Greetings from a Finnish leftist! The international situation has apparently left many people in the English-speaking countries confused. I originally wrote this thread in Twitter in the hopes of sharing a perspective I believe is widely although certainly not universally shared in Finland, most leftists included. This is a slightly edited version, for clarity.
What we see happening in Ukraine right now is, to put it bluntly, Russian (or more precisely, the Kremlin’s) imperialism. If no other evidence convinces you, I beseech you to read a translation of Putin’s speech on 21st February 2022. He rails about NATO, but pay attention to how he is talking about Ukraine, effectively denying its right to independence and negating the agency of its citizens.
The current crisis has very little to do with NATO, and almost everything to do with Putin’s desire to reinstate the Russian Empire, particularly the “inalienable part” – Ukraine. He has consistently maintained in public that it was a “mistake” to “allow” the former Soviet republics to become independent.
He has also implied that Lenin made an error in 1917 when he let the former Russian territories “go.” One of the countries that gained independence from Russia in 1917, by the way, was Finland.
What Putin seems to fear the most, rightly so, is that democratic revolution reaches Moscow. Thus, democracy itself is a threat to him. It is very difficult to believe that he is really afraid of NATO military forces. We can objectively demonstrate from historical record that the deployment of NATO forces to countries close to Russia used to be laughably minuscule before the “color revolution” in Ukraine spooked Putin in 2014.
Only after Putin’s blatant 2008 and 2014 breaches of post-World War II convention of not redrawing the map of Europe with a sword did NATO even step up military deployments. Still, the deployments were mostly cosmetic, and have not markedly altered the balance of power.
The post-2017 “enhanced forward presence” in the Baltics, for instance, consisted of four battalion task groups. Independent analysts have now counted about 125 similar Russian army groups massing along Ukraine’s borders.
The most powerful nuclear weapon states in the world have little to fear from an attack by other nation states. But what frightens Putin and his band of kleptocrats is the very real possibility that the Russian people decide to get rid of them. The recent events in Byelorussia, where the dictator would probably have been ousted by his people if he hadn’t received help from the Kremlin, must only have reinforced Putin’s fears.
Democratic, successful countries bordering European Russia are a menace to him personally. They show the Russians an alternative, and can even serve as sanctuaries for dissidents that Putin would like to invite for a tea by the window.
This is the reason why Putin is doing his best to undermine the European Union, for instance. Democracy failing is exactly what his anti-democratic propaganda has been claiming for years. To help his dreams become reality, he cynically supports the European and American far right, up to and including support from clandestine intelligence services and financial assistance. Failing Europe would be a boon for Putin, and a divided Europe is a weak Europe whose individual countries can be threatened or corrupted from within.
Putin also controls a formidable propaganda machine, which apparently has been very successful in selling many leftists a story of poor Russia being threatened by evil NATO and thus forced to mass the second greatest invasion force seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War – against non-NATO Ukraine.
(I personally cannot see how the Ukrainians even could be responsible for NATO’s actions even if the above was true, any more than those wedding parties the U.S. has droned over the years were the responsibility of Al Qaida or the Taleban.)
But in reality, the fact is that NATO has not “enlarged” itself: the fact is that democratic countries close to Russia have wanted to join NATO. I hope you ask yourself: why?
Why do you believe the Baltic nations – Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia – were desperate to be admitted to NATO? Why does NATO remains popular in these countries?
Do you really believe that people in countries like the Baltics are evil warmongers who just want to have a go at the Russians? Or that they are poor simpletons bought or duped by some ominous NATO cabal planning to subjugate the Russians?
Or would a more plausible explanation be that people in countries bordering Russia have been for years genuinely concerned that resurgent Kremlin could do precisely something like the Kremlin has now demonstrably done in Georgia and in Ukraine?
I for one used to oppose NATO membership for Finland. I hoped the Kremlin would stop after the first two overt uses of military force, in 2008 and 2014. It did not do so.
Now I’m among those in Finland who are saying that the facts have changed and the opinions need to change as well. There has been a tremendous outburst of public support for Finland’s NATO membership. Because we want to avoid a war.
