By Tapio Kanninen and Georgios Kostakos*
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine that started on 24 February 2022, the world was horrified at the prospect of a new major war in Europe. Condemnation for the invasion rightly goes to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. An overblown Western reaction, though, may have dangerous consequences for the future of the whole international order, among other things increasing the likelihood of accidental nuclear war and undermining the urgency of combatting catastrophic global warming.
How we got to where we are now
The reaction of the West to the invasion of Ukraine has concentrated on imposing severe sanctions and other restrictions on Putin and Russia. The aim is clear: to inflict maximum pain on the Russian population and oligarchs. The West tries to isolate Russia and strengthen NATO, pushing for the latter’s rapid enlargement. Such attitudes clearly emanate from the old Cold War mentality of preventing the Soviet Union from spreading communism around the world. To that end, NATO was initially established as a nuclear umbrella to deter any Soviet attack on the European allies. Pushing for increased military budgets is also a way of containing Russia. But Russia is not promoting communism anymore. Rather, it has historically been concerned about invaders like the Mongols, Poland, Napoleon, and Hitler. It may look irrational from a Western point of view, but for Russian leaders and a part of the Russian population, the NATO expansion that started when the Soviet Union was dismantled constitutes an existential threat.
George F. Kennan, the architect of US containment policy against Russian expansion during the Cold War and the Marshall Plan, expressed Russian fears of invasion in this way: At the “bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is the traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity”. During the Soviet Union’s time Eastern European and the Baltic States gave Russia a buffer zone against potential invaders but when the Soviet Union broke up that buffer was lost. The West and the Clinton Administration used this situation to the West’s military and security advantage expanding NATO to Poland, Hungary, the Baltic States, and beyond. Kennan strongly objected to this expansion, as he thought it would start a new Cold War with Russia. NATO expansion was in his mind “Strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions”.
When Russia is portrayed as an eternal enemy and Putin and other Kremlin leaders as evil, the countermeasures against the Ukraine invasion could easily be overblown, increasing over time the likelihood of nuclear war and use of other weapons of mass deduction unless some confidence-building measures are put in place. While this is happening, other major challenges remain unattended. Thus, catastrophic global warming becomes much more likely – an existential threat to all humanity – as defense rather than climate action budgets are increased during a period of negative, slow, or zero economic growth. Moreover, reliance on fossil fuels including domestically extracted coal, which was supposed to be phased out, is seen as necessary in reducing dependence on Russian gas and fighting inflation. Europe’s transformation to a green economy will take even longer, it now seems, too long compared to the urgent need for climate action.
Lessons (not) learned
After two world wars, humankind learned that after large-scale carnage and humanitarian suffering, there should be a sincere effort to build a new international architecture based on collective security and cooperation. While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not comparable to World War I or II, as of the date of writing of this article at least, tens of thousands have already been killed or wounded. The war has also had devastating effects in terms of millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, increased inflation, and rising food prices threatening to create massive hunger in many countries.
Inside Russia too the effects of sanctions and isolation are expected to be catastrophic and will likely increase poverty, misery, humiliation, resentment, and hatred against the West. This can only lead to escalation, as the Russians have the means to exact revenge if relations between Russia and the West continue to deteriorate: nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and cyber-attacks against Western institutions and businesses. We have to remember how the bitterness felt by the Germans after the Versailles Treaty’s harsh peace terms in 1919 made possible Hitler’s path to power.
The Finnish model of dealing with Russia
It should not be so difficult to start thinking in ways that will eventually build cooperation and trust between Russia, Europe, and the US. To do so – to think differently on peace, security, and cooperation – we have to take some lessons from history. The Finnish-Soviet Winter War of 1939-40 bears significant resemblance to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Like Ukraine, Finland has a long border with Russia, with the Russian city of St Petersburg just 20 miles from the border. Historically, Russia has feared an attack from the Baltic Sea and through Lapland. After the German invasion of Poland, Stalin asked Finland to give some strategic areas to the Soviet Union to ensure protection of St Petersburg and other Russian strategic interests from an enemy invasion. Following Finland’s refusal, Stalin started the Winter War against Finland in late 1939. The Soviet Union had two wars with Finland during the WWII period. It could not occupy the whole country, though, and Finland remained independent although it lost parts of its territory.
