Is “Finlandization” an Option?

Is "Finlandization" a viable option for Ukraine?


The term “Finlandization”, in German Finnlandisierung, originated in the political debate of West Germany in the 1950s and 60s as a criticism of Finland’s studiedly neutral posture between “the West” and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. During that period Finland, in the interest of preserving its tenuous national sovereignty, signed a mutual assistance pact with the Soviet Union and generally maintained a cool attitude towards NATO. As you might imagine, the Finns don’t think particularly highly of the characterization. In a consummate feat of Realpolitik, the Finns effectively bowed to the East without mooning the West.

In his column this morning David Ignatius, the oracle of the prevailing wisdom in Washington, urges Finlandization on Ukraine:

Putin appears, at this writing, to have decided that Russia’s interests are better served by waiting — for the nonaligned government he expects will emerge from Sunday’s elections — than from an invasion or some radical destabilization. The Russian leader may be ready to accept a neutral country, between East and West, where Russia’s historical interests are recognized. During the Cold War, such an outcome was known as “Finlandization.”

If this Finland-like status is what Ukrainians support (and recent evidence suggests their new leaders may indeed choose this course) then it should be a welcome outcome for the West, too. Ukraine’s problems are internal; it needs ideological coherence more than territorial defense. It needs the breathing space that nonalignment can provide. The Ukrainian people can’t be barred from seeking membership in NATO or the European Union, but it’s unimaginable that either body would say yes, perhaps for decades. So Putin can breathe easier on that score.

Several months back Zbigniew Brzezinski made a similar suggestion:

I think there is a chance for a compromise solution. And I think we should be working for it. And I think one could be still worked out in which Ukraine deals with us by wanting to move closer to Europe, but has a relationship, also, with Russia, like Finland does, both ways.

Now that Finlandization is apparently the CW does that mean it’s more or less likely? Russia is the largest country in the world and has the largest population of any European country. It has vast natural resources and, largely on the basis of those natural resources, it has a per capita GDP which, while smaller than Western European countries, is twice that of China. It will remain a regional power for the foreseeable future and, on the basis of its huge nuclear arsenal, a world power. It has enormous problems, too, not the least of which are demographic decline and rampant corruption. Neither of those will mitigate the risk Russia presents to its neighbors for the foreseeable future. Under the circumstances, for countries like Finland, Estonia, or Ukraine, Finlandization makes sense.

Why was NATO expansion our policy from 1995 to 2008? I don’t really know the answer. It think it was based on a miscalculation.

Will Putin accept a neutral Ukraine?

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Unrelated but an interesting factoid – it is believed the last natural blond will be born in Finland in within a generation. I am a blonde haired blue eyed Swede who married who married a brown eyed dark haired Italian and both of our children have brown eyes and dark hair.

  2. JohnMcC says:

    Probably worth recalling that the position Ukraine finds itself in is in some ways not at all similar to that of Finland in the mid- to late-30’s. Finland had a historic and legitimate government and a united citizenry as opposed to the ‘provisional’ president in Kiev and a divided population, for starters. Finland had shown some success in an actual war with with Soviet forces. There was a strong counter-force in Europe (the 3d Reich, of course) to Stalin’s expansionist goals; none now exists and the ‘expansionist’ label doesn’t stick too well to Mr Putin.

    I suppose that Mr Ignatius and Dr Brzezinski could be urging everyone to play nice. No doubt that’s good advice. But since ‘Finlandization’ is a cold war doctrine appropriate to a bipolar alignment of forces it is of limited value when dealing with the Gazprom pipelines through Ukraine, Russian settlers in Crimea or the fate of Odessa.

  3. Dave D says:

    Will Putin accept a neutral Ukraine?

