Russia still faces a difficult task in convincing Finland that its aims and interests have shifted dramatically from the Cold War period. Any Russian foreign policy towards Finland will have to keep in mind its neighbor’s overarching security interests.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, left, and Finland's President Sauli Niinisto during a joint press conference at the presidential summer residence Kultaranta in Naantali, Finland, on July 1, 2016. Photo: AP

On July 1, when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Finland prior to NATO’s Warsaw summit, all of the old Cold War-era strategies and tactics were on full display. He strongly recommended that Finland take a neutral stance between Russia and the West. He hinted at Brexit as a model for Finland to follow. And, finally, he welcomed a Finland that recognizes Russian preferences as its own core interests.

Most likely, these demands cannot be met by Helsinki, nor is Finland likely to join NATO in the near future. To understand why, it’s necessary to take a step back and understand how the relationship between Russia and Finland evolved in the decades leading up to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet policy of “Finlandization”

During the Cold War era, the Soviet Union used summits with Finland to exploit the nation’s perceived strategic usefulness, especially when it came to reaching the Soviet Union’s geopolitical aims. At first, Finland was used to paint a cozy image of the good fruits of peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union. This Soviet showcasing policy allowed Finland to keep its domestic policy autonomy.

Later, this same policy was given a bad name: “Finlandization.” This policy, however, was not about Finland. It was aimed at giving a good example for Western European countries to follow and set themselves free from Western institutions.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, when the Finnish model starting to find surprising traction in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union changed its approach and started to demand military and political concessions from Finland. Luckily for Finland, the Soviet Union collapsed.

This is a reminder that, for Russia, Finland does not exist in a vacuum. Policies towards it are not a function of a special relationship with the country. Russia has wider, more strategic aims. However, the Cold War years are over.

Russian and Finnish interests in the Nordic-Baltic region

The Russia relationship is also a part of Finnish strategic interests in the present situation. For Finland, Russia is ultimately a key factor in the overall stability of the Nordic-Baltic region. From this perspective, Finland more likely than not sees Russia as a destabilizing actor and NATO as a stabilizer.

The preferred Russian approach towards Finland is a combination of the old Soviet approaches observed during the Cold War era. If Russian aims are truly focused on revising the European security order, then its strategic aims with a relatively weaker neighbor go beyond mere bilateral issues. Finnish policy becomes a function of wider aims.

For Finland, this would mean comfortable political neutrality that subtracts from Western unity and undermines the hardliner European policy stances towards Russia. There are political influencers in Finland that find the neutrality stance acceptable and even desirable. But they are currently in the minority.

As Putin clearly indicated during his brief visit, he knows that the supposed lessons of the Cold War era haunt Finnish foreign policy debates. Although the Soviet Union did not want to acknowledge Finnish neutrality in the same way as Sweden, the trade between Finland and its eastern neighbor flourished. The Finnish economy grew as a result of yearly, politically approved increases in trade.

The conditional aspect of this relationship was clear on Finnish foreign policy. One of the rewards was the ability to remain relatively democratic and autonomous when it came to domestic policies. The foreign policy freedom to maneuver was considerably more constricted. However, the situation was considered to be manageable, especially by those foreign policy elites that were keen to get Moscow's backing.

The Russia showcasing policy towards Finland is a lure that has to be approached carefully. Finland's situation is much unlike that during the Cold War and Russia is not in the same position as the Soviet Union. Moreover, Western unity matters more now than then.

Where Russia fits into Finnish foreign policy

However, among the key four Finnish foreign policy cornerstones is a cooperative relationship with Russia based on dialogue. The other three cornerstones are enhancing the European Union’s common position, deepening defense cooperation with Sweden, and ensuring compatibility and bilateral cooperation with NATO and the U.S.

Managing of the overall balance between these four distinct factors sets limitations on each. When it comes to Russia policy, the answer to the equation is clear. The further the Russian challenge to the prevailing European order proceeds, the more limited is the Finnish window for cooperation. It also follows that it is in the Finnish national interest to prevent the deepening of the confrontational stance.

NATO membership remains an option. Finland is NATO-compatible, as it has the special status of “enhanced partner.” However, the usage of this option would openly contradict the Russian vector of the current Finnish foreign policy line. Such decisions are not taken lightly.

Many in Finland see a geopolitical and geoeconomic map that is changing from a desirable baseline. Russia has violated the spirit of Helsinki [The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 – Editor’s note] and its own fairly recent policy stances within the OSCE framework. It has lost much of the trust that was placed on it during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The lack of trust puts the onus on common interests.

The prevailing geopolitical interpretation in Helsinki is that Finnish national interests coincide with those of NATO. This is because NATO, and most importantly, the U.S., has to rely on Sweden and Finland in a worst-case scenario to facilitate the defense of the Baltic States. The presence of heavy Russian air defenses in the Kaliningrad region highlights the importance of Swedish territory in the security of supplies to the three Baltic States. It is in the interest of the U.S. that Finland controls its own territory, waters, and airspace in case of a conflict.

At the same time, it is vital for Sweden, and especially for Finland, that the Western partners can secure the sea lines of communication in the globally strategic Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea provides the arteries for the Finnish society and state. Almost all Finnish exports take place in this maritime region. Finland is a modern, digital nation – but that also means that almost all of its digital data flows in communication lines under the sea. At the same time, air traffic routes are above the sea.

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It is clear that any worst-case scenarios would turn the Finnish strategic position towards those able to secure the maritime region. At the same time, the Russian reliance of the same region makes any conflict scenario very unlikely.

The coinciding interests between the U.S. and, on the other hand, Finland and Sweden, provide the key direction for security developments. How to enable and strengthen the shared self-interests in a way that is practical and actionable without NATO membership? The enhanced partnership was a product of the year leading up to the Wales summit. Its possibilities were soon exhausted.

The developing Finnish relationship with NATO revolves around new options that are just short of full membership. What are the possible roles and mechanisms for partners in their collective defense? How could Finland benefit from its possible role as a stabilizer for the Baltic States? This question is one of give and take. It’s not one of solidarity promises or single-sided agreements.

Of course, there are several factors that might undermine the Finnish stance - the collapse of the EU, the weakness of NATO, and a more unpredictable or unreliable U.S. These might be Russia’s aims when developing a new policy for the region. For Finland, this is the key reason why Russian geostrategic interests do not coincide with its own interests.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.