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As Russian bear stirs, Finland reconsiders its neutrality

The Kremlin's adventurism in Ukraine has brought a new allure for Helsinki to partner with NATO.

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    Boats of the Finnish Border Guard patrol the waters outside Helsinki in late April. The Finnish military said it dropped depth charges onto a suspected submarine in the sea outside Helsinki after twice detecting the presence of a foreign object in the area.
    Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva/AP/File
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Finland's tiny navy had a couple days of extreme excitement late last month, when its little coast guard cutters scoured the entrance to Helsinki Bay to catch what officials remain certain was a foreign submarine intruder. The Finnish military subsequently announced that they had located the interloper, lurking within sight of downtown Helsinki, and shooed it off with small, warning depth charges.

The incident is strikingly reminiscent of one that occurred in the watery approaches to Sweden's capital city, Stockholm, last October. After several days of frantically hunting a purported submarine, tacitly assumed to be Russian, Swedish naval officials admitted that the only evidence of the intruder – a grainy long-distance photo – actually showed a Swedish-owned surface boat.

The submarines in these incidents may well have been phantoms, but the jitters that triggered them are very real. The East-West crisis over Ukraine has shaken Finnish assumptions about its giant neighbor, Russia, and is leading some Finns to question the country's strong traditions of political and economic engagement with Moscow. Though opinion polls show Finns overwhelmingly against abandoning their long-standing neutrality, Finland's military has already begun stepping up ties with NATO and strengthening cooperation – particularly anti-submarine patrols – with its non-NATO neighbor Sweden.

"Finland doesn't feel threatened right now," says Kirsti Kauppi, director of the Finnish Foreign Ministry's political and security department. Rather, it's that Russian actions over the past year, including the annexation of Crimea and stirring the pot of rebellion in eastern Ukraine, have revealed an unpredictable side to Russian behavior that many Finns thought was a thing of the past.

"So there is this concern, which we must address, about where Russia is going, and how it will look 10 or 15 years down the road. For Finland, these are extremely important questions," she says.

Concerns about the Kremlin...

Experts in Moscow downplay the idea that relations with Finland are under pressure. They say headline-grabbing submarine hunts are a standard device of cash-strapped Scandinavian navies whenever budget time rolls around, and that tensions are largely being whipped up by the US and some of its allies to try and bring neutral Finland and Sweden into the NATO alliance.

"Finland is doomed to be Russia's neighbor, and that can't be changed," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council. "Neutrality and peaceful coexistence have worked well for Finland, and I think this will continue."

Finland was part of the Russian Empire for about a century, until it broke free during the Russian Revolution. In the run-up to World War II, the USSR attacked Finland and, after a brief but bitter war, annexed large tracts of Finnish territory around the Soviet city of Leningrad. Finland subsequently joined Nazi Germany in its attack on the USSR in 1941, but as defeat loomed in 1944, the Finnish leader made a separate peace with Moscow. That deal preserved Finnish independence, but forced Helsinki to adopt neutrality and a foreign policy that was subservient to Moscow.

During the cold war that arrangement was dubbed "Finlandization," and Finns today detest the word. But they do agree that history has left them with a special sensitivity to what happens on the other side of their 1,324-km (820-mile) border with Russia, as well as a high degree of economic dependence on a market they had privileged access to during the cold war, and have been building on ever since.

But sanctions against Russia have taken a toll on Finland's business community, as have Russia's retaliatory counter-sanctions. As a member of the European Union, Finland backed the sanctions, and experts say maintaining solidarity with the EU on this issue is a top priority for Helsinki.

"Trade with Russia would be slowing down anyway, due to the growing stagnation in the Russian economy, and so the pressure on Finnish businesses to diversify would be there even without this crisis," says Arkady Moshes, a Russia expert with the independent Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki.

"There is a growing realization that Russia is not the economic promised land, and this has the effect of bolstering support for sanctions and our political position on Russia," he says.

...But not a tilt toward NATO

Support for actually joining NATO is not so strong, Mr. Moshes adds. Over half the population routinely say "no" in polls asking about NATO membership, and that number has barely budged despite the crisis of the past year. Finland has a policy of armed neutrality, and the universal conscription that sees every Finn spend at least a year in Army service and a lifetime in the reserves remains extremely popular, even among the youth.

"History has taught us the lesson that we must rely upon ourselves, that no one will come to Finland's assistance. While we may increase cooperation with NATO, and also our Nordic neighbors, there will probably never be a consensus on joining the alliance," says Moshes.

Recent elections have removed Finland's previous pro-NATO prime minister, Alex Stubb, and experts say that while Finland's foreign policy isn't likely to change under the new center-right government, talk of joining NATO will probably subside.

But everyone agrees that the growing crisis in Ukraine could change everything, particularly if the current shaky ceasefire collapses and all-out warfare resumes.

"Finland has followed a very clear line from the beginning. We do not accept Russia's annexation of Crimea or its actions in east Ukraine. But we do our best to promote the peace process; it's the only way forward," says Terhi Hakala, director of the Finish Foreign Ministry's Eastern Affairs department.

"This is all happening in our neighborhood, and it has got our full attention. We need to push peace in every way we can."

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