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The Finlandization of Ukraine: A Realist Perspective

The best outcome is not always a fairytale happy ending, but a least worst option that stems from a pragmatic acceptance of unwinnable odds and the sobriety to negotiate accordingly to mitigate the suffering of war. The “Finlandization” of Ukraine would retain its political sovereignty but forswear joining NATO and remain a neutral buffer state between Moscow and the West.

Cover Image for The Finlandization of Ukraine: A Realist Perspective
Vladimir PutinPhoto Credit: Al Jazeera
March 4, 2022

The return of conventional warfare to Europe has shocked and horrified global society. Putin’s brazen aggression has already spurred the exodus of a million Ukrainian refugees, unleashed agony on innocent civilians, and united much of the international community in a forceful response of unprecedented sanctions and an effort to reinforce Ukrainian defense. Notably absent from this response? A shred of strategic empathy to the detriment of sound policy.

Stephen Walt’s brilliant article on the crisis described strategic empathy not as “agreeing with an adversary’s position…[but] understanding it so you can fashion an appropriate response.” A thorough analysis of Russian security concerns is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a black and white picture of good versus evil that fails to account for continuous NATO expansion to Russia’s front door. This knee-jerk conflict analysis begets bad policymaking and makes a negotiated settlement that spares the lives of tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians even less feasible. Any attempt to view the conflict from different angles elicits enraged reactions and accusations of being a Putin apologist, denying the kind of full spectrum analysis that engenders prudent decision-making in an escalatory crisis.

There is no doubt that Putin’s invasion violates every conception of sovereignty and international law. What is to doubt? Whether embracing an “all or nothing” outcome of conflict termination, with Putin either picking up and leaving in (an almost impossible) defeat or a protracted insurgency rather than compromise, is in the best interest of the Ukrainian people. We have witnessed drawn out insurgencies of unspeakable suffering in Syria, Yemen, Angola, and the list goes on. Rushing to back proxies in these conflicts has led to millions of refugees, the death of countless civilians, and little prospect for peace in the foreseeable future.

In economics, we take assumptions of rationality to build a model that is easy to understand. Similarly, most analysts describing the war in Ukraine are operating under assumptions of irrationality, invoking constructivist narratives that the Russian President has gone off the deep end, is isolated during the pandemic, potentially has a terminal illness, and is obsessed with his legacy. The core assumption is that Putin’s ultimate goal is to incorporate all of Ukraine into Russia with the potential of a Hitlerian march towards the Baltics and Poland.

Conversely, John Mearhsheimer’s realist perspective has consistently described the conflict in Ukraine as imminent since NATO’s verbal promise to cease expansion past East Germany fell by the wayside. As NATO, a military alliance built specifically to counter the USSR, crept east, Russian leaders have consistently and vehemently expressed their alarm. The Bucharest Summit in 2008 announced that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join ranks, which led to a swift reaction by the Russians; Bucharest fostered Georgian boldness and Russian intervention thereafter. Likewise, after the Orange Revolution deposed Ukrainian President Yanukovych in 2014, Putin stormed into Crimea, seizing what he feared would be a future NATO naval base in Russia’s backyard; Moscow began backing a separatist movement in the Donbas, pushing any prospect of NATO membership even further out of Ukraine’s reach and making clear the Russians would rather destroy its neighbor than watch it enter the alliance.

Various Western leaders deny Putin’s suspicion of NATO, claiming the alliance has never acted aggressively, while members of the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, or Libya may disagree. It is hard to imagine that the United States would reciprocally tolerate Mexico or Canada entering a military alliance with Russia and hosting a base armed with nuclear weapons and IRBMs, especially when one recalls the level of panic during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In short, great powers of all sorts have historically rejected potential military threats on their borders.

Putin’s aims may very well be maximalist. He may have grander designs for Ukraine than the NATO neutrality he claims to seek. Can anyone be sure? Setting aside the potential existence of damning intelligence unavailable to the public, there is no concrete evidence that Putin is hellbent on annexing Ukraine. After military intervention in support of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Putin did not annex Georgia, a far more vulnerable nation of 40 million fewer people than Ukraine.

Should strategy completely discount the possibility of NATO neutrality before moving on to funding, training, and arming a mass insurgency that could engulf the country in violence for years to come? Finland managed to escape such a fate during the Cold War and is now a prosperous, democratic, and secure country as a result. Rather than be crushed between East and West, Finland correctly assessed the demands of realpolitik and anchored itself in neutrality, saving itself inevitable bloodshed in the process. If Putin’s objectives are limited to security and halting NATO expansion, Zelensky would do well to chart a similar path.

While Kyiv has received robust military assistance over the last eight years, it cannot defeat Moscow in a conventional war, which is becoming increasingly obvious as Russian force intensifies. However, it can make any occupation or attempted annexation extremely painful for Putin, which the experienced Russian leader likely knows and wishes to avoid. Still, the Kremlin has committed to its invasion and will not return home without something to show for it. As evidenced by two rounds of dialogue that failed to gain momentum, Moscow has dialed up the intensity of its coercive campaign to the despair of Ukrainian civilians. It is time to step back from the cinematic depiction of lightness battling darkness and Munich analogies, wherein compromise is a betrayal of morality, to a realist perspective.

Realists are often misunderstood creatures. Liberals criticize realists for being devoid of values and slaves to power politics. But as Richard Betts contends, realists build their worldview with a deeply ingrained sense of morality rooted in consequentialism and caution their liberal colleagues that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The best outcome is not always a fairytale happy ending, but a least worst option that stems from a pragmatic acceptance of unwinnable odds and the sobriety to negotiate accordingly to mitigate the suffering of war.

In “The Realist Persuasion,” Betts advocates for the “Finlandization” of Ukraine, in which Kyiv would retain its political sovereignty but forswear joining NATO and remain a neutral buffer state between Moscow and the West. This is a political settlement that could allow each party to walk away from the table with something to take home. For Putin: achievement of his stated objective to halt NATO expansion to his doorstep. For Ukrainians: the ability to remain a sovereign, independent state with declared military neutrality akin to Switzerland. Not to mention being spared unspeakable death and destruction. For the West: the claim that the sanctions regime drove Putin to negotiate and dampened his attempts to conquer the entire country.

Attention should turn to meaningful dialogue and compromise, with Ukrainians supported through an economic support program that builds up the country on the premise of neutrality. It is in both Europe’s and Moscow’s interest to have a stable, prosperous neighbor between them. The EU, the IMF, Russia, and the U.S. should cooperate in such a plan to support Ukrainians and build a positive-sum economic relationship. It remains the choice of the Ukrainian people whether concessions of neutrality are an acceptable outcome comparatively or if the conflict spirals into an armed insurgency in defense of a hardline position on independence. But unlike the popular comparisons to the Allied powers of World War II, no one is coming to fight alongside the Ukrainians. When looking at Finland’s example and the suffering that lies ahead without a negotiated settlement, this deal looks pretty good.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.