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Finland at a crossroads developing new Russia policy

Finland's approach to Russia is at a crossroads. After decades of following the Paasikivi-Kekkonen doctrine, which held that Finland should always be seen by Russia to be a 'good neighbour', Finland's agreement of economic sanctions against Russia marks a new era in Finnish foreign policy. Three experienced journalists discussed the changing environment on Yle's Morning television on Wednesday.

Helsingin Sanomien politiikantoimittaja Unto Hämäläinen, Ylen eläkkeellä oleva ulkomaantoimittaja Jarmo Mäkelä sekä Suomen Kuvalehden entinen päätoimittaja Tapani Ruokanen.
Image: Yle

Yle’s Wednesday morning television programme devoted part of its broadcast to a discussion of Finland’s changing foreign policy landscape and its relationship with Russia.

Suomen Kuvalehti’sformer editor Tapani Ruokanen noted the end of the Paasikivi-Kekkonen policy, a policy of Russian appeasement named after the two former presidents of Finland that defined Finnish posture toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

That posture was one of positive neutrality, an attempt to demonstrate that Finland would not be a threat to Soviet interests.

That's now gone, after two decades of holding onto the belief that Russia could eventually become a country of democracy with rule of law.

But there is no escaping it. ”Finland is still Russia’s neighbour,” said Ruokanen.

Retired Yle correspondent Jarmo Mäkelä said that he is of the opinion that Finland’s foreign policy stance has actually changed less than its external position. He recalls that it was agreed after the Second World War that Finland would be included in the Soviet Union’s sphere of interest and the West would be in no position to lure Finland away.

“Our room for manoeuvre is now considerably better. Now we have options available to us. The difficult part is that we have to choose correctly,” Mäkelä says.

Mäkelä notes that the Cold War tradition of obfuscation continues in Finland. He says the people of Finland are able to read between the lines of politicians’ speeches: government leaders keep stating day after day that Finland is not threatened by any danger while, according to Mäkelä, half the populace thinks otherwise.

Ruokanen feels it is extremely important that public discourse is honest and open, and that an effort be made to make transparency much greater than during the Paasikivi-Kekkonen era.

“We are not in a neutral zone, under the influence of Russia. We are a part of the West.”

Unto Hämäläinen of Helsingin Sanomat says that Finland is now at a crossroads. After 70 years of seeking to avoid a conflict with Russia and the Soviet Union, Finland now suddenly stands opposed to Moscow.

Newspaper man Hämäläinen says that the sanctions policy brought in over the Ukraine crisis the war in Ukraine has just begun and no one knows what its effects will be.  In an article published in Helsingin Sanomat on Saturday he traced the fateful decision back to the EU membership referendum held in 1994. After joining the bloc there is no turning back to a policy of trying to protect trade with Russia at all costs.

“Everyone is trying to get through this without getting wet”

In the Yle discussion, Ruokanen commended Finland’s Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja for his statements clarifying that Finland is an EU member and therefore must adhere to the EU's policy. No other alternative exists.  

Yle’s Mäkelä points out that Finland must look after its own interests. “Like it or not, we have a special relationship with Russia,” he says.

Hämäläinen agrees that Finland must play its cards carefully. It has to represent its own interests, even if it means others have to take it on the chin. ”It is a brutal game. Everyone is trying to get through this without getting wet.”

Mäkelä says the Russian media projects the understanding – or a deliberate misunderstanding – that Finland is Russia’s best friend in the EU and that it will represent Russia’s interests there.

Ruokanen noted that it is not necessarily a bad thing if Finland is seen to understand Russia, although Finland should take care to send Moscow a clear message that Finland is part of the West. Hämäläinen suspects that Russia intends to try to detach Finland from the common Western front--by carrot or stick. “We are a neighbouring country and old partner, why wouldn’t they try? It is a question of whether they will succeed – how this game develops,” he said.

“We still haven’t seen the worst”

Jarmo Mäkelä has dark warnings of what might come next: he reckons Finland will be next after Ukraine, because it is a member of the EU and not of NATO, saying he fears we still haven’t seen the worst.

Mäkelä points out that the Host country agreement Finland signed with NATO does not provide any kind of security, because Finland is only a NATO partner, not a full member.

Hämäläinen holds that Finland has enjoyed enormously good luck for 20 years as an EU member, with no conflicts arising with Russia. Now we are in a fog, he says.

Mäkelä and Hämäläinen both say they believe that the Ukraine conflict will be a protracted one, lasting for many years and even decades.

“The problem is twofold: we have not brought this conflict about and we are also in no position to make it go away,” says Mäkelä.

Ruokanen adds a few optimistic comments to the discussion by reminding listeners of the importance of commercial relations between both parties, even though Russia seems ready to lose colossal sums at the whim of its geopolitics.

“It is no longer a world of opposing blocs; there is no Cold War,” concludes Ruokanen.

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