Tensions between Russia and Finland have increased lately, but a phone call from Finnish President Sauli Niinistö to Russian President Valdimir Putin on Wednesday may have defused the matter. Putin expressed his anger at Finland’s refusal to let six Russian politicians enter the country for an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conference held in Helsinki earlier this month, calling the decision “legally flawed.” (Russia pulled its entire planned 15-member delegation from the conference in protest). But Putin noted on Wednesday that Finland’s decision was made “under pressure of some E.U. members,” and said he hoped external factors would not affect relations between the two countries, which he wants to remain friendly.
Finland has extensive economic ties to Russia, meaning its economy has been hit by Russia’s economic crunch. Western sanctions against Russia (in response to its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine) and Russia’s retaliatory trade embargoes on the E.U. have harmed Finland much more than other E.U. nations. The effect was dramatic: Finnish exports to Russia fell by 47.5% last year.
Nevertheless, Finland and Russia have been cooperating in building and operating nuclear power plants. And in December, Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation purchased Arctech Helsinki Shipyard, deepening long-standing Arctic marine cooperation between the two countries. Finnish shipyards have delivered more than 1,500 vessels to Russia. They comprise a sizable share of Russia’s current icebreaker fleet, which is crucial as Russia expands its Arctic presence for shipping and hydrocarbon exploration.
Niinistö also met Putin in Moscow in mid-June to discuss Ukraine, trade, and other topics. (He was dismissive of media criticism for doing so: “Who has criticized me…apart from exactly one Estonian minister” and “a couple of so-called experts?” Niinistö asked.) He summed up the situation as such: “It is very obvious that if Finland joins NATO, that would undoubtedly harm our relations [with Russia].”
However, out of solidarity Finland is participating in E.U.-wide sanctions against Russia, and it remains preoccupied about its 833-mile border with Russia. At least 6 Russian jets have violated Finnish airspace in just over the last year. And the Finnish army has recently been taking part in Operation Saber Strike — defensive exercises designed to strengthen the country’s military ties with NATO.
Both sides are glad to put the row over the conference behind them. But ties between Helsinki and Moscow are unlikely to return to normal as long as Russia still meddles in Ukraine.