 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 has said joining NATO is a decision for Finland to make freely, and Prime Minister Sanna Marin has said Finland reserves the right to join. However, Putin has left little doubt that a move by Finland to join NATO would trigger a harsh response. Finland would prefer not to break out the Molotov cocktails again or suffer the brutal bombing of Ukrainian cities. It would be better off serving as part of a diplomatic solution to the current situation, perhaps by hosting peace talks in Helsinki.
In my view, the real Finnish lesson for Ukraine is that EU membership matters as much as NATO membership. Finland combines robust membership in the EU 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 that the Finns will fight to protect their country—and now Putin knows that the Ukrainians will fight to maintain theirs.
There might 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 the guarantee of Russian minority rights, the making of Russian as the official second language (just as Swedish is the official second language of Finland—street signs are in Swedish, there is a Swedish School of Business, and the Swedish People’s Party is represented in the parliament), and, of course, the removal of all Russian troops from Ukraine.
The unexpectedly united front displayed by the U.S. and the EU against Putin’s invasion might force him to accept such a diplomatic solution. The alternative is Russia becoming a pariah state and a new Iron Curtain dividing Europe. If so, that will be Putin’s legacy. Either way, Finland has shown what it stands for.