The Finlandization of Ukraine?

25 February 2014

Tuesday


ukraine map

Even as the eyes of the world were fixed on Sochi for the Winter Olympics, events in Ukraine eclipsed the closing ceremony and the world turned its attention instead to the tumult in Kiev as protesters battled with police and (now former) President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital, leaving behind a palatial home with a private zoo (shades of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who, like other autocrats, also had a private zoo). I met a friend of mine in Starbucks on Sunday, and as we talked about the situation in Ukraine and some of its likely outcomes, I had occasion to explain the term “Finlandization.”

Ukraine Ethnolingusitic_map

As it turns out, I was not the only one to have Finlandization on my mind. Writing in the Financial Times (Monday 24 February 2014), Zbigniew Brzezinski explicitly endorsed the Finlandization of Ukraine, in his opinion piece, “Russia needs a ‘Finland option’ for Ukraine,” as a prerequisite for Ukraine making a peaceful (or relatively peaceful) transition to the European fold:

“The US could and should convey clearly to Mr Putin that it is prepared to use its influence to make certain a truly independent and territorially undivided Ukraine will pursue policies towards Russia similar to those so effectively practised by Finland: mutually respectful neighbours with wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself but expanding its European connectivity.”

This Finlandization of Ukraine would be necessary because…

“…Russia can still plunge Ukraine into a destructive and internationally dangerous civil war. It can prompt and then support the secession of Crimea and some of the industrial eastern portions of the country.”

Brzezinski is correct that Russia could still cause great problems for Ukraine, and evidently a Finlandized Ukraine seems to Brzezinski a reasonable price to pay to avoid potential chaos. Ukraine is a deeply divided country, with ethnic and cultural loyalties pulling toward Russia in the East and the Crimea, and toward Europe in the western part of the country. Given these social conditions as the background, it would be a relatively easy matter for Russia to stir the pot in Ukraine for decades to come.

ukraine 2004 election

During the Cold War, “Finlandization” came to mean subordinating a nation’s priorities to a foreign policy designed to appease the Soviet Union, without actually surrendering sovereignty, and certainly without becoming merely another absorbed “republic” among the Soviet Social Republics. Here is one definition of Finlandization:

“Behaviour of a country whose foreign policy and domestic policies are strongly conditioned by a conscious desire to mollify and maintain friendly relations with Moscow, at the expense if need be of close ties with formal allies and traditional friends or of its own sovereignty.”

George Ginsburgs and Alvin Rubinstein, eds. Soviet Foreign Policy toward Western Europe, New York: Praeger, 1978, p. 5.

It sounds a lot less menacing to call this a “good neighbor policy,” which is what Finland’s policies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union were sometimes called, and truly enough the Finns successfully negotiated a very tricky tightrope between Europe and Russia. It must be said that the Finns were also successful in retaining their sovereignty and independence. Finland is among the wealthiest countries in Europe, and it does not resemble in the least those former Soviet republics (like Ukraine) still struggling today to free themselves from the influence of the Kremlin. Thus if Finland made any existential compromises during its Cold War Finlandization, it does not seem to be suffering from them today.

Can Ukraine pursue the “Finland Option” and can they do so successfully? The example of Cold War Finland seems to suggest that, yes, Ukraine can move toward Europe while placating Russia. The question then becomes, “Is Ukraine different from Finland?” Obviously, yes, Ukraine differs from Finland in thousands of ways. Really, then, the question is, “Does Ukraine differ from Finland in any essential respect that would prevent it from being able to pursue a policy of Finlandization?”

George Friedman of Stratfor has argued repeated that Ukraine is, indeed, different, though I don’t recall if he has explicitly compared Ukraine to Finland. In Ukraine: On the Edge of Empires (from November 2010) Friedman presented Russia’s strategic dependence upon Ukraine in the strongest terms:

“Ukraine is as important to Russian national security as Scotland is to England or Texas is to the United States. In the hands of an enemy, these places would pose an existential threat to all three countries. Therefore, rumors to the contrary, neither Scotland nor Texas is going anywhere. Nor is Ukraine, if Russia has anything to do with it. And this reality shapes the core of Ukrainian life. In a fundamental sense, geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and therefore on the lives of Ukrainians.”

“From a purely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia’s soft underbelly. Dominated by Russia, Ukraine anchors Russian power in the Carpathians. These mountains are not impossible to penetrate, but they can’t be penetrated easily. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of a Western power, Russia’s (and Belarus’) southern flank is wide open along an arc running from the Polish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov, a distance of more than 1,000 miles, more than 700 of which lie along Russia proper. There are few natural barriers.”

While I haven’t been reading Friedman lately, so I don’t know his take on the recent Ukrainian crisis, he has repeated this reasoning in several pieces, and I don’t think that Friedman would assert that Finland is crucial to Russian national security, or that it anchors Russian power in Fenno-Scandia.

One fly in the ointment of this analysis, and one that points toward larger and more interesting questions, is that, at the time of this writing, one of Friedman’s examples — Scotland — is considering succeeding from the UK. And this, as I said, points further afield.

One of the constants we find in the discussion of the present crisis in Ukraine is the dire warnings that Ukraine might split apart, notwithstanding the fact that the geographical region we now call Ukraine has been split up in many different ways in the past. One of the most obvious solutions to the present crisis would be to partition the country, allow those who wish to be part of the idea and destiny of Europe to join Europe as West Ukraine, and allow those who desire to have closer relations with Moscow to do so and become East Ukraine.

