Finland has a 1200km land border with Russia. As a result, the Finns have a unique relationship with and perspective on their imperious neighbour. Finland’s Ambassador to the UK, Jukka Siukosaari, spoke to Lucy Kenningham a week after the invasion of Ukraine.
Lucy Kenningham (LK): What will happen?
Jukka Siukosaari (JS): In the short term, the conflict will go on for weeks if not months. Unfortunately, time is on the side of the Russians. They still have resources that they can put into the field. For the Ukrainians, the situation gets more difficult every day. Supply lines are thin. Supplies are thin for the civilian population as well. If we see the siege of cities, such as is indicated now, then the suffering will be immense. There will eventually be a negotiated solution; no conflict lasts forever and it will come when the Russians decide the time is right. Hopefully, a country like China might be useful for that. Moscow may listen to Beijing. There are some signs that China could take an active role but it’s too early to say for sure.
LK: Recently, there have been some suggestions that Russia should be kicked out of the UN Security Council or the General Assembly.
JS: It would be dangerous to start removing Russians from all international contacts. One day, this will all be over. Whether it’s this government or another in Moscow, we’d simply have to start the process all over again.
A few years ago, there was a similar situation with the Council of Europe when Russia was threatening to leave because they hadn’t paid their dues. In the end it was clearly better to keep Russia inside the Council. It means they are still bound to treaties and that Russian citizens can go somewhere if they feel their rights are being trampled.
LK: Has Finland advocated for harsher sanctions?
JS: We work as a member state of the EU and that’s our main channel in this process, but Finland has definitely not been one of those who are reluctant to take sanctions.
LK: Some people have suggested that Ukraine may soon have to simply accept the invasion.
JS: As long as there is a democratically elected government in Kiev, then it must have our support. Even if it has to leave Kiev, it must remain the government we must work with. If there is a puppet regime set up in Kiev, I think it will be very important not to accept it. The West shouldn’t give up easily.
LK: Would Russia be able to occupy Ukraine?
JS: I really doubt this will be possible. Ukraine is a very large country with a population of 40 million. Plus, if this resistance prevails (and I believe it will) even for Russia’s defence it would be a very challenging task to invade the whole country.
LK: Why isn’t Finland a member of Nato?
JS: A difficult question to answer! Firstly, we were part of the Kingdom of Sweden for centuries, up until 1809. We were peripheral, a hinterland to the capital of Stockholm. Sweden was a great European power at that point and they fought wars all over central Eruope. Finland was used as a recruiting ground for their army and an anti-war mentality developed. That’s one reason for Finland’s deep rooted suspicion of military alignment.
Another is World War II. We fought the Soviet Union in 1939, in a situation that’s very similar to Ukraine’s today and that left a feeling in the Finnish DNA that regardless of what happens we are still responsible for defending our country. The League of Nations [the predecessor to the United Nations] was supposed to guarantee the security of all countries, but when the Soviet Union attacked us [we] were left very much alone. That’s an experience that’s stayed with us. There’s a feeling that in the end, regardless of what we have agreed we would still be on our own.
After the Second World War, we put all our resources into building a national defence without a military alignment. That has been the Finnish solution. After the Second World War we never gave up conscription. We still have an armed forces based on a large reserve – 280,000 could be called up which is considerable given our population is just 5.5 million.
In 1995 we joined the European Union (EU), triggering some talk about joining Nato. But I don’t think the population was ready. If we’d had a referendum on Nato membership at that time, we wouldn’t have joined it.
Now, the situation is completely different [polls show a majority are now in favour of Nato membership] and part of our security policy has been that we want to keep the door open to membership. We see it as totally unacceptable that Russia would try to say who can and cannot join Nato. We see it as a cornerstone of European security that all sovereign nations have the right to choose their security arrangements themselves.
At the moment, we’re not seeking membership and military non-alignment has actually served us well.
LK: Is defence important?
JS: We have a very long land border with Russia – longer than any of the other countries in Nato, so it’s something that we have to be quite vigilant about.
LK: When was the last time there was conflict on your border?
JS: The Second World War. We made a truce in 1944.
LK: When was the idea of ‘Finlandisation’ developed?
JS: During the Cold War; the term itself is actually a German invention. It meant Finland had to take the Soviet Union into account for its foreign policy decisions. It can be said – and I think it is completely justified to say this – that it went too far. We would have had more room to manoeuvre but we were extremely careful because of what we saw happening in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. We weren’t behind the Iron Curtain; we were free to travel and had contact with the West, unlike the Soviet satellite states.
LK: How have the Finns reacted to the invasion of Ukraine?
JS: The reaction has been very strong because the Finns take it personally: we were in the same position in 1939 when the Soviet Union attacked us. There’s a visible difference from the reaction in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. This time, there’s more of a popular movement within Finland. Everyone from individuals, sports associations, trade unions and companies are all trying to help Ukraine in any way they can. We also have boycotts of Russian products that we haven’t had before. The voters are actually ahead of the politicians, who will have to react to them.
