A Small Power and its Big Neighbour

Receiving President Medvedev and the Russian Security Initiative

When President of Russia, Dmitri Medvedev, visited Finland in April, he gathered a relatively mild interest compared with the attention that meetings of the presidents of the two neighbours usually got during the Cold War. Stiff appearances and official communiqués were not needed, when the smiling President visited the small idyllic town of Porvoo to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the event when Sweden lost Finland to Russia and the Czar Alexander I addressed Finnish Estates promising the country a far-reaching autonomy as a Grand Duchy. That occasion, but also the later repressive policies of Russia, paved the way for Finland’s independence 108 years later. Like his two predecessors, but unlike the Soviet leaders, Medvedev also laid wreaths on the grave of Finland’s national hero, Marshal Mannerheim and on the cross of the military cemetery in Helsinki that still reminds the Finns of the battles against the big eastern neighbour, 1939-1944.


During his visit to Finland, President Medvedev repeated the Russian initiative in constructing a new European security arrangement. Actually, he did it after Finland’s president had so wished. Medvedev’s speech went down well but the Finnish side failed to show much enthusiasm. First of all, the Russian initiative was not delivered in concrete terms. But a more important reason may well be the fact that even if Russia is yet the most important country with which Finland tends its relations bilaterally, the latter is strongly committed to a common Russia policy of the European Union.

Finland’s commitment to CFSP makes Helsinki sensitive to the general reception of the Russian initiative among major European countries and NATO member states. For the time being, existing security structures are generally regarded as useful and working. Russia’s long-term worry about its weakened position makes the initiative understandable but not necessarily something that could gain much success in the short term. Russia’s new self-assertive foreign and security policy seems to be institutionalised. It may well be that Europe will consider its current initiative for really very many years to come. Moscow perceives of traditional security differently. Put it simply, Russia is different. It is not so easy to be influenced: this is the basically the situation.


Changed Relations and the Shadow of a NATO Membership Issue

The political sunshine and the ‘business as usual’ attitude that prevailed around Medvedev’s visit symbolises the change in the often difficult common history of Finland and Russia. Like a Finnish high-ranking soldier once described the present relations: they have been normalised. Such times have been left far behind, when Finland’s policy towards the eastern great-power was elsewhere in Europe described by the term ‘Finlandisation’, the word that the Finns often felt even insulting.

Finland’s relationship with the Soviet Union and now Russia has been a repertory of mostly successful small-state strategies, where a Realist ‘recognition of facts’ after the WW II has been largely replaced by the present-day integrationist policies towards the big power that as such has also its sore points. From Moscow’s viewpoint, Finland no longer has any specific position as a neighbour, even if many people in Finland like to remind, that it is maybe the least problematic of all the neighbours of Russia. Most pressing worries in Finland’s eastern relations are not about traditional security. Most of the new non-military security issues are largely shared with other European countries and Russia, as well. This situation has made it relatively easy for Finland to aim to be included in the hard core of Europe with greater emphasis than its size and geographical situation would warrant.

However, Finland has not wanted to join NATO. Even if the majority of the elites might be ready for that, ordinary citizens are against the membership. But such NATO skepticism has less to do with the neighbouring Russia and more to do with the Finnish political culture in general. It contains a great load of confidence in an independent survival and relative feeling of security, and on the other hand some mistrust over any foreign help, had Finland run into conflict with Russia. It is well-known though, that Russia certainly would not like Finland’s NATO membership. The importance of Moscow’s attitude, however, has increasingly decreased in Finland’s NATO policy. The mainstream discourse favouring NATO’s membership circles now more around securing Finland’s influence on European and global politics than on any ‘security deficits’ or their lack vis-à-vis Russia. The pro-NATO elites like to remind that the Western alliance member states share the same values as Finland and that Helsinki is anyway deeply involved in NATO-led crisis management operations albeit without equal opportunity to influence them.

A strong popular opinion in Finland claims that the country would get involved in distant conflicts as a NATO member or that the membership would call new threats to the country. The present ‘out-of-area’ NATO does not necessarily match the Finnish defence thinking, which is premised on the idea that membership should be needed just for the defence of the territory if needed at all. The Finnish emphasis is on the defence of the country’s territory. This stream of thinking, based on peripherality but at the same time on a strongly integrated culture in multicultural Europe, does not, however, touch its membership in the European Union, which Finland has used as a resource to handle its eastern relations.

