Some comments made by a former Putin adviser yesterday, combined with reports of Russian air force drills near the Finnish border, seem to have a gotten a lot of attention today, prompting fears that Vladimir Putin might have his eyes on Finland as his next target. To get this out of the way right at the top, as Russia experts tell NBC News, Russia will almost certainly not invade Finland.
The comments came from Vladimir Putin’s former chief economic adviser Andrei Illarionov, who told the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet that “Putin’s view is that he protects what belongs to him and his predecessors,” including Finland and the Baltic states. Illarionov said that Putin would argue that the granting of independence to Finland in 1917 was an act of “treason against national interests”. The comments seem to have gone viral after they were rereported by Britain’s Independent.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that Illarionov hasn’t been a “Putin adviser” for almost a decade. He resigned in a huff in 2005, saying that Russia "is no longer a democratic country" and currently works at the Cato Institute. In other words, he does have an ax to grind with the Kremlin but doesn’t exactly have a direct line to Putin’s thinking. Kicking Russia out of the G-8? Illarionov has wanted to do that since 2006.
So if Putin were planning to do this, it’s unlikely that Illarionov would be high on the list of people he’d tell.
Illarionov’s warning was more of a potential future threat than an imminent danger. Finland “is not on Putin's agenda today or tomorrow," he said. Though he warned that “if Putin is not stopped, the issue will be brought sooner or later."
It’s true that Russia has historical ties to Finland, which was part of the Russian empire for over a century, and that unlike the Baltic states, Finland is not a member of NATO. Russia is still unlikely to threaten Finland, mostly because, for the reasons Fred Kaplan points out, it doesn’t really have the hardware or manpower to do so.
On the other hand, it certainly does seem likely that relations between the two bordering countries will be getting frostier after a period of deepening economic ties and trade. Finland and Sweden recently announced plans for a non-NATO defense partnership, an idea that I’m guessing looks a lot more attractive now.
Even if the actual military threat Russia now poses to its European neighbors is overstated, it could still do a lot to change those countries’ priorities.