An ever closer union of the Baltic and Nordic states – a vision for the future

An ever closer union of the Baltic and Nordic states – a vision for the future

“Finland’s security policy: A hundred years of in-between” report was published in parts. This is the first article of the report.

The Baltic  and Nordic states have been close to each other during the modern times although geopolitically and culturally they have differences. Lithuania  has been primarily closely tied to East-Central Europe based on its historical interdependence  with Poland. Latvia and Estonia are influenced by the Nordic states and even more strongly by Germany. Finland has had a special relationship with Estonia for cultural and historical reasons. 

Finland within the Baltic Sea region

Sweden for her part has had strong ties with all Baltic states. From 1157 to 1807  Sweden consisted of the Finnish and Swedish nationhoods and together as a Swedish kingdom they played a big power role in European politics from the mid 17th century almost  a period of one hundred years. The Baltic states and Finland became provinces and in case of Finland a Grand Duchy of Russia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The aim of Russia was to split its  Western neighbors and bring them separately to its sphere of influence. This strategy has not changed since then.

Between the two World Wars Finland was often considered as one of the Baltic states and not without good arguments.  They shared same geopolitical problem as a result of an expansive Russia and from 1917 of  the communist Soviet Russia. They understood that the solution of this problem was not possible without security guarantees from friendly nations. Closer co-operation  even in the field of military between them was discussed in all these states after their independence from  Russia in 1917-1919.

The civil war took place in the Soviet Russia after the bolshevik coup d’etat or as better known ”October revolution” of 1917  until 1922.  Finland tried to settle its border problem with her Eastern neighbor before the Tartu Peace Treaty  which was signed in October 1920. The disputes did not disappear, however, and the following year a voluntary military task force invaded Eastern Karelia supported  by the  influential elements of  the official Finland to safeguard the administrative region of Eastern Karelia from sliding totally to the control of the bolsheviks. This effort failed which retrospectively may have rescued Finland  from the Soviet Russian military  invasion and even occupation.

Finland’s  Foreign Policy Initiative in 1920

After her independent 1917, Finland experienced  a bloody  civil war which was closely linked to the bolshevik  coup d’etat. Furthermore, the young democratic and independent state of Finland had to envisage her foreign policy after the collapse of Germany which had supported the legal government in the civil war  in November 1918. The government that was appointed in March 1919 after the parliamentary elections was the first  democratically elected government that had at least a chance  to navigate Finland out of  stormy waters to a more stable international environment.

One of the key architects of Finland’s foreign policy in the early 1920s  was Rudolf Holsti of  a liberal progress party( Edistyspuolue). He reasoned that  for a small country a military defense was ultima ratio and security was to be guaranteed primarily by political means. Neutrality was not any solution but close cooperation with the countries sharing  similar threat perceptions. Holsti wanted to establish good and normal  relations with the Soviet Russia, but ruled out any closer alliance with Russia because it would cause fears in the Baltic and Nordic states thus harming Finland’s security interest in the long term.

Finland was, however, a special target for the Soviet Russia due to security needs of St Petersburg. Any attack against the big city at the Neva River was possible only through the territory of Finland. Russia  desperately needed an access to the Baltic Sea for its trade and navy. The new states  which emerged after World War I between the Black Sea and the Ice Sea constituted a cordon sanitaire between Germany and the Soviet Russia.The issue was whether these smaller states could develop security arrangements accordingly.

For Finland, the situation had been critical at the end of 1921 when the Soviet Russia mobilized its military against Finland which clearly emphasized the weakness of Finland’s strategic situation. Foreign Minister Holsti, who had opposed the military invasion to Eastern Karelia and had worked hard for the Tartu Peace Treaty drew the conclusion that Finland had to start searching cooperative arrangements with the Baltic states and Poland to strengthen her  security. At this moment, Sweden was not a reliable partner because of  the bitter dispute concerning the ownership of the  Åland Islands.

The first efforts for the Finno-Baltic co-operation took place in late 1919  when  Estonia proposed that Finland should host a conference for the launching of a  ”rim country cooperation” (reunavaltioyhteistyö).  A series of conferences ensued leading to the signing of the Treaty of Warsaw in  March 1922  aimed at deepening economic, political and  even military cooperation between four Baltic states and Poland. However, because of its conflict with Poland about Vilnus (the city was under the Polish rule), Lithuania was not able to join  the Treaty. The Finnish  Parliament  surprisingly did not approve the treaty which led to the resignation of Holsti.