In an important sense, President Medvedev’s visit pointed out well the present relaxation of Finland’s eastern relations. Economic opportunities that the Russia neighbourhood offers are clearly at the top of the agenda. They are provided, for instance, by the proximity of St. Petersburg, a metropolis with roughly the same size of population as the whole of Finland. New challenges are on the table: for example the environmental effects of the future Nordstream gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. Unlike Estonia and Sweden, Finland understands the pipeline only in ‘euro-economic’ and environmental not in security terms. Another long-standing challenge relates to Russian protectionist policies, e.g. the introduction of customs control for timber and the time-consuming and often unpredictable border-crossings because of Russian bureaucratic practices.


Lowering the EU – Russian Border?

On the other hand, Finland is satisfied that the common EU-Russian border, over 1300 kilometres on the eastern frontier of Finland, is calm. Its stability owes, however, to the times of the Soviet Union: bilateral arrangements were already made then. Unlike the rest of the Finnish borders, it cannot be approached without a special permit. On the Russian side, the border zone restricting free movement is even deeper. After the Cold War, when Russia reorganised its border guard, Helsinki was somewhat worried about the possibility of increase in illegal crossings. Luckily, this proved not to be the case.

But the Finnish-Russian border separates two very different countries. The big picture is that its separating and unifying effects are at odds. During Medvedev’s visit the media and the public wanted to pay attention on the unequal situation that many Russians are interested and able to buy properties in Finland but the Finns don’t have the same rights in Russia without major difficulties and uncertainties. Many Finns are interested especially in the beautiful Russian Karelia, the region that partly belonged to Finland before the Second World War. Lowering the border is a largely shared wish at least on the Finnish side. However, it does not mean that Helsinki would place any
demand of return of territory. Improving cross-border social and economic exchange is an extremely slow process. The visa-free travel is an awaited step that, however, cannot be reached without unanimity within the European Union.


Finland’s Policy Towards Russia

Just a week before Medvedev’s visit the Finnish Government published a specific Russia Action Plan with some 50 items which broadly cover Finland’s policy towards its eastern neighbour. Finnish and European security are not directly touched upon in this paper. The paper covers, however, many security-implicating issues, like the future of US-Russian relations under Presidents Obama and Medvedev, shortcomings of human rights and civil liberties in Russia and the all-encompassing threat of the economic crisis. Finland pays attention on the untapped potential, strategic interdependence and common spaces within EU-Russian relations underlining that a coherent EU is powerful in its relations. Three specific sub-regional areas of cooperation are identified: the Northern Dimension of the EU, the Baltic Sea Region and the Arctic Region. With regard to Finnish-Russian bilateral relations the emphasis is placed upon expanded economic interaction and challenges in the area of transport. Problems of expertise in Russian affairs get a specific treatment. The paper advocates financing of research in order to improve knowledge of the Russian language to cover existing lacunae.

More security-related policy lines can be found in the latest Finnish security-and-defence political White Paper. While NATO affairs get the most detailed treatment, Russia is still considered the most important actor in Finland’s security environment as the following quotation shows: ‘Russia is also prepared to advance its interests by projecting military power outside its national borders, as demonstrated by the crisis in Georgia in August 2008.’ (Finland’s Security and Defence Policy 2009, p. 41). Russia’s intervention in Georgia appears to have an impact on security thinking also in Finland’s vicinity, despite the fact that the case of Georgia is usually said not to have much to do with the security situation in northern Europe.

All in all, the White Paper does not explicitly mention Russia in the context of Finland’s defence. Nevertheless, it wraps in a coded diplomatic language the implicit – in popular terms deep-rooted – perception, that Russia is ultimately the only potential threat that Finland might imagine facing in the traditional defence of its territory. The discursive treatment of this basic situation somewhat changed at the end of the Cold War, when previous and already then purely ‘theoretical’ western strategic threats of Finland’s neutrality policy lost all credibility. Talking Russia in the present context of Finland’s ‘politically aligned’ but militarily non-aligned policy has sustained many old cliché. From Helsinki’s perspective, the big question is: what happens to the peculiar large conscription-based Finnish defence, when the potential eastern threat lifts off? Such a scenario may well slowly materialise.