- - Thursday, August 25, 2016

There’s nothing like a slap across the face, or a splash of icy water, to get a sleepyhead’s instant attention. Finland, like Sweden, has prized its neutrality, often with a self-righteous smirk at the rest of the West. But reality has wiped the smirk away.

The Finns now say they’re close to concluding “a defense co-operation agreement” with the United States, hoping to strengthen their security in the face of Russian rattling of its sabers — and its planes and tanks — in the region. Jussi Niinisto, the Finnish defense minister, says he hopes to have an agreement to share training, information and research signed and in place before the American elections in November.

“I’m certain we will continue to work together with either one of the main candidates,” he told Reuters, the British news agency. Finland signed such an agreement with Britain in June, and officials of both Finland and Sweden participated at a summit session of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Warsaw last month. NATO countries are nervous about Russian air and sea maneuvers in the region, and both Sweden and Finland have signed agreements to make it easier to entertain NATO troops if there’s a crisis before the conclusion of permanent agreements.

Finland’s No. 1 concern is, as always, its big Russian neighbor next door, with whom it has had a checkered past. When Russia made war with the Swedish empire in a previous century it excluded the Grand Duchy of Finland from the Czarist empire, and Finnish autonomy was preserved.

But not for long. Stalin and the Soviet Union made demands in 1939 that Finland wouldn’t accommodate and the Finns gave the Russians a black eye in the three-month Winter War that followed. Their snow-white ski troops held off the Russians long enough to win the hearts of the democracies. But the cheering didn’t persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to break the American Neutrality Act. Bad things happened. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev later estimated that 1.5 million Soviet soldiers were dispatched to Finland and only a half-million returned, after losing a thousand airplanes, 2,300 tanks and armored cars and other war-making goods. Finland lost 25,904 dead or missing. But in the end $300 billion in reparations, mostly electrical goods, shipping and motors, largely transformed a Russian agricultural economy to one based on industry.

Successive Finnish governments since World War II tried to maintain a neutrality sometimes aided by a Swedish disdain of war. The Swedes permitted movement of Nazi troops through Finland to Norway in 1940, and became an important source of high-tech weaponry for the Nazis in World War II.

The general speculation now is that Finland is abandoning neutrality because of the growing threat from Vladimir Putin. But some analysts speculate that Mr. Putin is only bluffing, that continuing threats against Ukraine and the Baltics are feints. Russian forces are ever more reliant on Muslim recruits from Central Asia, leaving the Russian armies, once among the best in the world, in weakened condition.

This might explain why neutrality before a diminished foe is less an option for Finland and Sweden than an alliance with the United States, even an America led by a president who has tried to withdraw from the world. The next president, whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, may have other ambitions. Finland, like the rest of the world, understands that the November elections can be an important pivot.

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