26 September 2007

"Russia, Russia and Russia"

By Tapani Lausti

During the years after the Second World War Finnish politicians developed the capability of giving official speeches full of boring liturgy about the friendly relations between Finland and the Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the Soviet system many politicians have felt free to air their worries about Russia's internal development as well as foreign policy.

Simultaneously, for many right-wing politicians the joy of Finland being more openly one of "the Western democracies" has been overwhelming. Instead of looking critically around the world they have chosen a new liturgy which emphasises common values with the United States and the rest of "the civilised world". They are contemptuous of the supposed lingering reluctance to speak openly about "the Russian bear". However, there is no openness in their newly-found freedom when it comes to Washington's reckless war policy. It is hardly mentioned.

This new eagerness to please the United States government was evident in the speech given recently by the Finnish defence minister Jyri Häkämies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. In his speech Häkämies stunned even some of his government colleagues by announcing that Finland had three "security challenges": "Russia, Russia and Russia."

He seems to have had a naive idea that this "stylistic" gimmick was a good way to keep the American audience awake. Also one has to remember that the Finnish conservative National Coalition Party (Kokoomus) — the party of which Häkämies is a member — had promised to speak frankly about foreign policy, relations with Russia included. Instead of offering clarity, however, Häkämies created much confusion in both Finland and Russia.

The speech did not actually say anything very dramatically new about Finnish foreign policy. Häkämies emphasised that Russia is not a "security threat" to Finland. But the ill-thought out phrasing about "security challenges" in the US capital created a furious row in Finland. One newspaper editorial asked who Finland had suddenly aligned with since the defense minister said that Russia was now a challenge to "all of us". Who are the others? the editorial asked.

This is what Häkämies said about Finland's position as Russia's neighbour: "I think it would be a foolish — and mistaken — conclusion to draw that the new Russia will threaten Finland's security. This is not the case. What it means, first and foremost, is that those who at the end of the Cold War were eager to proclaim that the era of geopolitics was over in the North of Europe were just plain wrong. Geopolitics is back, and it is back with force, and we who have the responsibility for Finland's national defence must draw certain conclusions."

However, Häkämies did not tell his audience what the conclusions might be. So much for clarity.

In a similarly vague way he added: "At the same time, we see Russia as an opportunity, not only as a challenge. We should be smart about how we draw Russia in to be a responsible player and a partner in our part of the world. Perhaps easier said than done, but for us in Helsinki there really is no other choice."

And there was more: "It is clear that Russia is, supported by the huge revenues it is reaping from oil and gas, on its way of becoming a world player again. According to the Russian world view, military force is a key element in how it conducts its international relations."

Now Häkämies's meaning becomes clearer. He was telling a sympathetic audience in Washington what a potentially dangerous neighbour Russia can be. And how naughty of the Russians to see military force as a key element in international relations. One wonders if Häkämies thinks that the United States is led by pacifists. Or that using oil as a strategic resource is beyond the nice and friendly foreign policy planners in Washington.

Some Russians might be excused for wondering how Finland is aligning itself in a situation where Washington seems keen to provoke a new Cold War. A leading American expert on Russia, Stephen Cohen, lists several American moves in this direction: "the eastward expansion of NATO (thereby breaking a promise the first President Bush made to Gorbachev); the American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had discouraged a new nuclear arms race; the bogus nuclear weapons reduction treaty of 2002; and the ongoing military encirclement of Russia with U.S. and NATO bases in former Soviet territories." (The Political Tragedy of Russia, Los Angeles Times, 27 February 2005) (See Finland and the new Cold War)

In the Finnish public debate this background to Russian military thought is not mentioned. Thus one of the leading pro-NATO politicians, Pertti Salolainen, said in an interview that he has for some time been worried about Russia's "military muscle-flexing". Salolainen talked also about the recent undemocratic developments in Russia. (Jäähyväiset Natolle? by Tuomo Lappalainen, Suomen Kuvalehti, 14 September 2007; the title is: "Farewell to NATO?")

