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A single photograph changes history

“Finlandization” is now in the dustbin of outdated words

President Biden speaks with Finnish officials after his arrival in Helsinki, Finland, on July 12. Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh

A single photograph changes history

When President Biden stepped onto the tarmac in Helsinki on Wednesday there was someone missing from the picture—a Russian head of state. Never before had an American president made a state visit to Finland without heading to Russia or meeting there in Finland with the Russian leader. The video of Air Force One arriving in Helsinki looks normal, until you notice what’s missing—who is missing. The red carpet was for the American president alone. Anyone with a knowledge of history would know that something big had happened.

So, what happened? The short version of the story would be that Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 and sent notoriously neutral Finland into the arms of NATO. Behind that is one of the grand dramas of history. It bears a closer look.

Finland has always had an awkward relationship with the Russian bear. Finland is small, compared to Mother Russia, but its territory is of vital importance to Europe’s northland. Furthermore, it is an authentic nation, with language and culture and history behind it. But for centuries Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden. After a war, in 1809 Finland became the Grand Duchy of Finland, part of the Russian Empire. Then, in 1917, the Finns seized the opportunity offered by revolution in Russia and declared independence.

Things were complicated enough when Finland’s big worry was its relationship with Imperial Russia and, eventually, the Soviet Union. The nation would have to fight two wars against Soviet armies, but would emerge intact as a nation after ceding much of Karelian peninsula to Russia.

But Finland’s “independence” was a strange sort of independence. It was a nation, but it’s situation vis-à-vis the Soviet Union was so tenuous that it was pushed into a strange sort of neutrality that required a new vocabulary. In the West, “Finlandization” meant a forced position of political non-alignment. The nation maintained its independence and good relations with the United States and western Europe—but at arm’s length. The “neutrality” was official. The position was untenable, but it lasted for decades.

What many in the West missed is that Finland had been arming itself with a formidable arsenal and professional armed forces. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Finland continued to build its arsenal and its relations with the West, even to the point of joint exercises. But something like NATO membership was unthinkable. Or it was unthinkable until it wasn’t.

The game-changer was Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The game-changer was Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. At that point, both Sweden and Finland changed history by applying for NATO membership. Both nations are well armed and formidable, both are relatively small and vulnerable, especially to Russia, but both had been officially independent of NATO. Putin chased them quickly into NATO’s arms, but in foreign affairs nothing is uncomplicated.

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is the key symbol and system of Western military alliance. Founded in 1949, everyone knew why NATO was needed as a bulwark to protect western Europe and North America against Soviet power and the Warsaw Pact nations under Soviet control. Sweden and Finland remained “neutral,” though Finland was even more “neutral” than Sweden. For both nations simultaneously to join NATO is the clearest possible sign that neutrality is no longer an option. Whatever Vladimir Putin’s strategic intentions may have been, his worry that Ukraine would join NATO was part of the rationale for the invasion. The moves by Sweden and Finland reveal that Putin’s grand strategy was a disaster. Ukraine is adamant in its urgency to join NATO, and Finland and Sweden are now full members. Putin may have seen NATO in eclipse, but nothing has reinvigorated NATO like Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Turkey, the final holdout, finally agreed to Sweden’s admission to NATO on the eve of last week’s summit. Sweden and Finland were formally admitted. Ukraine was not admitted to NATO, and was not given a firm promise of when that might come. But Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zalenskyy was given a seat at the table. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, previously considered Putin’s ally, stood on the NATO dais with Zalenskyy. Once again, the world changed this week in a photograph.

Ukraine was not admitted to NATO membership for the simple reason that NATO’s most formidable feature is Article V of the charter, which states that “an armed attack against one or more of them [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” That means that war with one NATO nation means war with all. NATO is not yet ready to include Ukraine in that assurance, at least so long as it is at war with Russia. But support for Ukraine was central to the photos and the messages sent from the NATO summit.

Even more than that, the images from the summit, and from the U.S. president’s visit to Finland, show that history can sometimes turn on a dime. Back in 2019, I attended a dinner in London with a senior diplomat from Finland. Neither of us could then imagine the events of this week’s NATO summit. That was less than four years ago.

Vladimir Putin’s Russian aggression shoved Finland and Sweden right into NATO and put NATO forces right up against even more of Russia’s border. The Baltic Sea is now a “NATO lake.” Vladimir Putin is both evil and strategically inept. He also managed to kill part of our vocabulary. “Finlandization” is now in the dustbin of outdated words.

R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also the host of The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of several books, including The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. He is the seminary’s Centennial Professor of Christian Thought and a minister, having served as pastor and staff minister of several Southern Baptist churches.

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