Ontological (In)Security at the Russia-EU Border: The Case of Finland and Estonia

Lauren K. Rogers |

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the biggest security challenge to confront Europe in decades. In the face of the crisis, there were unprecedented calls for solidarity with Ukraine, but also a renewed effort to enact a common foreign and security policy that is both strategic and forward-looking. Ultimately, this breach of international law raises a diverse set of security questions ranging from economic to climate to traditional, but it also raises questions of ontological security. These questions are reflected in the way the conflict was framed by the media. Germany’s decision to reverse decades-old policies of non-delivery of weapons to conflict zones was framed through references to World War II. The term ‘Finlandization’ was resurrected to the disappointment of the Finnish government. Questions of Russian identity, post-Soviet trauma, national myth, and Europeanization were once again linked to formerly occupied EU states. That these framings are part of media discourse is not surprising, but similar framings have also been part of national narratives of the war in Ukraine.


Ontological Security

Indeed, a year after the invasion, language about ontological security is clearly visible. Even as there is a growing split about the so-called “Zeitenwende” and its ramifications for foreign policy, questions about shame, guilt, and anxiety are crowded in the conversation about arming Ukraine. While the foundational myths of the European Union are being revisited, the Baltic states are also actively lobbying for a re-evaluation of the memory architecture of Europe. Ireland, Sweden, and Finland have had policies of military non-alignment – whether ideological or pragmatic – tested and in some places reversed. Most visible of all are stories of the past, whether the Winter War in Finland or the Soviet Occupation in Estonia, which are part of the political discourse on the contemporary war. The activation of these discourses impacts what is sayable and doable for policymakers and is deeply tied to ontological security concerns. Thus, understanding how ontological stress is addressed through discourse is a valuable tool in uncovering the broader picture of the war.


Shifting Narratives

But the narration of the war in Ukraine is not static and does not necessarily reflect the events on the ground. The ‘main characters’ of the war have shifted in some retellings, including the placement of the US and NATO in the role of security guarantor of Europe. Similarly, the setting of the war has shifted from Ukraine to Europe’s eastern flank, to Europe, and in some cases to a global battle. The temporal bounds of the war have changed as well, and these differ based on the lived experience of each state. In France, the war began on February 24, 2022, but in Estonia, this war represents the next link in a long and unbroken chain of Russian imperialism. These differences have consequences for EU cooperation, but they also reflect efforts to manage ontological stress by maintaining a coherent and actionable story.


In my dissertation, I analyse the narrative changes of four EU member states: Estonia, Finland, Germany, and Ireland. The primary data for analysis are the narratives themselves. I specifically look at how state representatives perform these narratives in international spaces, and what these narratives say about the state’s role in the world, the role of the EU, and the kind of world we live in. In the first year of the present conflict (February 2022 – February 2023) several narrative threads were activated and deactivated in specific state discourses that could indicate ontological security questions. These moments of change are the primary objects of study, but to understand them I need both historical and contemporary context.


My Fieldwork in Finland and Estonia

I was awarded a UACES travel grant to conduct the first legs of my fieldwork in Finland and Estonia in May 2023. I began in Finland on May 5 with two goals. First, I wanted to visit sites of memory that play a role in current Finnish political debate. These included, among other things, the Helsinki Museum, the Statue of Peace and the Fortress of Suomenlinna. Since the Winter War has played such an important role in Finland’s vicarious identification with Ukraine, it was important to get the context of that war and how it is currently being activated in this context. Following this, I conducted 11 interviews with various military, security, and foreign policymakers and experts in Helsinki and Jyväskylä. These were semi-structured interviews that focused primarily on the moments of change I identified in the data. In addition to the interviews I conducted in Helsinki, I attended a research conference with the Finnish Political Science Association and used this as an opportunity to gather feedback from the academic community about the core arguments of my research.


The research in Finland revealed several interesting points. First, the debate around military non-alignment/neutrality in Finnish history is also one about identity vs. imposition, a point that was made in several instances since the Soviet Union collapsed. The war in Ukraine and the decision to join NATO have invited this discussion anew. Moreover, the ‘Never Alone’ narrative that is part of the language architecture of the EU does not necessarily coalesce with the Finnish national experience of being left to fend for itself in the Winter War, which causes a bit of narrative tension. Finally, the security imaginaries in Europe are shifting, and Finland’s are shifting as well, but what has emerged is a newfound recognition and, more significantly, the international performance of Finland’s role as a border state. All of this ties into questions of maintaining coherence in the Finnish autobiographical narrative and the reproduction of an understandable social space.


Following my fieldwork in Finland, I traveled to Estonia, where the research was similar but the narratives around the war are very different. I visited sites of memory in Tallinn, Tartu, and Narva including two controversial statues: the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn and the former site of a Soviet T-34 tank that was removed last year. Both these sites have been flashpoints for ethnic Russians living in Estonia. Moreover, I visited the Occupation Museum, the Narva Museum, the Estonia Ethnographic Museum, and the War Museum. Finally, I conducted nine interviews with policymakers, politicians, historians, and security experts.


As with Finland, the interviews in Estonia gave me a good deal of insight into the moments of change I had already identified in the data. The question of ontological security in Estonia is an interesting one in part because Estonia has arguably gained self-esteem because of the events of the past year; unlike Germany or France, Estonia’s security calculations were proven correct. The emphasis on resilience and preparation for conventional threats from Russia, which were out of step when the general focus was on the war on terror, are now part of the strategic calculations of the EU as a whole. Indeed, as many experts told me, the conversation about Russia as a fundamental existential threat has never really faded from domestic discourse, even when it was suppressed internationally during the EU and NATO accession talks. Nonetheless, the international discourse about the war activates many other ontological security pillars in Estonia, such as overall EU remembrance practices, the importance of resistance and the role of the Forest Brethren in resisting Soviet occupation, and the ‘Never Alone’ narrative, which plays an entirely different role in Estonian political life than it does in Finland.


Benefit of the Travel Grant

The UACES grant gave me the opportunity to gather these critical insights and made me aware of many aspects of these cases that I would otherwise have missed. My interviews also connected me to academic networks in Estonia and Finland which will guide this research for years to come. I will present this research at the British International Studies Association conference in Glasgow in June and at the UACES conference in Belfast in September.