Ferro: Understanding Finland’s neighbor
“Do you see those planes?” our friend asked me, pointing to vapor trails. “Russian planes heading to Kaliningrad.” This exchange occurred during a recent trip to Finland. Finland’s ongoing relationship with neighboring Russia puts the power dynamics of the former Soviet Union and the “Western World” in great perspective.
While in Finland, my wife and I took up a couple’s offer to join them on their sailboat for a couple of days. Finland, a sailor’s paradise — at least during the short summer months — has one of the world’s largest archipelagos with plenty of islands and inlets to explore. We sailed east and moored up to an old quarry island, now a park. We hiked, swam and ate too much.
The planes that our friend pointed out normally would have traveled from St. Petersburg over the Baltic states to Kaliningrad. But many European countries now don’t allow Russia to fly over their airspace and Russia now must travel via the Gulf of Finland to a little piece of Russia physically separated from the Russian whole. The route Russian planes take between Finland and Estonia avoids both countries, but constantly reminds both countries of their tenuous relationship with a country the Finns call, unaffectionately, “The Neighbor.”
Finland had been a part of Sweden since the 13th century until Czarist Russia invaded and claimed Finland for Russia in 1809. The Finns resisted and took advantage of the Russian revolution in 1917 to declare independence.
Finland’s relationship with Sweden differs from that with Russia. The Nordic countries have special agreements. Street signs are in both Swedish and Finnish, but not Russian Cyrillic. Most Finns speak multiple languages, but their use of some version of Finnish has remained strong since, according to linguistic historians, 9000 years B.C. The Nordic countries also share a similar approach to governance with a mix of supportive social programs and capitalism. Finland has always scored high internationally in education, stability, democracy, entrepreneurship and happiness. According to studies, their happiness arises out of social cohesion, only small differences between economic classes (our friends with the boat were by no means rich) and faith in societal effectiveness.
Finland’s actions during WWII earned it praise from Winston Churchill and have become a critical part of their national identity. The novel “The Unknown Soldier” written in 1954 by Vaino Linna follows an infantry unit through the war where Finland attempts to win back the territory lost from the 1939 Soviet invasion. The book has been made into a movie three times. The original 1955 version is broadcast every Independence Day, Dec. 6, on national television. It is part of the culture. I’ve even heard people compare friends to various characters in the book.
In the end, Finland had managed to push the Soviet Union and reclaim land in Karelia — but only temporarily. However, they did exact a heavy toll on the Soviets and signed a separate peace agreement in 1944. If you look at a map of Finland prior to 1939, the country is shaped like a woman in a dress. Today, Finns are quick to note that her right shoulder and dress frill are missing.
Finland and Sweden have remained independent from NATO, but both countries have engaged in exercises with NATO. Finland joined the European Union in 1995, not long after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the percentage of Finns and Swedes who wanted to join NATO went from 25%to 75%, their reasoning clearly stated by Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin: “Russia is not the neighbor Finland thought it was.”
The Finns I spoke with echoed that thought. Everyone in Finland is essentially in the reserves and the percentage of their tax base that goes to defense outpaces most countries. They felt confident they could repulse a Russian invasion without help. However, there’s safety in numbers and they have great affinity with the West. Separately, they also expressed concern over political turmoil in the U.S. They couldn’t understand why anyone would support Vladimir Putin and his czarist notions.
Some people have stated that the U.S. forced Finland into NATO. That’s absurd. Finland is proud. Like any country, it isn’t perfect. Yet, I wish the U.S. could find a Finland-like social cohesion and mutually recognize a threat when we see it. As we headed back to Helsinki, an imposing Finnish Navy attack ship roared past. Our friend lowered his Finnish flag and a seaman on the ship responded in kind.
Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: DavidFerro9.