The revenge of history


Geopolitics, the institutions that purport to rule it, and military technology have changed drastically over the past 84 years. Nonetheless, the accession of Finland to NATO can be read as Helsinki's payback to Moscow for that November 30th, 1939. On that day, in the wake of Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland, Josef Stalin launched his own invasion of Finland. The Winter War began with the Soviet Union bombing the Finnish capital.

The tables have now turned and having become NATO's thirty-first member, Finland completes the ring of containment that Russia is so concerned about and that seamlessly stretches from the Arctic Ocean to the Baltic Sea. For more than a year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified the invasion of Ukraine on the grounds of NATO's expansion with the potential accession of countries in its area of influence or on its borders. This argument is all too similar to the answer that, as Max Hastings recalls in his monumental All Hell Let Loose, a Soviet officer gave at the beginning of the Winter War to a subordinate in response to the question of why the Red Army troops were engaged in the war. That officer invoked the risk of allowing the border to be too close to Leningrad. Today Moscow persists with the same thesis regarding Finland's accession: it reiterated that "NATO's expansion is an assault on our security and Russia's national interests".

Anthony Blinken, Secretary of State in Joseph Biden's administration, claimed in Brussels that "Mr. Putin" should be thanked for Finland's accession to the Atlantic alliance "because he provoked something he said he meant to prevent" and with the invasion of Ukraine "he ended up leading many countries to believe that they have to do more to defend themselves" from Moscow. The Russian leader's mistake that Blinken points out also brings back echoes of the Stalinist invasion of Finland at the beginning of World War II. At the end of the 1930s, it seemed unquestionably outlandish that a nation of less than 4 million people at the time, lacking the necessary weapons, could stand up to the Red Army. That is true in principle. Yet, it is no less true that the Ukrainians and their resistance mirrored the tactics used by the Finns against the Soviets in 1939. Instead of achieving an immediate victory, the Red Army's columns were battered. In fact, in the first stage of the invasion they lost 60 per cent of their armoured vehicles. The Finnish forces, with guerrilla spirit and tactics, held out for several weeks. And to add insult to Soviet dignity, they did so with museum pieces such as French cannons cast in the 1870s and used in the Franco-Prussian war. Stalin could not match the blitzkrieg efficiency of his German counterpart as it took him several months to subdue a weak Finland. Thus, in Hastings' words, "his confidence had also been shattered by the losses sustained by the Red Army". Once again, the Ukrainian resistance is a throwback to the past when read through the lens of the statement by Winston Churchill, who in 1939 was not the British Prime Minister but instead was sidelined in the government still led by Neville Chamberlain, who was reluctant to confront the Soviet Union directly. "Finland", Churchill argued, "has stood proud, sublime as it were, in the grip of the enemy; it has done a magnanimous service to the world by showing what free people can do".

However, the present radically differs from the past in how the West has dealt with the threat of the Russian bear. In 1939 British, French, and obviously American support was merely testimonial. Conversely, Biden welcomed Finland to the alliance with a message directed to Helsinki and Moscow alike: "Together we will continue to preserve transatlantic security and defend every inch of NATO territory".


The Finnish accession adds 1,300 kilometres of direct border with Russia to NATO, along with military forces that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described as "substantial", as well as investment in state-of-the-art technology. Helsinki confirmed a significant increase in its defence budget for the next three years. All of this, coupled with the fast-paced political progression that led to Finland's NATO membership, confirms that in just one year Putin has indeed succeeded in making his professed main concern a reality. A week after the invasion of Ukraine Finland put on hold the historic policy of neutrality it had maintained since 1939 by shipping war material to Kyiv. Finnish support for NATO membership soared in March. A month later Putin responded by threatening to deploy nuclear weapons in the Baltic Sea, prompting the Atlantic Alliance to officially declare that it would welcome Sweden and Finland "with open arms" if they applied. Finland did so in May 2022 and less than a year later became the 31st member in what, as Stoltenberg put it, was the fastest accession process in NATO's modern history.

Finland has made a choice for its own security. Sweden's NATO membership is pending approval. In reaction to Russia's voraciousness, there was a strong appeal to potentially threatened parties. Moreover, it brought a new awareness for NATO, which in recent times has not been able to establish a consolidated policy that would allow it to honour the goal that Western powers set out 74 years ago when it was founded: to provide for collective security and defence. Meanwhile, Moscow continues to engage maniacally in military threats.

History bears reminiscences but also highlights differences when the present is read through it. These lessons can be drawn by those who want to see and take advantage of them so as to be forewarned; either by those of us who follow world politics, or by those whose decisions can tragically impact on millions of people.

Aníbal Jozami is the President of the Foro del Sur Foundation. 

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