However, the government has made some significant changes to traditional policies. We had a policy of not providing lethal weapons to conflict areas, but we changed that like Germany and Sweden.
LK: How will this affect Russia?
JS: St Petersburg is very close to the border and in terms of population the city is as large as the whole of Finland, so it’s an important market for our small and medium-sized companies – especially in the agricultural sector.
At the same time as wanting to act, you have to be careful not to blame the Russian people. It should be the government that we are targeting and the financial and economic elite – because we know that Russia will be our neighbour for centuries to come and we hope that they will be able to build a democratic system, which sadly they haven’t been able to do since the fall of the Soviet Union.
LK: How can we avoid harming ordinary Russian people?
JS: It’s impossible. Russia is more dependent on the West and the international markets than the Soviet Union, which was very isolated.
We hoped that the interdependency of our economies would make a situation like this one impossible, but that proved to be wrong. Now, unfortunately, the Russian population will suffer. That said, the purchasing power of the Russian citizens has been decreasing since 2013 so this is not a new trend. It just strengthens the trend, and it will ultimately make President Putin and the rest of the government’s life difficult. It won’t be a quick remedy but it’s clear that the Russian government won’t be able to deal with the level of economic isolation they are facing.
It’s compounded by the political isolation they’re facing. Remember that 141 countries in the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn Russia’s actions whereas in 2014 it was only 100. So a substantial shift in the number – and the four countries who voted with Russia, well… I wouldn’t call them the best examples of shining democracies in the world! Russia is very alone.
LK: How have Finland’s relations with Russia been since the invasion of Crimea?
JS: Links and connections decreased but didn’t vanish completely. We saw it as necessary because of the cross-border trade and free mobility of people – which we still support. We want Russians to travel abroad as much as possible so that they understand the West and receive information from outside of their own system, which is deeply flawed and dangerous, in the sense that they are not exposed to neutral information.
That’s why we maintained contact in the economic sense, while fully implementing the sanctions. But then the situation is also different from Soviet times in that we have investments in Russia like other countries as well, so it’s not only about trade it’s also about what will happen to the investments that have been made. But at this stage we’ve already seen many examples of withdrawals from Russia and accepting losses. There’s no desire to just carry on as before.
One thing which has been very important is the border cooperation, because it has been a very open border. There’s been lots of tourism, contacts and therefore it’s crucial for us to be able to work with Russian border guards. That system has actually worked very well but let’s see what happens with that. The Russians may close the border themselves.
LK: So there’s currently an open border between Russia and Finland?
JS: Yes. A high number of Russians are leaving Russia because they feel insecure economically and perhaps in other terms too. Instead of resisting their government in Russia they are opting to move out.
LK: Are there a lot of Russians in Finland?
JS: The Russian-speaking minority is not that big. It was almost non-existent in Soviet times but after the fall of the Soviet Union we accepted Russians with Finnish heritage as citizens, so that created a minority of Russian speakers in Finland. But I’d say that in general they are quite well integrated into the Finnish society so we are in a very different situation to that of the Baltic countries – we don’t see that it would be a problem or pose a risk to our security.
LK: Are you concerned about the Baltic countries?
JS: They are concerned and understandably so, given their history with the Soviet Union which is very traumatic and people remember in a different way than we remember ours. So I think we understand how concerned they are. But we also know they are in Nato so it would be a very high threshold for Russia to do something there because they do know what Nato’s Article 5 means.
LK: Does Finland have any insight into Russia due to their proximity?
JS: We’d like to think we know the Russians because we’ve been so close to them for centuries. But now it’s more a case of knowing what an individual is going to do rather than a nation. That’s why it was a surprise to many. The majority of Finns still thought Russia would act logically, but if you look at where we are now, the Russians have provoked everything they wanted to avoid.
They’ve succeeded in uniting the West; they’ve created a Ukrainian population that’s extremely willing to defend themselves; and they’ve fostered anti-Kremlin and anti-Russian sentiment. They’ve created an economic war for themselves. It’s illogical – probably because it was a decision made in one person’s head rather than by a collective or the ruling elite.
LK: What is the mood amongst the diplomatic corps?
JS: At least amongst my European colleagues, everyone is shocked and finding it difficult to believe. However, the further away you are from the conflict, the less strong the sentiments are. We mustn’t forget there are conflicts around the world that no one is talking about at the moment – for example, in Syria, Afghanistan and Libya. We mustn’t forget that Europe is not the globe. There are other issues we have to keep in mind as well as concerns for the UN member states, but the 141 [number of votes condemning Russia’s invasion] votes was a significant moment. Clearly, the war in Ukraine is the centerpoint of diplomacy today.
LK: What do you make of President Zelensky?
JS: His personal resilience is extremely strong. I can’t imagine many leaders who would be willing to risk their own lives and those of their families. But he’s extremely determined to stay. I think much of this now depends on how long his personal strength lasts. For now, it’s very much alive.