When U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet later this month, they’ll shake hands in a city with a history of high-profile negotiations between Moscow and Washington.
The July 16 talks will mark the fourth time that Helsinki has hosted negotiations between the leaders of the two nuclear powers, continuing Finland’s legacy as neutral territory for the former Cold War foes to hash out their differences.
Finland fought Soviet forces during World War II and signed a cooperation deal with Moscow in 1948. Wary of its massive Soviet neighbor, Finland allowed significant Soviet influence on its domestic and foreign policy while formally retaining its independence.
We don’t have our own agenda here, but, of course, we, as a neighbor of…Russia, we want detente relations between the West and the East.”
That approach — which spawned the term Finlandization — continued for decades as the Finnish government sought to maintain a deft balance between the two Cold War superpowers, both of which used the Nordic country as a platform for intelligence-gathering operations.
Offering Helsinki as a forum for negotiations between the Soviets and the West became a prominent strategy by Finland, which joined neither NATO nor the Warsaw Pact, to demonstrate its bona fides as a neutral geopolitical player.
“From the Finnish perspective, it was part of our active policy of neutrality,” Finnish historian Mikko Majander told RFE/RL. “Finland was between the blocs, East and West, and, by offering good services to international diplomacy, kind of strengthened its position.”
‘Recognition From East And West’
The Finnish capital’s most famous Cold War-era security summit came in 1975 and resulted in the signing of the Helsinki Accords, spelling out the guiding principles — including territorial integrity and respect for human rights — of relations between the United States, the Soviet Union, and 33 European states.
U.S. President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev both signed the accords for their respective governments in Helsinki and held arms-control talks there that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described as “very useful.”
Speaking to Ford outside the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Helsinki, Brezhnev told Ford that the Soviets backed the Republican’s upcoming election bid — which he would ultimately lose to Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter — and “for our part will do everything we can to make that happen.”
Ford responded that he expected to be elected and expressed support for “the cause of strengthening detente,” according to a Soviet memorandum of the private conversation that, according to the White House, was “reconstructed from scraps of paper retrieved from Brezhnev’s ashtray” at the Helsinki hall where the 1975 summit was held.
Hosting the 1975 summit where the Helsinki Accords were signed was a “major goal of Finnish diplomacy in the early 1970s,” Jussi Hanhimaki, a Finnish historian with the Graduate Institute of Geneva, told RFE/RL.
“This was a way of getting sort of recognition from both the East and the West that yes, the neutrality was for real,” Hanhimaki added.
Bush, Gorbachev, Clinton, Yeltsin
The next meeting of U.S. and Soviet leaders in Helsinki was held in September 1990 between U.S. President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Those talks were devoted almost exclusively to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Two years earlier, Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had stopped in Helsinki on his way to Moscow for a summit with Gorbachev. Reagan used his three-day sojourn in the Finnish capital to deliver a speech in which he said “there is no true international security without respect for human rights.”
The most recent Helsinki-hosted summit between the two sides was held in 1997, when U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin addressed a range of issues, including Moscow’s staunch opposition to NATO expansion into countries of the former Soviet bloc.
According to the White House, the talks nonetheless yielded agreement “on the importance of crafting a cooperative relationship between NATO and Russia.”
Two months later, Russia and NATO signed a historic road map for cooperation known as the NATO-Russia Founding Act. That agreement, however, has been mired in mistrust and mutual accusations of violations following Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea territory and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The July 16 Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki comes amid battered relations between Washington and Moscow over a range of issues, including the Ukraine conflict, Russia’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and U.S. accusations of Russian election meddling.
Finland joined the European Union following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has not joined NATO but did join the alliance’s Partnership For Peace program, and Finnish troops have participated in NATO peacekeeping missions.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has maintained contacts with Putin despite the tensions between Moscow and the West and has also met Trump in the White House.
Hanhimaki said Finnish leaders “like to see Finland as very firmly” part of the West, “despite not being a NATO member yet.”
He added that there is some concern in the country “about the meeting giving too much legitimacy to Russia and Russia’s foreign policy.”
“But I think that’s still being overweighed by the fact that…the only way to increase Finland’s international standing today is by acting as a kind of a host,” Hanhimaki said.
Majander told RFE/RL that “from a Finnish perspective, it’s very well that we still can be kind of a bridge-building place.”
“We don’t have our own agenda here, but, of course, we, as a neighbor of…Russia, we want detente relations between the West and the East. And if we can do any service on that, it’s good for us as well,” Majander added.