After the Yalta Order to a New Europe

After the Yalta Order was established in 1945, the Baltic states were  separated from their historical connection to their Southern , Western and Northern  neighbors and became fully incorporated to the Soviet system.  The Baltic states were victims of  hard Stalinism until 1953 but were able to maintain the basic features of their national identities and cultural features during the years of the  Sooviet occupation. Lithuania was influenced by the Polish resistance against the Soviet tyranny since  the early 1970s due to Solidarnosc and Pope John Paul the second. After the signature of the OSCE Final Act 1975, the Helsinki Committees and Human Rights Groups gained ground  also in all Baltic states  and not only in Poland and other East European socialist states.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall  was also a result of the national uprisings  and  activity of the civil movements for freedom and human rights  in the Baltic states and Poland. The new division between the West and Russia was not a necessity first but unfortunately the developments have not created favorable conditions to the integration of Russia to the European and and transatlantic  structures  of co-operation. The enclave of Kaliningrad was believed to become a Hong Kong of the Baltic Sea or ”the fourth Baltic state” but it became a black hole and  a  Russian military fortress inside the EU and since 2004 also Nato. The rise of Vladimir Putin ended all speculations about the future status of Kaliningrad and on the contrary  the enclave has become increasingly a root cause of a potential military conflict between Nato and  Russia. Finally, the war in Georgia 2008 and the annexation of the Crimea 2014  ended a thaw between Russia and the West.

Towards a  loose Confederation of the Baltic and  three Nordic states within the EU

From the point of view of the Baltic and Nordic states the present security situation reminds  that of the early 1920s.  However, the enlargement of Nato and EU have changed the geopolitical situation although not fixed the problems   related Russian military threat as such. There is a need to strengthen interconnectedness of the Baltic and at least three Nordic states and  perhaps also Poland. As Edward Lucas, the editorial writer of the Economist, has envisaged, ”the Nordic-Baltic -Polish axis’ (NBP9,)economies combined have a bigger GDP than Russia’s”.  Furthermore, ”Nordic, Baltic and Polish defence spending combined is about 40 billion, and Russia’s is about 80 billion – and Russia has to run a strategic nuclear programme to defend itself against China whereas NBP9  only need to worry about defending themselves against Russia”. 

The argument of Lucas needs to be considered seriously. BNP9 is a valid framework for  the further deepening of cooperation and coordination between either nine or seven countries of this geographically interconnected Northern European states which wouldn’t  be a revival of the interwar idea of the Intermarium [an alliance of the nations between Russia and Germany, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea], as proposed by Holsti and others in 1922. 

 For Finland it is a major challenge because Finland’s foreign policy does not focus especially on this group of states.   For example Finland supports North Stream  2 gas pipeline  that is vehemently opposed by the Baltic states. However, Foreign Minister Timo Soini has emphasized the strengthening of cooperation with the Baltic and Nordic states simultaneously which may be a signal about a change of politics in this respect.  Furthermore, cooperation between Finland and Sweden has become crucial because both countries are outside Nato  but strategically dependent on the alliance. Together these two countries cannot solve their security dilemmas with Russia but within BNP9 and within  Nato together they would certainly be better off.The official line of Finland, however, is based on military non-alignment.

The NBP9 is not  directly responsible to the mistakes the bigger powers of the West  perhaps made in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War for example by opening its financial institutions to the Russian oligarchs thus facilitating the rampant corruption in Russia or when the terms were negotiated on the unification of Germany in 1990 by the Kohl government. It is said that the biggest mistake was that no deal was done on Kaliningrad ( a Hong Kong option) or the deal on the enlargement of Nato remains too confusing.

In the Kremlin, the hawks are of the opinion that the West humiliated Russia in the 1990s. However, as Lucas argues. ”it’s just part of the mind games that Russia likes to play with its own people and the West”. This analysis is crucial in building a common ground for the NBP9 for the future. We have to accept the historic facts that the division between Russia and the West may remain does not matter what we do. What we can avoid is to be split by Russia as happened in the  1920s and 1930s, but in particular during the Cold War 

It is up to Finland and Sweden to realize that their contribution is needed for intensifying interconnectedness within the NBP9 for security and economic prosperity but also  for strengthening voice within the EU and Nato. Would it be a realistic vision to establish ”an ever closer union”- a loose confederation of NBP9-  let us call it a new Hanseatic initiative?. It would serve at least two purposes. First , to  exercise coordinated policies- one stronger voice-  within the EU and Nato, i.e. to have an equal footing with the bigger players, like  Germany,France,Italy and Spain and within Nato added with the United States and Great-Britain. Second, it would strengthen  deterrence vis-a-vis Russia. The combined military budget of NBP9 is 40 billion compared with Russia’s 80 to 100 billion. 

In practical terms we would speak about the emergence of a  loose Confederation of Northern Europe to constitute one of the big member states of these institutions at least. It would be also the best guarantor of peace and stability in Northern Europe and a strong alliance to balance any effort of Russia to divide her Western Neighbors.