Analysis |

As Finland Moves to Join NATO, the Ghost of Mannerheim Haunts Putin

Russia potentially faces a hostile 1,335-kilometer border with a country that has F-35 jets and an agile navy. If there's one war Putin doesn't want to remind the Russian public of, it's the Winter War against Finland

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Reservists training in southeastern Finland on Monday.
Reservists training in southeastern Finland, not far from the country's long border with Russia.Credit: Lauri Heno/Lehtikuva via AP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Within 80 days, Vladimir Putin impressively succeeded where four American presidents and dozens of West European prime ministers failed over the last few decades: to strengthen, consolidate and redefine the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Within 80 days, Putin succeeded where NATO failed since its establishment in 1949: the accession of Finland and the impending accession of Sweden; two patently neutral countries. Finland was neutral due to its complicated history with Russia, Sweden for ideological reasons. This, Moscow warns, will pose a national security threat to Russia.

In fact, with Switzerland, neutral since 1515 and officially since 1815, joining the sanctions on Russia, and now with the latest news on Finland and Sweden, Putin’s achievement is truly on a historical scale.

Within 80 days of war, Putin’s flawed assumptions and strategic miscalculations have effectively created another front for Russia: an 830-mile-long (1,335-kilometer) potentially hostile border with Finland, a country of only 5.5 million people.

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With these three dubious achievements, it’s easy to understand Russia’s panic after Finland’s declaration of intent to join NATO without delay: “Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps” and “NATO expansion does not make our continent more stable and secure.” Not the atrocious and calamitous invasion of Ukraine, but “NATO expansion.”

You can blandly describe this as “unintended consequences,” but if placed in the broader context of Putin’s fundamentally erroneous assumptions, this is a strategic debacle of far-reaching implications.

Finland's military chief, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, in January 1942.Credit: Helmut Laxin/Wikimedia Commons

From the outset, the invasion of Ukraine was framed by Putin as an inevitable conflict with the West, precipitated directly by NATO’s expansion eastward to Russia’s borders and the United States’ devious plan to incorporate Ukraine into NATO with the clear intention of weakening Russia.

This was Putin’s narrative, coupled with a mission statement to restore Russia’s “legitimate claims” for a sphere of influence in Europe, amid a clash of values between a decadent West and a pure, traditional, robust Russian culture – and Ukraine wanted to acquire nuclear weapons!

From this narrative, Putin’s imperious assumptions turned out to be terrible miscalculations. A major one touched on NATO and America’s ability to mobilize, redesign and redefine NATO. Putin assumed that the discord, disunity and inherent pacifism within NATO would paralyze the organization.

The thinking was: Joe Biden may not be the gullible, Russia-friendly, Putin-adoring, NATO-skeptic Donald Trump, but America and NATO are still weak and lack the will to stand up to Putin’s resolve. This was on full display in Afghanistan, and the obsessive focus is on China, so Ukraine can be overtaken.

Finland rising

Before there was Nokia, before there was the Flying Finn – race car driver Mika Häkkinen – before Finland was named the country with the cleanest air, the best schools and the happiest people, there was Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the man, the Baron, the army chief and future president. Most pertinently, there was the line of fortifications named after him.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto meeting in Helsinki.Credit: Frank Augstein/AP

In 1917, Finland was part of the Russian Empire. During the Bolshevik Revolution, Finland seceded and declared independence, and a civil war broke out between pro-Bolshevik Finns, supported by Russian units, and the anti-Bolshevik White Army led by Gen. Mannerheim, a monarchist and former lieutenant general in the czar’s army.

By 1918, Finland had driven out the Russians and Finland was fully independent. With Stalin’s industrialization, heavy rearmament and military purges, Finland identified Moscow’s expansionist intentions. Thus, during the 1930s, Mannerheim greatly enhanced the line of fortifications linking Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland, right across from Leningrad, where 15 years later, in 1952, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin would be born.

Finland’s assessments were proved correct and in 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Finland; the so-called Winter War had begun. Mannerheim, by then the chief of the General Staff, prevented a full Soviet invasion and occupation, and inflicted heavy losses on the invading Soviets, but ultimately succumbed to the massive Red Army. Finland was coerced into signing a demeaning “peace deal” that subjected it to Soviet geopolitical interests.

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Finland saw an opportunity and opened a front along the long border against the Soviets, distracting forces from the main theater against Germany.

In 1944, facing the certainty of a Soviet triumph on the eastern front, Finland signed a separate peace deal with the USSR, rendering it neutral but essentially subjugating its foreign policy to the Soviet sphere of influence. By 1949, it was all but clear that Finland could not join the newly formed NATO.

To solve the Ukrainian crisis, a Finlandization model was proposed as early as 2014; it was rekindled before the February invasion and even now remains an option.

Helsinki’s decision to indirectly participate in Germany’s assault on the Soviet Union and the grueling war against a tenacious Finland in 1939 and 1940 left a lasting trauma – and anger – in the Soviet Union.

But Putin’s concerns aren’t only fueled by historical memory. He should know the qualitative advantages that Finland brings to NATO. With the accession of Sweden, and the three Baltic states already on board, Russia will be at a major disadvantage and lose hegemony in the Baltic Sea.

Russia potentially faces a hostile 1,335-kilometer border with a country that has F-35 jets and an agile navy. It’s the only country in NATO with general conscription (six to 12 months) – a well-equipped and well-trained army based on a reserve force.

Furthermore, unlike NATO members that decreased defense spending since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and transitioned to expeditionary-force militaries, Finland maintained that the region’s ominous threat remained Russia. Putin vindicated this thinking.

Finland will join NATO under Article 10 of the treaty, the so-called open door article. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg promised a “smooth and swift process,” though new members require a unanimous vote, something that Hungary, led by Putin’s soulmate Viktor Orban, may oppose. Seventy-six percent of Finns support joining, as well as a majority of Swedes.

Finland’s decision will obviously have no impact on the Ukraine war, nor does it fundamentally change NATO. It does, however, represent something much broader and consequential: Putin’s colossal failure in planning and managing the Ukraine crisis.

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