Can we turn Ukraine into Austria? Or perhaps Finland?
Along with a host of others, former Greek Minister of Finance Yannis Varoufakis has argued that the foundation for peace between Russia and Ukraine lies in the neutralization of the latter. And many in Europe and North America might prefer an outcome that soothes the conscience and allows Ukraine to maintain a degree of independence from Russia, however shadowy. Fortunately or no, the comparisons don’t hold up; trying to turn Ukraine into Cold War Austria or Cold War Finland is bound to lead to disaster.
Turn Ukraine Into Austria?
In the wake of World War II, the Allied powers detached Austria from Germany and divided it into four occupation zones. In 1955, Austria signed a treaty that ended this occupation but left the country permanently neutral and largely demilitarized. Austrian democracy survived and the Austrian economy thrived, despite the fact that Vienna became well-known as a venue for spy-on-spy conflicts during the Cold War.
Austria’s example would be relevant, but for two factors; Austria was a conquered (and guilty) combatant at the end of World War II, and Austria was not regarded as strategically consequential for the security of any of the European great powers. Unlike Ukraine, Austria had enthusiastically participated in a brutal war of extermination against Jews and Slavs on the Eastern Front.
While the Allies officially regarded Austria as a victim of Nazi aggression, it was also well-understood that many or most Austrians had joined the war willingly on the German side.
Critical to the legitimacy of the neutralization of Austria was the idea that the Austrians deserved what they got for their participation in the Nazi war machine. This belief was deeply held by the Soviets, but also extended to the Western Allies and even to the Austrians themselves. The Ukrainians (and most of their allies) understand themselves as victims of aggression rather than its perpetrators, resulting in a vastly different rhetorical environment.
Also, unlike the Ukrainian situation, Russia did not regard control of Austria as crucial to either its security or identity. Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear in his speech at the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine War that the stakes were not limited to security; they very much included Russia’s natural right to a sphere of influence in what Putin regarded as Russia’s ancestral lands.
This would put a neutral, disarmed Ukraine is a far more perilous position than Cold War Austria.
Can Ukraine Become Finland?
The USSR invaded Finland (a former territory of the Russian Empire) as part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. While the Finns performed well in the first months of the Winter War, they were later forced to conclude a peace with the USSR.
When war broke out again in June 1941, Finland joined the Nazi cause and attempted to regain its lost territories, only to be forced into another surrender in September 1944. As with Austria, the USSR was able to impose an arrangement upon Finland because Finland, having thrown in its lot with the Nazis, was on the losing side of a catastrophic war.
Finland wasn’t quite in the same position as Austria (Finland’s war policy was quite measured, and generally speaking Finns avoided participating in the Holocaust), but nevertheless, the albatross of Nazi collaboration hung heavy over the country.
Finland was allowed to retain its democratic institutions and mostly allowed to govern its internal affairs. Finland’s latitude in foreign and security policies was sharply curtailed, however. Nor was Finland completely free to manage its affairs; the looming threat of Russian intervention had a negative impact on Finnish speech, literature, film, and culture, in large part because of the fear and reality of government censorship.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the Finns loved Finlandization so much that Finland immediately applied for NATO membership as soon as this war began.
What Will Kyiv Do?
The USSR and the Western Allies imposed neutrality on Austria and Finland through force of arms. This imposition carried with it the legitimacy not simply of might makes right, but also of the extermination of the foulest regime to disgrace the modern historical record. Moreover, the Finns and the Austrians (to different degree) accepted the justice of this verdict.
Ukrainians will not accept this judgment. They do not believe that they have done anything wrong, and do not believe that their sovereignty should be abrogated out of concern for the convenience of their next door neighbor. They do not believe that Russia will refrain from military, political, and economic intervention in Ukraine in the future.
Analysts who style themselves “realist” seem to like the idea of Ukrainian neutrality; it recognizes Russia’s right to a sphere of influence and reduces the American commitment to the region, goals that the anti-engagement school has long treasured. But these “realists” might as well ask for a dozen Shield helicarriers and a battalion of unicorns. Forcing Ukraine to accept “neutrality” after suffering substantial territorial losses to Russia in 2014 was a no-go; Kyiv had lost any trust that it had in Moscow’s intentions.
The situation today is much worse; Ukrainians across the society actively hate Russia and Russians, and will not accept an agreement that reduces or eliminates Ukraine’s ability to protect itself. “Realists” should take time to think through the actual dynamics of the political and military situation between Ukraine and Russia before holding forth on how to restrain and constrain Ukraine.
About the Author
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.