Finland's balance of 'western' ties and working relations with Russia provide a model Trump could have followed in Monday's summit with Vladimir Putin.
HELSINKI – Safe, clean and accommodating, Finland proved itself a fine host for this week’s summit between President Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Yet just because Finland opened its doors to seeming adversaries, it would be wrong to call Finland “neutral.” Finland is an E.U. nation and it partners with the NATO alliance on a range of issues.
We could say Finland’s pivoted to the “west” without spoiling its relations with Russia:
“Finland has good working relations because we have a long border [with Russia]. So the border guards need to talk to each other, and it’s always a benefit to keep any issues at the civil servant level – not to let it get political.”
Charly Salonius-Pasternak is a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
“You have a lot of stuff you can deal with very pragmatically. It doesn’t require good relations, it doesn’t require you to fawn over Russia or not criticize them.”
Trump didn’t strike that balance. He pushed for warmer ties, saying that was necessary to cooperate on nuclear and counter-terror measures.
But pursuing friendly, instead of working relations, can drive politicians to make big sacrifices in hopes of future returns.
“What was befuddling is the number of mines that President Trump voluntarily stopped into, which he didn’t have to, all for the benefit of Putin and Russia.”
With centuries of a rocky relationship with Russia behind it, Finland also knows that focusing on the long view is wiser than drawing hasty conclusions from any one encounter.
And with most E.U. and NATO countries committed as ever to opposing Russia – the E.U., for instance, continues to renew harsh Russian sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea and NATO’s forward deployments across the Baltic look unlikely to end anytime soon – popping champagne in Moscow after Trump’s performance in Helsinki is probably a bit premature.
“Russians have a penchant of being triumphalist. They declare victory very quickly.”
René Nyberg served as Finland’s Ambassador to Russia in the early 2000’s.
“And I’m sure they underestimate the strength of the American political system. You can score points, and clearly it was not Mr. Trump who scored point – there’s no question about that – but we should not jump to early conclusions.”
Like the difficult work of settling on diplomatic language to appease dueling powers, history teaches Finland that one meeting is just one meeting, and that the U.S.-Russia relationship is far from settled, no matter what pledges of improved relations were spoken at the presidential palace here in Helsinki.
“The Finnish experience, which is a long experience – during the Soviet times it was negotiating communiques – there was always a battlefield; every word was discussed.”
Gauging by the bipartisan political backlash that greeted Trump upon his return from Washington – and his own decision to amend the record of his dealings in Helsinki – that protracted war of words is poised to rage on.