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Care of the Bear

Helsinki (Photo by Tapio Haaja on Unsplash)

Ukraine, in its current conflict with Russia, has every right to insist on defending its territory and sovereignty from Russian aggression. Now that the Russians have actually invaded, Ukraine has no honorable choice but to defend itself, even if it faces defeat at the end. It has been clear from the beginning of this crisis that no outside power would intervene militarily to save Ukraine, though they will provide military and economic aid and will impose stiff sanctions on Russia.

Now, even as war continues, Ukrainian strategic planners must focus on a future in which a probably truncated Ukraine will still have to live next to Russia. Finland has a lot of experience living with the bear.

Ukrainian strategic planners must focus on a future in which a probably truncated Ukraine will still have to live next to Russia. Finland has a lot of experience living with the bear.

Like Ukraine, Finland spent centuries under Russian imperial rule. Unlike Ukraine, Finland gained its independence after the Russian Revolution of 1917. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed, Ukraine become one of those Soviet Socialist Republics, with its own ethnic identity and considerable constitutional autonomy, albeit under the iron control of the Soviet Communist Party. 

Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator from the late 1920s until his death in 1952, was unreconciled to the independence of Finland, and was pushed into action when a fearful Finland sought help from Nazi Germany as a check on the Soviets. Stalin would not tolerate that, even during the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact from 1939-1941. Soviet forces invaded Finland in 1940. No other country provided significant aid to Finland.

The Finns put up a strong resistance, inflicting significant casualties and costs on the Soviets, but they finally sued for peace. To get it, they had to give up a tract of territory along Finland’s eastern border, and they had to agree to a permanent policy of neutrality vis-a-vis the Soviets. This curtailment of their sovereignty in return for their continued independence is what has become known as “Finlandization.”

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It has been, on the whole, a good deal for Finland. It is today a firmly democratic country and one of the most affluent and egalitarian countries on earth. But no Finn can forget for a moment the the first item on their government’s agenda must be the care and feeding of bears.

This is the reality that any surviving Ukrainian government will soon confront. Sovereignty and territorial integrity are key concepts in the international legal order dating to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1644, but there is no coercive enforcement mechanism in international law. That, indeed, is why the current Ukrainian constitution was written to require that the government seek membership in NATO.

But there has been no consensus in NATO for admitting Ukraine, precisely because it would be unduly provocative to the Russians. Putin’s key demand is for a binding treaty that would exclude Ukraine from NATO. Ukraine—and NATO—held that it would be a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty to accept such a condition. But in this world we live in, power trumps sovereignty. Just ask Mexico.

So a surviving, probably truncated Ukraine will have to come to terms. While Russia’s temporary weakness in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, allowed the Baltic States and the former Soviet satellites like Poland to escape the bear’s clutches and join NATO, Ukraine will not be so fortunate a generation later. Ukrainians would do well if they end up with something like Finland’s settlement.

Putin will pay a cost for imposing himself on Ukraine. His piecemeal conquests: Crimea, Donbas, and now whatever additional chunks of Ukraine he takes, remain unrecognized occupations. But he seems willing to accept that. He could be frozen out of international summits for some significant time. Western sanctions will worsen the already poor Russian economy.

impeachment unavoidable

Should he choose to occupy the whole country, the cost of ruling a hostile population will bleed him dry, just as Afghanistan did to the Soviets in the 1980s. Indeed, it will be far easier to get aid to Ukrainian insurgents than it was in Afghanistan.

John Peeler