Russia is making a very good case for Finland to join NATO
Arvamus 19 Jul 2012  EWR
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Edward Lucas
I am beginning to wonder if I should send flowers to Vladimir Putin. His actions are helping to sell my books. They make my warnings about energy security, economic pressure, mischief-making in the former empire and espionage look all too justified.

Take the case of Finland, a country that has historically had good relations with Russia. It was a scrupulous neutral during the Cold War and an accommodating neighbour. Unlike some other countries, it does not bang on about its suffering at Soviet hands; it does not mourn (publicly at least) the loss of the lovely city of Viipuri (now a slovenly Russian town called Vyborg). It does not make a big fuss about human rights in Russia but gets on with trade and investment.

One might think therefore that Russian officials would regard that as an asset, and cherish good relations with Finland. They would take great care not to sound bullying or overbearing. They would use Finland as a showcase for the benefits of constructive co-operation, giving the lie to the idea that Russia is uniformly distrusted by its neighbours and despises them in return.

That would indeed be a rational approach. But it is not the way Russia is behaving. Instead, it has launched a campaign of verbal intimidation against Finland, seemingly aimed at stopping the country from joining NATO. It started with a remarkable speech last month by General Nikolai Makarov, the commander of Russia's armed forces.

Speaking to an elite audience of Finnish defence specialists and military officers, he warned his hosts not to conduct exercises in eastern Finland, not to engage in military co-operation with other Nordic and Arctic countries, and not to get close to NATO.

Instead, Finland would be better off increasing its military co-operation with Russia. He did not pay even lip service to the idea that Finland, as a sovereign country, could make up its own mind on the issue.

That brought a sharp response from Finland's new president, Sauli Niinistö, who told the Russian guest bluntly that his views were based on inaccurate analysis. (Niinistö, a conservative, is a different kind of president to his left-wing predecessor, the NATO-hating Tarja Halonen.)

One could dismiss the episode as an unfortunate aberration, a bit of Russian military bombast better forgotten than scrutinised. But on 23 June, Putin himself drove the message home, telling Niinistö that if Finland joined NATO it could undermine Russia's security and provoke a "tough response".

If anyone wanted to guarantee a warm reception for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is arriving in Moscow this week via Helsinki and Riga, this would be pretty much the perfect script. But it affects deeper issues too. It has undermined the case of those who say Russia is no threat. It has raised support for higher defence spending and a robust military capability. It has also underlined the need for Finland to have good defence ties with other countries (military isolation and strict neutrality look rather risky for a small country when a big one next door starts talking like that). It has also bolstered the arguments of those (like me) who think Finland should take the plunge and join NATO now while it can; if it waits until it really needs to, it may by then be too late, either because Russia forbids it or because the alliance has become too timid.

Perhaps Putin could do Sweden next. The Swedish Atlantic Council, which campaigns for Sweden's NATO membership, would doubtless be delighted.

Edward Lucas edits the international section of The Economist and is the author of "Deception: spies, lies and how Russia dupes the West". This column was written for European Voice, and also distributed to followers of the author’s list.
 
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