Like Häkämies, Salolainen is a member of the conservative party Kokoomus and currently holds the chair of the parliamentary foreign policy committee (he is an ex-foreign trade minister and ex-London ambassador). In the same interview Salolainen said that he has always recommended that Finland should join NATO when the weather is good. "Now the sun is not shining anymore and there are dark clouds up there", he added. In his view, joining NATO now is more difficult because it would harm Finnish-Russian relations.

Salolainen continued in a similar vein: "It is an utterly unbearable thought that Finland would decide to ask for help only when we are in the middle of a serious crisis. Then NATO membership would really be an act which would seriously escalate the crisis and increase tension. You cannot make such decisions when the crisis is there."

This is plain talk in the sense that politicians often avoid mentioning Russia when they talk about possible security crises. Again the message to Russia is clear. You are not only a "security challenge" but also a "security threat". However, whenever the Russian threat is mentioned in comments like this, no explanation is offered as to what Russia could possibly gain by attacking or occupying Finland. The world has changed a great deal since the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939 but many Finns live with this traumatic memory and think a Russian attack is still possible. (See A country without security problems)

Some Finnish experts on Russia warn of exaggerating Russia's military ambitions. Alpo Juntunen of the National Defence University says that nothing exceptional is going on. Russia is in a way only getting back the military status which it has always had. After a dreadful economic decade the poor state of the armed forces is now being repaired. Juntunen also criticised people who think that Russia is ready to attack if Vladimir Putin talks about Russia's need for strong and modern armed forces. According to Juntunen, this is not what it is all about. (Tutkijat "haasteesta": Venäjä kehittynyt ennustetusti by Kai Hirvasnoro, Kansan Uutisten Viikkolehti, 14 September 2007; the title is: "Researchers about 'the challenge': Russia has developed in a predictable way")

Another expert, Arto Luukkanen of the University of Helsinki, interviewed in the same article, agrees and points out that Russia spends less on military expenditure than France. The Russian military budget next year will be 36,8 billion dollars. Britain's comparable figure is 60 billions, France's 50 billions. The US will spend 623 billions.

Luukkanen welcomed Häkämies's speech. He thinks openness is a good thing in the debates about security policy. Juntunen, on his part, had just met Russian civilian scholars who thought that the relations between the two countries are normal.

As to the Finnish-US relations, it has been noted in Washington that Finland has a new centre-right government with a more positive attitude towards the US. In no time at all a meeting between foreign ministers Ilkka Kanerva and Condoleezza Rice was arranged in Washington. After the meeting Kanerva talked about common values related to democracy and human rights. This elicited no criticism neither among Finnish politicians nor in the media.

Reactions to the occupation of Iraq and the ensuing hell have been strangely muted in Finland. Most of the media has swallowed the American propaganda line that the US forces are trying to help create "stability" in Iraq. And in Afghanistan Finland has joined the occupying forces. The media lauds Finland's "peace-keeping" role. Again, the reporting lacks any serious historical context which would show that Washington's motives have nothing to do with democracy and human rights. (See The Ongoing Tragedy of Afghanistan by John Wright, CounterPunch, 23 August 2007; How can this bloody failure be regarded as a good war? by Seumas Milne, The Guardian, 23 August 2007; It takes inane optimism to see victory in Afghanistan by Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 8 August 2007; Operation Enduring Freedom: A Retrospective by Stephen Zunes, Foreign Policy in Focus, 18 October 2006.)

In Finland it has been emphasised that the military operations in Afghanistan have been approved by the United Nations. Here I will only quote a Canadian writer: "NATO's role in Afghanistan, while ostensibly under UN approval, is in reality under U.S. command. Canada and NATO have accepted U.S. command, and are faithfully performing their empirical duties in Afghanistan. While Canadian government rhetoric has been about rebuilding Afghanistan, the reality on the ground is about battling an insurgency, that good or bad, is a native insurgency. Again, while the rhetoric is about rebuilding a democratic Afghanistan, the ultimate purpose of American geopolitical strategy in the region is to control the oil and gas supplies and routes from the Caspian Basin and guard against Russian and Chinese control of the same." (Canada - Time to exit NATO by Jim Miles, ZNet, 18 September 2007)

Visit the archive: Finland's foreign and security policy, Afghanistan, US policies, Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, Jean Bricmont

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