DAVID IGNATIUS: A Finland model for Ukraine?

DAVID IGNATIUS

DAVID IGNATIUS

After months of war fever over Ukraine, perhaps the biggest surprise is that citizens there will be voting to choose a new government in elections that observers predict will be free and fair in most areas.

This electoral pathway for Ukraine seemed unlikely a few weeks ago, given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his covert campaign to destabilize the Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine. The country seemed at risk of being torn apart.

Putin appears, at this writing, to have decided that Russia’s interests are better served by waiting for the nonaligned government he expects will emerge from today’s elections than from an invasion or some radical destabilization. The Russian leader may be ready to accept a neutral country, between East and West, where Russia’s historical interests are recognized. During the Cold War, such an outcome was known as Finlandization.

If this Finland-like status is what Ukrainians support (and recent evidence suggests their new leaders may indeed choose this course) then it should be a welcome outcome for the West, too.

Ukraine’ss problems are internal; it needs ideological coherence more than territorial defense.

Maybe the elections will dull the self-flagellating domestic rhetoric in the United States that Putin’s menacing moves were somehow the fault of President Obama and his allegedly weak foreign policy.

If the election goes forward (with Putin maintaining his current wait and see stance), Obama deserves credit for crisis policymaking of the sort recommended by the respected British strategist Lawrence Freedman.

The case for Finlandization emerges in a monograph prepared recently by the State Department’s Office of the Historian.

It argues that “Finnish foreign policy during the Cold War successfully preserved Finland’s territorial and economic sovereignty, through adherence to a careful policy of neutrality in foreign affairs.”

Ukraine’s new government may pursue a similar nonalignment.

For all the war talk, Ukraine has really been a test of nonconventional forces and covert action rather than military intervention.

What seems to have slowed Putin’s allies in Ukraine is similarly unconventional. It wasn’t Ukrainian government troops that restored order in eastern cities such as Donetsk and Mariupol.

The army’s performance was middling, at best. Stability returned because of the deployment in at least five eastern cities of steelworkers and miners apparently dispatched by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, who opposed a breakup of his country.

Obama administration officials stress that this has to be Ukraine’s choice.

The stabilizing factor here will be an Ukraine that makes its own decisions.

Read more from David Ignatius’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook. Contact David Ignatius at davidignatius@washpost.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.