A century after gaining independence from its powerful neighbour Russia, Finland continues to consolidate its ties to the West, as tensions flare between Moscow and the West.
Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and an uptick in military activity in the Baltic region have tested Finnish-Russian relations, painstakingly maintained over the years with scrupulous diplomatic efforts.
Like its neighbours Sweden, Denmark, Poland and the Baltic states, Finland has modernised its military in recent years and has stepped up initiatives tying itself closer to Nato — but has stopped short of joining the alliance. Finland’s political rhetoric remains cautious when it comes to Russia, its fifth biggest trading partner.
“We are ready to defend ourselves, but we don’t speculate about the direction or the countries” the threat could come from, Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini said.
“We are two independent nations, we don’t ask permission from each other” before making strategic decisions, he said.
Finland belonged to Sweden for six centuries — until 1809 — and was then a Russian Grand Duchy until 1917, only gaining its independence at the end of World War I after the fall of the Tsarist Russian empire.
The Soviet Union recognised Finland’s independence in 1918, but the Nordic country had to fight off its great eastern neighbour during the winter of 1939-1940, and again from June 1941 to September 1944 to avoid being occupied by the Communists.
“From the Finnish point of view, (Russia) is not a real threat but rather a big neighbour they’re still a bit wary of, Barbara Kunz, a Nordic specialist at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), said.
The Finnish border is now the longest EU border with Russia, stretching 1,340 km.
“We are a part of the West, and we need the Western power to stabilise the situation in terms of Russia,” said Markku Kivinen, head of Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute, a centre for Russian and Eastern European studies.
Unlike Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, the Baltic states which won their independence in the early 1990s and joined Nato a decade later, Finland has no intention of joining the military alliance for fear of angering Moscow. Last month, a public opinion poll found only 22 per cent of Finns have a good opinion of Nato. The policy of military non-alignment is broadly supported in the country.
“We need to stay independent. We never know what could happen with Russia,” Heini Vahtera, a Helsinki resident in her 30s, said. — AFP