Interviewer: Mart Nutt  

Finland has been a neutral country and has had a special relationship with Russia since the late 1940s. Has this been the correct policy from Finland’s perspective or should Finland have made different decisions during the Cold War?

Finland had no choice during the Cold War. Finland cultivated relations with the West as much as possible. In the 1960s and the 1970s, Finland started integrating with the West little by little and in 1995, as we know, it became a member of the European Union. Before that, there was an extremely delicate balancing act in its relations with the Soviet Union. To a certain extent, there is still a habit that when something is done vis-à-vis the western side, then something has to be done vis-à-vis the eastern side. The Soviet Union kept its eagle eye trained on us the whole time. Finnish policy back then was a maximalist policy. No other country standing up for its main inte-

rests could have achieved a better end result than Finland. There was always an awareness that the USSR was powerful and brutal and would run roughshod over Finnish interests. That was what the situation was like. If we were to be a little critical of Finland – and I worked for the Finnish government for 35 years and I am thus a part of the problem, and in certain cases a part of the solution as well – we see that there are many among the current leaders in Finland who are still in “Cold War gear” (despite many of the current Cabinet members being young and not knowing much about the Soviet era) and don’t understand that Finland could be stronger blazing a trail for itself in its own way.

If Finland had tried to join NATO in the 1960s, might the Soviet Union have attacked you?

There was no opportunity to join NATO; that would have been a completely absurd idea. The USSR would have certainly done everything it could right up to the use of military force to keep Finland from joining. Actually the “opportunity,” so to speak, opened up for us only in the early 1990s. Although I was at that time a senior defence ministry official, I said right out loud that Finland should join NATO. Accession was fairly close. From 1995 to 1998, the wind was blowing in a favourable direction, but then a decision was made not to pursue membership. Which was cowardice, and I tried to oppose it. After the fact, many of the people who held important posts back then have said that we should have had the courage then.

How did Finland react to the Baltic states joining NATO? Didn’t this plant the idea in government officials’ heads that if the Baltics joined, Finland should do so as well? Or did they treat it as a completely different topic and the Baltic question did not pertain to Finland or Sweden?

We saw ourselves as a completely different country. But in addition, Finland had quite a lot of childish thinking, along the lines that this was not the right companions for us. The first three countries – Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary – and then the larger group of 10 countries that included the Baltics... these were not suitable company for us. It was said politically and completely openly that Finland would not join with this group of countries. It was an unbelievable attitude, but it was seen at a very high level among senior statesmen. For Russia, these politicians were useful idiots. On the other hand, Sweden would have been perfect company.

In some sense, the situation in Ukraine has diversified the political use of language and encouraged politicians to be more forthright. I would say that if you left out Estonia, Finland’s positions and political assessments in relation to Russia’s actions in Ukraine are on a good European level. We haven‘t exactly been in the front ranks in condemning Russia’s invasion and annexation, but we have been at a decent European average level. We have no reason to be ashamed of our attitude, the main message has been clear: this behaviour is wrong and the sanctions against Russia are justified. Of course, as I said, Estonia is in a totally different category. You have a great president, who is very liberal, very competent, capable and bold and should be highly commended.

If Sweden did join NATO, what would Finland do?

If Sweden joined – although that is not at all likely – Finland should join as well. We have no other option. But if Finland were to join, I’m not at all sure Sweden would join. This is an asymmetric situation.

Would Sweden be interested in a situation where Finland joined and Sweden maintained its neutrality? The Swedish situation is similar to Switzerland’s: it is surrounded by friendly NATO countries and Russia and Arab countries are all far away?

If Finland joined, then Stockholm would certainly think: now we are sufficiently protected. During the Cold War, the biggest military threat was an attack on Sweden across the Baltic Sea, southern Sweden could be overrun. Now the countries on the eastern Baltic shore are NATO members.

But how do ordinary Finnish people see the Ukraine issue? Is it remote and unfamiliar or does it have direct implications for Finland and its future?

The developments in Ukraine are not at all distant or unfamiliar. What can be read in papers, seen on TV and heard on radio shows that the Finnish people have a very realistic picture of what is going on. This is attested to by opinion polls: an opinion poll conducted in January and February, i.e. before the Crimea events, found that about one-third of Finns saw Russia as a threat to European security. In spring, after the Ukraine events, nearly 60% of Finns said the same. In half a year, there had been a noteworthy change in opinion. The same respondents were also asked about NATO membership. In January, those in favour of Finnish NATO membership made up 17%, but in summer, the figure was 26%. The difference is 10 percentage points, which is significant. Also significant is the number of those who couldn’t say. If the situation in Ukraine calms down and people forget, then we’ll see what trend will continue in Finland. It’s interesting that according to opinion polls, more than 60% of Finns would approve NATO accession if it was decided at the political level to seek membership. Thus the main thing that Finland lacks is a political position on NATO.

In the light of events in Ukraine, don’t Finns consider it safer to join NATO, assuming that Russia wouldn’t dare attack some NATO country but could threaten neutral countries, as after all Ukraine is such a country.

We can’t be compared to Ukraine. We don’t have a Russian minority.

The Russian minority is just a pretext.

Yes, of course it can be a pretext, but there isn’t even a pretext in Finland. Of course, we have Russian citizens who have come to Finland and are now Finnish citizens, but not many of them. There are about 70,000 and this is not all that great a number compared to our 5.5 million people.

Pauli Järvenpää is senior research fellow with the International Centre for Defence Studies. Photo: Verkkouutiset