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Finlandization: How to Stop Russia from Invading Ukraine?

Russia's T-90 tanks. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russia's T-90 tanks. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Finlandization: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? Should Ukraine be “Finlandized?” The idea, what some call the Finland model of neutrality, attracted renewed attention – and criticism – this week, following French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Moscow. Although Macron denies having used the word in conversations with Putin, it seems clear that at least someone in his entourage invoked the concept as part of discussions over what a long-term settlement in Eastern Europe might look like.

Finlandization is not a monstrous idea. But nor does it represent a clean and easy fix to the present crisis in Ukraine. Properly understood, it should be considered one potential element of a broad, multilateral, regionalized, and rules-based solution to the problem of European security.

Essentially, the Finland model would require Ukraine to declare a policy of permanent neutrality in exchange for guarantees of security from Russia. The formula is controversial because it entails a heavy loss of autonomy for Ukraine – a promise not to align with the West, of course, but perhaps even deference to Moscow on larger questions of foreign policy.

The logic of Finlandization is seductive, especially to outside powers like France who have nothing to lose from Ukraine becoming a neutral buffer state. If Russia truly views Kiev’s gravitation toward the West as an intolerable security threat, then it seems obvious that a pledge from Ukraine never to join NATO might help to avert a disastrous war.

Ideally, Ukraine would voluntarily embrace neutrality. If it refuses to choose this path of its own accord, however, then hardline proponents of Finlandization suggest that the policy should be imposed upon Kyiv. As Richard Whitman of Chatham House has put it, this would be “a way of solving a problem by making a decision over the head of the Ukrainians.”

Critics of Finlandization tend to raise two primary objections: (1) that sovereign states have an inviolable right to make free and independent choices about foreign policy, which means that neither Russia nor the West can legitimately foist neutrality upon Kyiv; and (2) that, in any case, a formal declaration of neutrality would not be enough to shield Ukraine from Russian predation.

The first of these criticisms is wrong.

As a matter of empirical fact, is simply false that all sovereign states have a right to behave exactly as they choose all of the time. On the contrary, there is a long history of states accepting constraints on their foreign policy (and even some aspects of their domestic policies) in service of international tranquility. Moreover, such constraints are entirely compatible with well-established principles and practices of international law and order.

Turkey, for example, continues to be bound by the Montreux Convention of 1936 when administering the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits that connect the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Ankara cannot govern these waterways in any way that it pleases, such as by charging fees to merchant vessels; it must always act in ways consistent with the controlling Convention. To some Turks, this amounts to a major constraint on national sovereignty.

Other states have accepted less severe restrictions on their domestic freedom of action. In Northern Europe alone, Finland is bound by international law never to militarize its Åland islands, which occupy a strategic location in the Baltic Sea, and Norway accepts similar constraints in the Svalbard archipelago (in addition to the unique stipulation that this remote Arctic territory will always be kept free of travel and immigration restrictions).

Consider, also, the Western position on Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong. The prevailing view is that Beijing’s hands are tied when it comes to administering the former British colony. To make their case, leaders in Washington and London point to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the bilateral treaty inked in 1984 that laid the groundwork for Britain’s handover of Hong Kong and in which Beijing undertook to preserve Hong Kong’s distinct political and economic system until at least 2047.

Clearly, then, it is an established principle of international law and order that states can be singled out to accept constraints on their foreign and domestic policies. Even the most liberal and internationalist of liberal internationalists must accept this fact.

Of course, however, just because Ukraine could be asked to accept limits on its exercise of sovereignty does not mean that it should be subjected to a policy of Finlandization. After all, critics might still be right that a declaration of neutrality on its own would be insufficient to eliminate the threat of a Russian invasion.

This is a reasonable objection to the Finland model being applied to Ukraine under the present circumstances. But being insufficient is not the same as being unnecessary. What is needed, perhaps, is a new multilateral framework within which the people of Ukraine could contemplate a policy of permanent neutrality without being overwhelmed by feelings of abandonment, vulnerability, fear, and resentment.

For this reason, Finlandization should only ever be discussed in the context of wider changes to the European security architecture. It is abundantly clear from international history that neutrality by itself constitutes no guarantee against invasion or other forms of external meddling. Indeed, Ukrainians have firsthand experience of this. As Stephen Blank has recently pointed out, Ukraine was officially neutral in 2014 when Moscow invaded and annexed Crimea.

If Western leaders such as Macron are serious about Finlandization as an option for Ukraine, this is where they must focus their energies: on convincing leaders in Kiev that a declaration of neutrality would not amount to severance from the European security architecture. Any sacrifices made by Ukraine would be reciprocated by others; a neutral Ukraine would be an integral part of a common, continental endeavor to improve security for all European nations.

The onus is obviously on Moscow, too, to make credible demonstrations that it is interested only in extracting a policy of non-alignment from Ukraine. Right now, few trust Russia’s leaders on this point. On the contrary, it appears as though what Russia really wants from Kiev is not a neutral foreign policy but something much more – territorial concessions, perhaps, or a commitment to implement domestic policies in line with Russian precepts.

In the end, the Finlandization of Ukraine makes some sense in the abstract as a way to alleviate Russia’s claimed security concerns and, by extension, the abject insecurity currently being experienced by Ukraine. What is more, it is a solution with a firm basis in international law, history, and prevailing norms. But Finlandization will never be a practical option unless it is matched with broader reforms to the European security architecture.

President Macron should ask himself a simple question: “Would I want to be the president of a buffer state in Eastern Europe today?” If the answer is no, then his next task must be to consider what he can do to move Europe – NATO and non-NATO members alike – in the direction of major institutional reforms. He will have to enjoin Ukraine’s friends, partners, neighbors, and adversaries to each play a role.

None of this is a solution for today or even tomorrow. But it might just be part of a long-term settlement for Europe – if the immediate threat of war can somehow be avoided.

Dr. Peter Harris is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy. He is also a non-resident fellow with Defense Priorities and a 1945 Contributing Editor.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.