Icy relations chill Finland

Western countries are “at the gates” of a new cold war with Russia, sparked by the Ukraine crisis and a failure to grasp the depth and seriousness of President Vladimir Putin’s grievances with the United States and the European Union, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has warned.

Speaking at his official residence before a conference in Helsinki on Thursday, attended by British Prime Minister David Cameron and leaders of the Nordic and Baltic states, Niinisto said Finland had a long tradition of trying to maintain friendly relations with Russia. But it was not prepared to be pushed around.

“The Finnish way of dealing with Russia, whatever the situation, is that we will be very decisive to show what we don’t like, where the red line is. And that is what we are prepared to do,” Niinisto said, referring to a recent spate of violations of Finnish airspace by Russian military aircraft.

“We put the Hornets [US-made Finnish Air Force F-18 fighter aircraft] up there and the Hornets were flying alongside the Russian planes … The Russians turned back. If they had not, what would we have done? I would not speculate.”

Cameron joined eight Nordic and Baltic leaders at the one-day Northern Future Forum hosted by Alexander Stubb, Finland’s prime minister. Finland, formerly a grand duchy of the Russian empire, declared its independence in 1917 after the Russian Revolution. It survived two separate conflicts with the Soviet Union during World War II. During the Cold War, Finland followed a policy of “active neutrality” to keep Moscow at bay. The two countries share a 1 300km land border.

Many Finns worry that the insecurity and uncertainties of the Cold War years are returning as the stand-off with Russia over its annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of eastern Ukraine continues.

“We are in the position in the West of asking what is Putin up to,” Niinisto said. “Putin keeps saying the West and Nato are hostile. [He says] they have deceived Russia with Nato enlargement and they are undermining and humiliating Russia.

“So this is a situation that is not promising. I have said, we are almost at the gates of a new kind of cold war” that could suck in all of Europe.

Niinisto discussed the situation in Ukraine with Putin in person in August and said he remained in touch with the Russian leader. He said the US and EU were partly to blame for not paying enough attention to Putin’s assertions that the West was weak, hedonistic and hostile to Russia’s values, including religious values.

Putin, under pressure from Russian conservatives and ultra-nationalists, may have been emboldened by last year’s last-minute US decision not to launch bombing and missile attacks in Syria. Russia believed its diplomatic intervention at that time had been a great success, Niinisto said.

Despite the rise in international tensions with Russia, a majority of Finns continue to oppose joining Nato, in part out of concern about Moscow’s possible reaction. Russian officials have repeatedly warned Finland, which is 100% dependent on Russian gas supplies, against taking up Nato membership.

But sentiment may be shifting ahead of Finnish general elections due next April, when relations with Russia and Nato, and the economy will be central issues.

Niinisto said Finland was supportive of Nato as a member of its Partnership for Peace programme and, for example, as a contributor to Nato operations in Afghanistan. It also maintained large land forces, unlike some other EU countries. He rejected accusations that Finland was taking a free ride behind Nato’s protective shield.

“We are not passengers. My main worry is the larger picture of getting close to a cold war. That would be a very uncertain situation and that worries us. But, if you are asking are we afraid, directly or indirectly, of Russia, I would say no.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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Simon Tisdall
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