Finnish President Sauli Niinistoe met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin today in an effort to defuse tensions he said risk dragging the world into a new cold war.
The two held talks in the southern Russian town of Sochi following an invitation from Putin first made a year ago. The encounter marks Putin’s first meeting with a European leader or head of state since he spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Brazil during the World Cup in July.
“I have a feeling that we’re on the brink of cold war,” Niinistoe told reporters in Helsinki yesterday. He said he planned to use the discussion with Putin to find a way “to bring this terrible spiral of mistrust to an end,” he said.
Finland, which unlike its Baltic neighbors never joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has a longer border with Russia than the other 27 European Union members combined. Its economy is more exposed to the fallout of Russian tensions than that of any other euro member, trade figures show. Prime Minister Alexander Stubb has hinted at the need for economic compensation should Finland be hit disproportionately.
Finland and the Soviet Union fought two wars between 1939 and 1944. While Finland remained independent, it ceded about 10 percent of its land mass and paid $300 million in war reparations to its neighbor.
“Finland particularly has an incentive to be active here, to promote security and stability,” Niinistoe said.
The Finnish head of state, whose powers are largely ceremonial, will meet Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev tomorrow, his office said in an e-mailed statement. Niinistoe “has been in contact” with “western partners” to discuss the meeting with Putin, he said. Putin has maintained phone contact with key leaders from the U.S. and Europe. He spoke with European Commission President Jose Barroso yesterday and with Merkel last week, as well as with U.S. President Barack Obama on Aug. 1.
Niinistoe underlined yesterday the importance of meeting face-to-face “to get an open dialogue going,” and said it was his view that “no peace will be achieved by phone.”
Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, relations between Putin and his counterparts in Europe and the U.S. have steadily deteriorated. Ukraine is now trying to dislodge pro-Russian rebels from strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk in the country’s east. The death toll doubled in the past two weeks to more than 2,000, Agence France-Presse reported Aug. 13, citing United Nations data.
“We’ll do everything in our power to stop the military conflict as soon as possible, to set dialogue between all interested parties and also to provide humanitarian help in Ukraine,” Putin said after the meeting.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Copenhagen today that Russia made an “incursion” into Ukraine last night and that NATO sees a continuous flow of Russian weapons into the country.
Earlier this week, Rasmussen told reporters in Reykjavik that “the Russian ambition is to establish a sphere of Russian influence in the near neighborhood.”
“Certain actions are necessary from Russia’s side,” Niinistoe said after the meeting today. “It’s necessary that weapons, for instance, shouldn’t cross Russian-Ukrainian state border.”
Ukraine began to send its own aid supplies to the country’s war-torn east yesterday as a Russian convoy with emergency supplies awaited near the boundary. Ukraine’s government said this week it would allow the humanitarian aid carried by hundreds of trucks from Russia through the frontier if officials can inspect it and the Red Cross distributes it. EU governments today warned Russia against using humanitarian missions as cover to bring troops into Ukraine.
Reaching an agreement on humanitarian aid would “strengthen mutual trust” and help take “the next step” of a cease-fire, Niinistoe said.