The same country that brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the negotiating table at the peak of the Cold War to sign the Helsinki Act might also help Russia and the West negotiate an end to the current crisis in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto enter a hall for their news conference after the talks at the residence at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Photo: AP
On August 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto both agreed to do everything within their power to end the conflict in Ukraine. It is in both Russia’s and Finland’s interests to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.
Both countries are interested in ending sanctions, bringing peace and stability to Europe and resuming a mutually beneficial trade relationship. This is especially true since the most recent sanctions imposed by the West on Russia have hurt the Russian economy while the retaliatory sanctions imposed by Russia have hurt Finland’s economy.
Unlike many other high profile meetings involving the Ukrainian crisis, the meeting between Putin and Niinisto might actually help to resolve the crisis. After all, Finland has a long history in mediating international disputes, while maintaining its own neutrality.
In 1973, for example, the Soviets wanted to organize a conference of European states. Their goal was to gain international recognition of the status quo in Europe, and more specifically, to gain recognition of East Germany (DDR) as a state. Finland used this opportunity to not only invite European states, but also to invite all states that were responsible for peace and stability in Europe, including the United States and Canada.
Although the West was initially hesitant about the Finnish initiative of organizing a conference on European security and stability, the success of Finland's policy of neutrality finally convinced them of the necessity of attending such a conference. The Finns were able to organize the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and to get the participating states to sign the Helsinki Act in 1975.
Interestingly, the Helsinki Act was seen as a significant lessening of the tensions of the Cold War by applying many of the same principles of neutrality that Finland espoused. Specifically, the Final Act established principles to guide the interactions between participating states such as a mutual respect for sovereignty and the inviolability of frontiers as well as non-interference in foreign affairs of participating states.
The Helsinki Act now seems all but forgotten as Russia now retains control of Crimea and Ukraine is fighting a civil war to maintain its sovereign borders, while constantly watching the border for Russian intervention. While the situation is grim in Ukraine, what is even more troubling is the emergence of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia.
While Russia was initially eager to join the West's world order following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia now is eager to oppose United States hegemony in Europe and the former Soviet Union.
To make matters worse, much of Russia's opposition to U.S. hegemonic practices stem from a perceived arrogance that the United States will do whatever it wants without the need for cooperation from other states. Further, the expansion of NATO into the former Soviet space as well as the pursuit of a missile defense system, have made Russia feel isolated and threatened by the United States' projection of power.
Critics of Russian president Vladimir Putin will quickly point out that Russian actions in the Crimea are precisely the reason that NATO needs to expand in the post-Soviet space, while supporters of Putin say that NATO expansion has forced Putin to secure the warm water naval port in Crimea and thus return Crimea to Russian control.
It should be noted that while the West has imposed sanctions against Russia, Putin's popularity has skyrocketed. Further, while sanctions might have hurt the Russian economy to some degree, Putin has been successful in pivoting to Asia by signing a major deal with China for natural gas, alleviating the sting of Western sanctions.
Russia’s economy has been hurt by sanctions imposed by the West, but it must be understood that the economies of Western Europe as well as the economy of the United States have already been hurt by the sanctions, and if continued sanctions are imposed, the world might face a global recession caused by the sanctions.
What role can Finland play?
Finland can play a very important role in resolving this crisis. The country has a long history of cooperating with both the Russians and the West and can effectively bring together all sides of this conflict to try to resolve it. While it is important to focus on Ukraine and to resolve this crisis peacefully, we must not lose sight of something more important.
Even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States came to a fundamental agreement involving the security of Europe. All of the states responsible for peace and security in Europe agreed on certain fundamental rules that should govern international relations in Europe.
We are quickly losing this agreement. Both Russia and the United States are becoming more polarized in their vision of global relations, and Russia is actively seeking to provide an alternative to United States hegemony, as it sees it, by creating new global institutions through BRICS member states as well as helping states like Hungary identify other options of government besides the style of liberal democracy that is championed by the West.
It is time to have another large conference for all of the states responsible for peace and security in Europe to come together and either reiterate their support for the Helsinki Act or define a new set of rules on how European states should interact. All of the original representatives of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe should attend.
It is possible to cooperate again despite what the political elites of the countries involved keep saying. However, if more time passes with continued tit-for-tat between the major players, it is likely that not only will a new Cold War develop, but also that the accepted rules of the first Cold War will not likely be followed.
Both Russia and the West have a lot to lose if the crisis in Ukraine is not resolved quickly and peacefully. However, the world has a lot to lose if the West tries to isolate Russia further and there is a breakdown of the Helsinki Act.
Russia can play the spoiler to the West by helping Iran and Syria defy the United States. Further, the recent agreement between China and Russia should worry the West in that this action further reduces the United States' influence in Asia as well as Europe.
It is time for Finland to step forward and not only help resolve the Ukrainian crisis, but to also host another conference on peace and security in Europe, if not the entire world. They did it once already at a time that cooperation between the West and the Soviet Union looked bleak. It is time for them to do it again to allow cooperation to once again be possible with new agreed-upon rules for interaction among all of Europe.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.