Zbigniew Brzezinski makes a point of emphasizing, “national unification and political moderation.” Many others have gingerly touched the question of the possibility of a rupture of Ukraine’s national “unity” only to recoil in horror. (Cf. Ukraine crisis: Turchynov warns of ‘separatism’ risk and Ukraine revolution: Where on Earth is Viktor Yanukovych? stated that, “Mr Putin has not yet spoken publicly about Mr Yanukovych’s ousting, but in a phone conversation with German chancellor Angela Merkel he agreed that the ‘territorial integrity’ of Ukraine must be maintained, suggesting Russia may not intervene.”) Truly enough, if it came to a fight, a civil war would be disastrous and bloody. But it need not be fought over. We know from the example of Czechoslovakia that a “Velvet Divorce” is possible if both parties want the same thing. West Ukraine would not want to give up the industries in the east of the country or the ports and coastline, and East Ukraine would not want to give up the capital, Kiev, but there is much to be said for partition in the case of Ukraine.

Why is Finlandization considered a more palatable alternative than partition? If Ukraine were partitioned, West Ukraine would join Europe, and its people would enjoy greater freedom and economic opportunity. The economy would grow after an initial shrinkage due to the split, but from there, under the umbrella of the European Union, West Ukraine would experience a better future than anything in its past should give it a right to expect. East Ukraine, on the contrary, would slip into an economic twilight, and under Russian influence the country would stagnate (except for a few economic centers) and the quality of life of the people would likely decline.

In time — perhaps in several decades — East Ukraine might also be ready to join Europe when they see their former compatriots doing rather better than they are doing. Is there any reason to hold back West Ukraine when its people are ready to forge ahead on a path different from that chosen for them by Russia? Foreign policy “realists” like Brzezinski and Friedman will say that it shouldn’t be done or it can’t be done, but history shows us otherwise. No matter how ossified the international system of nation-states, some do splinter, and it is rarely a pretty sight. But a peaceful partition is yet possible, and better than many other options. If mutually policed by Russian, EU, and UN forces, it could work better than the other alternatives.

The borders of a partitioned Ukraine have already been drawn by the unambiguous results of the 2004 election (see the map of the poll results above). While it is true that the example of Finland shows us that Finlandization can work, so too the example of Czechoslovakia shows us that a Velvet Divorce can work. Czechoslovakia is also Exhibit A for failed appeasement, and it could be argued that Ukraine has tried Russian appeasement unsuccessfully since the Orange Revolution. Finlandization, as we have seen it to date in Ukraine, has not served the people of Ukraine well, and perhaps it has failed due to the essential differences between Finland and Ukraine mentioned above. Another solution is needed.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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6 Responses to “The Finlandization of Ukraine?”

  1. gregrlawson said

    I think a partition in ultimately the right move, especially for Crimea. Keeping this cobbled together state and trying to draw it into the Western orbit will only provoke Russia at a time when Russia would be better if it could be incorporated into a reverse triangulation policy akin to a “Reverse Nixon to China.” Poking Russia seems unwise in the long-term and Ukraine would be quite the scab to pick.

    • Dexter Trask said

      Although I doubt that a theoretical East Ukraine would remain independent for long. I strikes as highly likely that it would either seek annexation through plebiscite or that its government would invite Russian “peacekeepers” in.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I agree with Greg Lawson that an East Ukraine with Russian peacekeepers on the ground might be more stable than an East Ukraine without them. If they seek annexation, it is likely some politicians in the West would be as horrified as Moscow is horrified at the turning out of their man in Kiev. It cuts both ways.

      In any case, any “solution” imposed upon Russian-speaking Ukrainians that want closer relations with the Kremlin will not be feasible, and vice versa for the other side. That is why partition should be the preferred approach.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  2. Dexter Trask said

    One missing element to this analysis, I think, is Russian sentiment. Ukraine is a seat and a source of Russian culture in a way that the Grand Duchy of Finland never could have been. No Russian (or Soviet) leader ever claimed to a U.S. president that Finland was not really a state (as Vladimir Putin did to George W. Bush about Ukraine). I can only imagine that, in the atavistic analog of the reptile brain, more than one Russian leader subconsciously frames losing Ukraine to the E.U. as losing a bastion or Orthodoxy to the Latin West.

    From the strategic point of view, Crimea must loom in Russian strategic thinking in a way that Finland never did. Russia solved it strategic concerns with Finland for St. Petersburg with the Winter War. Sevastopol is really Russia’s only warm-water naval port. Imagining Russia voluntarily surrender it is about as conceivable in my mind as Russia surrendering the Maritime Province to China.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I agree about Russian sentiment. As the homeland of the Kievan Rus, and therefore the original germ of the Russian state, Kiev (and, by extension, Ukraine) play a role in Russian national consciousness not unlike the role of the Field of Blackbirds (and, by extension, Kosovo) in Serbian national consciousness, and both are problematic for similar reasons. I suspect that this is one of the reasons George Friedman thinks that Ukraine is not going to be wrenched from Russia’s grasp.

      Sevastopol could be given to the Russians on something like a 100 year lease (like Hong Kong to the British), which would allay Russian strategic concerns for the near- to mid-term future, but this would not address the sentiment problem. If it were possible to conduct political experiments, I would offer the Russians just such a long term lease on their port, with guaranteed rail and road links between Russia and Sevastopol, just to see what their reaction would be.

      However, even if the Russians themselves might be placated, this does not yet address the concerns of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and their reasonable desire not to become de facto stateless persons in the land of their birth.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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