    Will America and the EU accept a neutral Ukraine? I still have yet to understand the rationale behind the NGO meddling we did initially in that country. That Nuland phone call was telling into just how much work we were doing behind the scenes in a country only a few months away from an election. Yet again we support the overthrow of a government and more or less sit back while shit hits the fan.
    It seems we don’t want to bail them out neither does the IMF or the EU. Russia controls their energy supplies even more so now that it stole the Crimean region. The Russians raising their gas prices ex post facto, should have come as a warning to the west that if we were going to be in we better be all in. However, we have continued impotent sanctions and falling far short of the commitment the Ukrainians need. I am betting that we’re waiting on the outcome of the elections, to decide whether or not to cut and run. Either way there is always going to be a contingent of Ukrainians wary of the West and Russia for the destabilization of their country. We may have created a situation to a much lesser degree that Poland had after WWII, where hatred of both sides exists and Findlandization is the only course, if the Russians don’t want to invade again. Because as we’ve seen thus far, the west and Russia seem to only be agents of chaos in that country.

  4. stonetools says:

    Count me in as an advocate of neutrality-a better name than Finlandization. I think Putin would accept that. I wish that had been the option chosen for all countries in the second round of NATO expansion.

    IMO, the West from 1995 on was blinded by triumphalism. Certain Western leaders felt that they had “won” the Cold War, so they could conduct policy as if history and geography were irrelevant. I have a suspicion that NATO military leaders, tasked with creating a plan for defending, say, Estonia, felt differently, but their opinions did not carry the day. The present unpleasantness reminds us all that history and geography are inn fact important.
    A neutral Ukraine can keep its distance from NATO, but could have a close relationship with the EU, which is really what the Ukrainians want. Russia will not like that, but will most likely tolerate that. I think the key for Russia is that NATO military forces be far from Russian borders.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Why was NATO expansion our policy from 1995 to 2008? I don’t really know the answer. It think it was based on a miscalculation hubris.

    FTFY Dave. In all truth, it is what I believe. Post USSR I thought NATO to be a dangerous anachronism. An organization no longer with a definable mission and it’s search for one has led to all kinds of mischief.

  6. Ron Beasley says:


    FTFY Dave. In all truth, it is what I believe. Post USSR I thought NATO to be a dangerous anachronism. An organization no longer with a definable mission and it’s search for one has led to all kinds of mischief.

    Couldn’t agree more!

  7. Dave D says:

    @JohnMcC: After the Winter War the Finns also had the Germans backing them as they went into Russia. It was probably an uneasy peace to prevent the Russians from moving into Finland again after they had forced demobilization. Especially since the formal peace agreement between Finland and the USSR didn’t happen until 1947. Also there were/are a sizable ethnic Russian population which comprises 1.3% of the population. The border mess in Karelia also probably made them afraid of Russian land grabs. When you have the USSR on one side and neutral Sweden which stayed out of NATO an uneasy detente was probably their safest move.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Ron Beasley: You, me and Mr Joyner.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    Finlandization was about neutrality in national security and foreign policy arrangements, not economic or political. Russia wants Ukraine to join its economic union, and Russia wants a free hand to intervene in Ukraine’s internal affairs in protection of Russian ethnics. Even if Russia would agree, its proven to be unwilling to keep its treaty promises and Ukraine would only agree with firmer outside commitments.

    Mentioning NATO here is a red herring; its off the table (and arguably was never on the table) and offers no bargaining position.

  10. Jay Dubbs says:

    In the world of the ivy towers a Finlandized Ukraine makes sense, as it would cool tempers, however the history of the situations are completely different.

    For Finland, neutrality was the only option available, since they had no allies who would have their backs if the Russians decided to roll into Helsinki, especially in the 40’s and early 50’s. Plus they had stuck it to the Russians in the Winter War, so Russia was not all that eager to go back to that hornet’s nest. And, unlike the Ukraine, there were no Finns calling for a “reunion” with Russia, either inside or outside the government. (Most of the Finns I met in the late 80’s were more anti-Russian than any American.)

    But the Finns were able to use the neutrality to build themselves up economically and created a greater economic integration with the West, which is certainly paying off today.

  11. Tillman says:

    It seems to me the only reason we’re concerned with any of this is because it’s causing a giant mid-20th century flashback for a lot of our elites, like an acid flashback that creeps up suddenly while you’re in the bathroom.

    The EU is the only one that can act with any decisiveness for or against. Let them handle it. We pivoted.

  12. rudderpedals says:

    If I’m Putin the two questions I have are when I restart and whether I stop at Kyiv or take Lviv too so no, I don’t think Finlandization is in the cards.