Finland’s relationship with Russia

ZOiS Spotlight 34/2017 by Markku Kivinen (6 December 2017)

The Finish Senate declared Finland's independence on 4th December 1917. It was confirmed by parliament on 6th December 1917. © Wikimedia Commons

Finland is a small country that has to find its own path in a region where great powers, traditionally Russia and Germany, have played the main roles. In this regard, Finland belongs to the same group as Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries. Within the Russian Empire, the autonomous Finnish state developed peacefully without major confrontations until the end of the nineteenth century. When tensions started growing between Russia, on the one hand, and Austria and Germany, on the other, the Russian Empire started a Russification process that led to Finnish resistance and, after the Russian Revolution, to Finnish independence. Germany played a major role in the Finnish Civil War in 1918, and the Finns elected the Prince of Hessen as the Finnish king. But this did not work out after Germany lost the war.

During the Second World War, Finland first fought alone in a bloody winter war against the Soviet Union and then joined Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s planned invasion of the Soviet Union. At the end of the war, the Allies forced Finland to turn its arms against its German co-belligerents. Finland, never occupied by Soviet forces, had anyway lost the war. Finland lost a major part of Karelia and had to pay heavy war reparations to the Soviet Union. In total, Finland had to sign away one-tenth of its territory. The population of those districts—410,000 people—had to be relocated to other parts of Finland.

Building trust in the East, integrating in the West

Finland had to learn to live with these facts. These circumstances laid the foundations of a new foreign policy known as the Paasikivi-Kekkonen doctrine, aimed at Finland’s survival as an independent country neighbouring the Soviet Union. The term ‘Finlandisation’, coined in the Federal Republic of Germany, referred to the reaction to the threat posed by excessive exposure to Soviet influence. In fact, Finland was not subservient to the Soviet Union, even during Stalin’s time. Finnish policy aimed at building trust in the East so that Finland gained latitude in the West.

Little by little, Finland integrated in this direction. Finland became a member of the UN in 1955. Membership of the European Free Trade Association followed in the 1960s, and a free-trade agreement with the European Economic Community a decade later. Providing the Soviet Union with corresponding economic benefits enabled the preconditions for trade with the East and avoided tensions in the country’s relationships.

However, from the point of view of the Baltic countries or Central and Eastern Europe, Finland’s story since the Second World War has been an incredible success. There have been no politically motivated assassinations in Finland in the last seventy years. Nor have there been any acts of terrorism, political trials, persecutions by secret police, political prisoners, or limitations on free speech. Both conservatives and communists have had roles in government. At the same time, despite extreme economic fluctuations, the Finnish economy has developed at full speed. Today, Finland is an affluent non-allied European country, together with Sweden, Austria, and Ireland.

After the war, the most threatening element for Finnish independence was the Soviet military base in the Porkkala peninsula, within gunfire distance of the capital, Helsinki. Rather unexpectedly, in 1956 the Soviet Union gave up this military base, withdrawing its troops from Finnish territory. The transfer of Porkkala raised hopes in Finland that at some point the former Finnish part of Karelia could also be returned to Finland. Urho Kekkonen, president of Finland from 1956 to 1982, made several efforts in this direction.

Finland within a new security architecture

Foreign policy still dominates the political arena in Finland. The concept of neutrality has been crucial to that foreign policy since Finnish independence. At the core of the country’s neutrality was the aim to remain outside the superpowers’ conflicts of interest.

The end of the Cold War did not mean that those conflicts of interest disappeared. The ideological juxtaposition of two large camps was over, but the juxtaposition of strategic nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia did not disappear. However, a crucial change is that there is no mutual agreement with regard to the superpowers’ spheres of influence. A strengthening Russia sees the former Soviet Union as ‘nearby foreign countries’ for which it holds special interests. Meanwhile, NATO has expanded to the former Warsaw Pact area and the Baltic countries, which are inside the borders of the former Soviet Union. At the same time, Russia has sought a counterbalance to NATO from China.

The post–Cold War security architecture is still under construction. Of course, the post–Cold War world is replete with ambitions of integration and new kinds of interdependence. However, especially after the wars in Georgia and Ukraine, it would be unrealistic to think that conflicts of interest between superpowers no longer exist. Finland faces a state whose military doctrine relies on nuclear weapons. The real threat for Finland and Sweden is not occupation—as for the Baltic countries—but something even more serious: being eliminated in the first phase of a major European military conflict. That is why pacifying Russia is the key European mission from a Finnish point of view. NATO is not Finland’s enemy, but Finland cannot afford to have Russia as an enemy either.

There is a shortage of power in the European Union with regard to Russia. The European integration game between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union has turned into a spheres-of-interest game in Ukraine. Now, a classic security policy dilemma is emerging even in the Baltic Sea region. Seen from Finland, the EU’s strength has been the plurality of foreign policies within the union. This comprises German Ostpolitik as well as the pragmatic and antimilitary Finnish approach. Finland has a strong legacy of avoiding risks, seeking common interests, and fostering positive economic interdependence. In the long run, Finland cannot afford to lose this legacy.


Prof. Markku Kivinen is the director of the Aleksanteri Institute, the Finnish Centre for Russian and Eastern European Studies at the University of Helsinki.