Are Russia and the United States in a race for the Finnish line?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Europe proved to be quite timely, in an explosive period in Europe; he could hardly have chosen a more powerful time to hold lengthy meetings with the frontline leaders of the New Front. The leaders at the heart of a new confrontation that is brewing are, as unlikely as it may seem, Finland and Sweden – especially Finland. These two Nordic countries are accelerating their steps to join NATO following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Finland takes the lead. Sweden does not have a border with Russia, but Finland does, over 1,300 km. Russia has warned, inevitably, of “serious consequences” if Finland joins NATO. Considering Ukraine, no one takes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats lightly anymore. Everyone undoubtedly hopes that the future will justify the current tendencies to take Putin’s repeated and thinly veiled threats of a nuclear option lightly.
Faced with Finland’s decision to join NATO and Putin’s warning, the danger of a Russian ground invasion of Finland seems far more immediate at the moment than the nuclear option. It also means that the prospect of a Third World War is far from fanciful. NATO is unlikely to adopt a bystander position if Russia were to attack Finland.
Finland has a long and difficult relationship with Russia. And he found some rather unusual ways to deal with it – sauna diplomacy. Hostility-prone Russian leaders were invited to Helsinki for talks with Finnish leaders conducted partly while seated together in a sauna — an environment for political talks could hardly get more informal than this. The belief has presumably been that if two leaders have a pleasant chat together wearing only towels, one will not attack the other the next day. Whether the sauna did it or other things did, Russia hasn’t attacked Finland since 1939, other than a confrontation between the forces of the two nations again during World War II.
During the 1939 invasion ordered by dictator Joseph Stalin, furious at little Finland’s refusal to cede certain territories as ordered, the Russians suffered heavy losses. A force of 33,000 Finns more than withstood 26 Russian divisions, depleted of its officers by Stalin’s great purge in which he had just about every senior military commander in the Russian forces shot, fearing their alliance with the Germans and a tendency to oust him. A treaty ended the Russo-Finnish War three months later.
Today, Finland feels threatened again, and it clearly does not want to rely on its meager forces to keep the Russians away if it comes to that. They also don’t seem to believe that a conversation with Putin in a simple towel in a sauna could deter him from his invasive ways. Finland wants NATO to step in and make any war of its own effectively become a war of the United States against Russia. Under Article 5 of NATO, an attack on one member country would be considered an attack on every member country.
Membership in NATO usually takes a year as the parliaments of all member countries must approve a new member. But Finland is in a hurry; he wants NATO protection as soon as it applies, a request that NATO has offered to meet in large part. Finland is expected to launch its membership process next week. NATO leaders have said they will consider offering some degree of protection before the full ratification process.
This then opens up the prospect of an implantation of American forces along a 1,300 km border with Russia in the very near future. The two kept their distance from each other except for distant confrontations throughout the Cold War. But few will believe that face to face on Russia’s land border, the two will keep peace for long.
India has good relations with Russia and the United States, and if it comes down to sitting down, this fence currently seems more comfortable than a seat on either side. India simply cannot afford to lose its strategic relationship with Russia, which has been more supportive of India through its own conflicts than any other country.
India has abstained from UN resolutions condemning Russia. Pakistan too. India could hardly condemn Russia at the UN with Pakistan playing a supporting role, given the long military ties between Russia and India. India remains tied to Russia for now, as it has for a long time.
This new face-to-face which is developing rapidly across Europe will need interlocutors. Prime Minister Modi’s visit marks a step forward for India to position itself as a potentially influential interlocutor. Prime Minister Modi can’t talk Putin out of the invasion, but India could potentially remain a voice of goodwill on all sides that can start to count in an escalating conflict while keeping things calm in his own neighborhood.
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