After WWII and based on the lessons of the two wars that Finland fought with the Soviet Union during that period, two Finnish Presidents, Juho Paasikivi and Urho Kekkonen developed a new doctrine of cooperation and friendship with an old enemy, mostly for geopolitical reasons. The doctrine included some self-censorship to avoid provoking the Soviet Union. This policy of « Finlandization » was condemned and ridiculed in the West. It has contributed, though, to good relations between Finland and the Soviet Union, as well as Russia, and has made the Finns feel secure until this date. In fact, the Finns were found to be the happiest people in the world in the 2021 survey, for the fifth year in a row. President Zelensky of Ukraine did not have at all a mindset of Finlandization before the Russian invasion and some observers have characterized his behavior as provocative. It was reported that President Macron raised Finlandization as one model for Ukraine but was strongly criticized and the concept did not appear anymore in his talks. In fact, in 2014 Henry Kissinger had publicly suggested Finlandization as a good option for Ukraine.
Building confidence in Europe, in the late 1960s and 1970s and now
Another lesson from history is how a visionary foreign policy of a country can turn a security threat into a confidence-building process, which is how the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe started. After the tensions created by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in view of other problems in its satellite countries, the Soviet Union suggested in 1969 to European countries that a Conference on Security should be convened. This suggestion put Finland in a difficult position. Rejection would create a problem in its sensitive relationship with Russia. Finland decided to put forward its own initiative proposing Helsinki as venue for the Conference, adding both economic and humanitarian cooperation to its agenda, and inviting also the US and Canada to participate.
There was strong criticism against the Finnish proposal from many sides but gradually the initiative gathered strength and the Conference was held in Helsinki in 1975. The result was reduced tension in Europe and between the US and the Soviet Union. The OSCE that resulted from it has grown to be the world’s largest security-oriented regional organization active in peace missions, electoral monitoring, and other fields. Among other positive effects, human rights monitoring got a major boost through this process.
In December 2021 President Putin issued a list of security guarantees Russia needed to reduce tension and solve the perceived problems in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia asked for new security arrangements with NATO and the US. These demands were rejected by the West. While in many ways different from the Soviet Union’s initiative in 1969, in both cases the question was about geopolitical stability and security.
Sooner or later we should change our mindset from thinking about military threats and solutions imposed with the power of arms and sanctions to promoting cooperation, security, and stability in international relations in general and in Europe in particular. If a country or an international organization proposes a new process for peace and cooperation – like Finland did in the early 1970s – this time China should be part of it as well. In terms of topics, a process for cooperation, security, and stability should definitely include the prevention of accidental nuclear war and climate change mitigation and adaptation. To propose a viable new confidence-building arrangement in response to the Ukraine crisis would require a lot of boldness and creativity. It should include a real departure from relying primarily on military guarantees and power balances to safeguard peace and security and should include provisions for addressing non-military threats to human security too.
*Dr. Tapio Kanninen, former Chief of Policy Planning at the UN’s Department of Political Affairs in New York, is a member of the Advisory Board of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS). He is also currently President of the Global Crisis Information Network Inc. and a founding member of Climate Leadership Coalition Inc. His latest book is Crisis of Global Sustainability (2013). While at the UN Tapio also served as Head of the Secretariat of Kofi Annan’s five Summits with Regional Organizations that also included military alliances like NATO.
*Dr. Georgios Kostakos is Executive Director of the Brussels-based . He has been extensively involved in global governance, sustainability, and climate-related activities with the United Nations and beyond. The starting point for the work of FOGGS is the need for a new for a fair, human-centered, and inclusive globalization. One of its projects is the for UN reform, which includes the proposal to establish a Global Resilience Council to effectively address non-military threats to human security like climate change and pandemics.