Since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War almost eight years ago, self-proclaimed realists in the West have peddled the same solution: “Finlandization”.
Like Finland (and Austria) during the Cold War, Ukraine would be allowed closer economic integration with the rest of Europe but not NATO membership.
I doubted this was a solution then, and everything that’s happened since should have put the notion to rest. Ukrainians don’t want to be Finlandized. Vladimir Putin wouldn’t be content with a neutral Ukraine.
Proponents of Finlandization believe Putin when he says NATO’s eastward expansion has driven Russia into a corner. Our defense caused his aggression.
Eastern Europeans know better. They reason they joined — or in Ukraine’s case want to join — NATO is not because they have designs on Russia, but because Russia has designs on them.
Russia’s long history in Eastern Europe is one of annexation, subjugation and war. On the rare occasions Russia tolerated the independence of Balts, Finns and Slavs, it was when it was too weak to prevent it. The last thirty years were such a time.
Putin wants to change that. Since he came to power in 2000, Russia has:
- Broken two treaties in which it pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons and half the Soviet Black Sea Fleet;
- Twice shut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine, and repeatedly used Ukraine’s energy dependence on Russia to pressure it into making economic and political concessions;
- Financed pro-Russian politicians and political parties in Ukraine, and possibly poisoned pro-Western leader Viktor Yushchenko;
- Blocked Ukrainian exports in an attempt to dissuade the country from signing a trade deal with the EU;
- Invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula; and
- Armed and manned a pro-Russian insurgency in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region.
These are not the policies of a man or a state that would stop at Ukrainian neutrality. If Putin accepts Finlandization, it is only as a stepping stone to the restoration of Russian empire.
Putin has been frank about his ambitions. He argued last year that Russians and Ukrainians are essentially the same people and have been divided by the West.
That’s not how Ukrainians see it. They ousted their Russian puppet president when he balked at signing a trade deal with the EU. Prior to Russia’s invasion, Ukrainians were split on European Union and NATO membership. Every poll taken since has found majorities in favor of both. Once sympathetic views of Russia have turned sour.
(The dismemberment of pro-Russian Crimea has helped tilt the balance in favor of a pro-Western policy.)
Putin may want to bring back a world in which great powers move small nations around like pawns on a chessboard; we shouldn’t.