In Helsinki

Sadakat Kadri

Three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Yanis Varoufakis came up with a peace proposal on Twitter. It was selfish to ‘focus on the right to choose Nato & reject the best outcome: an independent, neutral Ukraine’, he suggested. ‘Ask the people of Austria & Finland!’ Similar sentiments had been expressed by Emmanuel Macron. En route to talks with Vladimir Putin in early February, he told Le Figaro that one issue under discussion was the ‘Finlandisation’ of Ukraine.

Words that make a radical ex-finance minister of Greece sound like a rotating president of the EU Council are inherently slippery – and in Helsinki, at least, attitudes are different. Here, the subservience that used to characterise Finnish relations with the Soviet Union isn’t idealised; all the talk is of solidarity. Efforts are under way to spruce up the country’s 54,000 bomb shelters, and the media are reminding Finns that energy dependency and a 1300-kilometre land border with Russia come with risks. In case of emergency, the Interior Ministry says, every household should be ready to endure 72 hours without electricity, heat, water or food.

The nation’s long-standing position of non-alignment is also coming under scrutiny. Military links with Sweden were stepped up several years ago in response to Putin’s seizure of Crimea, and Finns are now looking beyond Scandinavian partnerships. With defence spending already set to rise above 2 per cent of GDP, three-fifths of adults have been telling pollsters that the time has come to join Nato: more than double the proportion usual over the last quarter century. An online petition calling for a referendum on membership will be debated in parliament next month.

As a child of the Cold War – and a Finnish mother – I’m not surprised that anger towards Moscow is rising. Geopolitics weren’t high on my agenda during summer holidays in Helsinki in the 1980s, but even then, I sensed that Finland’s dutiful relationship with the bear next door was fraught. The only adult who convincingly described the tension was a lonely drunk I once met at a party. Gazing eastwards across Helsinki’s archipelago, he told me about his gun collection before demonstrating how he’d fire at the Soviets if they invaded. With one last imaginary bullet, he shot himself in the head. That, he said, was what Finlandisation meant.

At the time, I assumed the trauma was somehow self-inflicted. Finland had been defeated during the Second World War, and obstructing the Red Army seemed obviously wrong. But events were more complicated than that. My great-uncle, wounded in early 1940, wasn’t a Nazi aggressor; he was defending his homeland against an unprovoked invasion. Stalin sent in more than half a million troops with Hitler’s blessing, following the non-aggression pact of August 1939. When Finland later resumed hostilities alongside Nazi Germany (calling itself a ‘co-belligerent’, not an ‘ally’), the aim was to recover lost territory, not to champion fascism.

Like Putin, Stalin claimed he was violating borders only because Russian revolutionaries had been too generous with them after 1917. It was said of Finland, as it is of Ukraine today, that plutocrats were plotting aggression on behalf of Western imperialists. In anticipation of a worker’s uprising in support of Moscow, apparatchiks instructed military officers to plan for an ‘operation’ that would end within twelve days. Stalin hoped to install a puppet government, and Pravda prematurely hailed its inauguration by celebrating war as peace. ‘Only the Soviet Union, which rejects in principle the violent seizure of territory and the enslavement of nations, would agree to place its armed might at Finland’s disposal’ for the purpose of ‘securing Finnish independence’.

Finns came to terms with wartime defeat long ago, and no one expects that the lands ceded to Moscow – 11 per cent of what was once ruled from Helsinki – will ever come back. Memories of the Winter War are shaping debates about Vladimir Putin’s ambitions though. For decades, people with careers to worry about referred to the Soviet invasion as a ‘local armed conflict’, while the national military museum didn’t dare commemorate 1939 for sixty years. Even the Greens sound supportive of Nato membership today, and both the social democrat prime minister and centre-right president have countered Kremlin growls with assertions of Finland’s right to join alliances as it sees fit.

The boldness has limits, however. Voters have grown used to a national reputation for impartiality – as well as their status as the happiest people on earth – and though few would want to see Ukraine Finlandised, Americanisation has sceptics too. Parliament will make positive noises about Nato next month. A consensus among the five-party governing coalition and majority support for membership in a referendum are still some distance away.

Another development may ultimately be more significant. For several weeks, the prime minister, Sanna Marin, has been talking up Article 42.7 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which requires member states to use ‘all means in their power’ to assist each other against armed aggression. It’s been invoked only once before – by France, after the Bataclan atrocity in 2015 – but Marin worked closely with Sweden to get the provision mentioned in last month’s Versailles Declaration on Ukraine. Nordic unity is common, but that collaborative effort is quite remarkable. Article 42.7 includes a get-out clause drafted specifically to allow for assertions of neutrality. Two countries that have long been resolutely non-committed suddenly sound keen on militarising the European Union.