I firmly believe violence is not a solution, and that a sustainable world cannot be built with it. But sometimes the democracies need to find their spine. I’m still a reservist in the Finnish army and yesterday I voluntarily reviewed my wartime tasks and mobilization packing list, just in case.
Back in the 1930s, democracies turned their backs on democratic Spain. For years I’ve wondered, could the history have turned the other way if they hadn’t? What if they had shown more solidarity when solidarity was needed?
Even if a war could be avoided by yielding to the Kremlin, I really fear what that would mean for the Nordic social democratic experiment. You see, what “finlandization” actually means is a circumscribed quasi-democracy.
A country that is at the mercy of the Kremlin, like we were during the Cold War, may be nominally democratic, but only as long as the people are careful enough to only choose candidates that are acceptable to the Kremlin. I could well write another piece this long about the various downsides of finlandization, but I spare you for now. Just consider this: yielding to the Kremlin means that parties and politicians who like the Kremlin gain in power.
Which politicians would those be?
Right now, the nationalistic-conservative far right is the favorite of the Kremlin. More European countries would end up like Hungary, dominated by the far right who proceed to sell off the country’s assets, like public health services, to their cronies. If this development is familiar to you, check what those selling off your national assets are saying about Ukraine now.
Of course, Putin is nothing if not an opportunist, and he cynically exploits the left as well, if we let him do so. His troll farms and state-controlled media do not create division or controversy as such, but they are very good at amplifying whatever discord there is. The goal of modern era propaganda is not to make you believe the propagandist; it suffices that you drown in conflicting information and cease to believe in anything. When nothing is true and everything is possible, the public falls into apathy – which suits the powerful just fine. Being neutral in a situation where the powerful seek to oppress the weak means that you take the side of the powerful, just as Desmond Tutu once said.
Since Putin’s funds are largely based on Russia’s exports of fossil fuels, Putin also has a very strong interest in keeping Europe hooked on fossil fuels. The climate denialism the far right espouses is therefore another reason for Putin to support them. There are many good reasons for ending the world’s fossil fuel addiction as soon as possible, but this dependence on tinpot dictators is surely a good one as well.
If Europe is again divided into individual states and spheres of influence, democracy would be curtailed all around Eastern Europe. In Finland, our social democracy could effectively end in the typical far right mismanagement and crony capitalism. With it, the experiment to create a sustainable social democracy would suffer, and probably end as well. I may be biased, but I truly believe that experiment could have a lot to offer to the world. If the Nordic experiment then fails, what does the left has to offer to the world then?
Ukraine is not a perfect democracy by any means – no country is – but if it is subjugated under the Kremlin’s autocratic shadow, what are the odds their democracies and freedoms could improve? Especially when we are seeing what the Kremlin’s puppet in Byelorussia is doing.
This is fundamentally a struggle between democracy and autocracy. It is taking place both between democracies and autocracies, and within democracies and autocracies. I lament that many in the left reflexively take the side of autocracy, even though I understand the power of propaganda and the blunders and crimes the U.S. for instance has committed in the past. The world does not revolve entirely around the United States, neither in good nor in ill, and in a world of nearly eight billion people, the political lines are rarely drawn as neatly as in political study circles and theories. This is particularly true in the border regions of former or aspiring empires.
We can easily multitask and denounce the U.S., Russian, and Chinese imperialism simultaneously, for instance.
If you have any questions, please let me know.
For the Russians reading this, let me reiterate: Europeans do not hate you nor wish you or Russia ill. We would greatly prefer peaceful, mutually beneficial cooperation for the betterment of all humanity. But we will not compromise on our fundamental values and freedoms. Democracies may seem soft on the outside, but if pushed, the pusher may find that “soft” can also mean “tough”, just as “hard” may also mean “brittle.” Democracies have faced down worse autocrats before, and prevailed.
Thank you all for reading, and in solidarity from Finland!
PS. For evidence that the above represents a widespread sentiment even among the Finnish left (with the exception of being openly pro-NATO, where I’m an early adopter), see for instance this recent editorial of the People’s News, the Finnish newspaper traditionally close to the Left Alliance. It lays the facts as I too see them: right now there is one warmonger in Europe, and his name is Putin.