Helsinki (AFP) – The choice of Helsinki as the location for the first long-awaited summit between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin is a reminder of the Finnish capital’s Cold War history when it was the backdrop for a number of key tete-a-tetes between US and Russian leaders.
The July 16 meeting between Trump and Putin is aimed at warming ties with Moscow, at a time when Russia’s relations with the West languish at levels not seen for decades.
Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (832-mile) border with Russia.
Helsinki, a hotbed of spies during the Cold War, is located just three hours by train from Saint Petersburg and one hour by plane from the three Baltic states now members of NATO.
As a result it has served as neutral ground for meetings between US and Soviet or Russian leaders.
“Finland was an in-between country in the Cold War era…. It wanted to form this bridge and stressed its neutrality in its relations with the superpowers,” Teija Tiilikainen, director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told AFP.
– Building bridges –
On August 1, 1975 the Helsinki Accords were signed by then US president Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
The document stipulated that the two powers would respect the 1945 borders drawn up Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill in Yalta. The agreement also raised the issue of human rights, a first at a time when Soviet jails were brimming with dissidents.
In 1990, one year before the fall of the Soviet Union, Finland organised the last USSR-US summit, hosting US president George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Finland has always said that it rejects bloc politics and it played a big role in the de-escalation,” a European diplomatic source told AFP.
The last big meeting between a US and Russian president in Helsinki dates back to 1997, when Bill Clinton held talks with Boris Yeltsin.
That summit led to progress in several areas, including arms control and NATO’s welcoming of former Soviet bloc nations.
– No longer as neutral –
Finland belonged to Sweden for six centuries before becoming a Russian Grand Duchy from 1809-1917. It then fended off the Red Army during the Winter War of 1939-1940, and again from June 1941 to September 1944.
Once it was finally free from the Soviet’s grasp, it remained cautious for many years not to wake the Russian bear, refraining from any public criticism during the Cold War in a practice known as “Finlandisation”.
But once the Cold War was over, things changed radically.
After the fall of the USSR, Finland wasted no time in forging closer ties with the West, joining the European Union in 1995.
And while it is not a member of NATO, it enjoys close ties with the Alliance and became a member of its Partnership for Peace programme in 1994.
A 2017 defence report published by the Finnish government underlined “the special status” of its bilateral defence cooperation with Sweden, and referred to the United States as “an important partner for Finland” at a time when “military tensions have increased in the Baltic Sea region”.
And yet, Finland has no intention of burning its bridges with its powerful eastern neighbour, its fifth biggest trading partner.
“Finland has a fairly good relationship with the Russians in the current situation,” Juhana Aunesluoma, the director of the Centre for European Studies at the University of Helsinki, told AFP.
“Finland has also a close relationship with the United States, much closer than it used to have,” he noted.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has played a large role in those strong ties.
He was one of the first to congratulate Trump on his 2016 election victory, and he included Putin in several of Finland’s centennial independence celebrations in 2017.
Finland’s role as a facilitator in peace negotiations also follows in the Nordic tradition.
In 2005, the country hosted talks between Indonesia and separatists from the Aceh province, culminating in the signing of a peace treaty.
And in March, it welcomed delegations from North Korea, the US and South Korea to discuss the situation on the Korean peninsula.