ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 2/2018. For a country like Finland, with more than 1300 km of common border with Russia, it is inevitable that it must keep up the dialogue with Russia and engage, writes Maimo Henriksson.

For more than twenty years, the European Union’s policy has also been the basis for Finland's bilateral relations with Russia. This key feature became more visible in the aftermath of the events in Ukraine in 2014. The Russian annexation of Crimea and its role in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine created a new security policy situation in Northern Europe. The European Union responded: such action by Russia is unacceptable. Territorial integrity must be respected; international law and international agreements must be followed. The EU decided concretely on restrictive measures – sanctions – directed against Russia. Finland, naturally, had a seat at the table deciding on the EU sanctions.

Finland develops its dialogue and cooperation with Russia within the framework of principles agreed in the European Union. The EU outlined five main principles for its relations with Russia in spring 2016. The first principle says that the implementation of the Minsk agreement, which aims at peace in Eastern Ukraine, is a key condition for any substantial change in the EU's stance towards Russia. Principle number two calls for strengthened relations with the EU's eastern partners and other neighbours, including Central Asia. The eastern partners are Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The third principle commits the EU and its member states to strengthening the resilience of the EU, for example in terms of energy security, against hybrid threats and in strategic communication. Principle number four states the possibility of selective engagement with Russia on issues of interest to the EU. The fifth and last principle underlines the need to engage in people-to-people contact and the need to support Russian civil society.

It is in Finland's – and the EU's – interest that the border between the EU and Russia functions well.

For a country like Finland, with more than 1300 km of common border with Russia, it is inevitable that it must keep up the dialogue with Russia and engage. Issues that are of interest to Finland are usually also of interest to the EU. Thus, Finland takes care of having a dialogue with Russia on different levels, where we see that it is useful. It is in Finland's – and the EU's – interest that the border between the EU and Russia functions well. It is in our interest to keep up the good relations between our border authorities. It is in our common EU interest that goods (a lot of them transit goods) and people can cross the border smoothly. That is why we need contact between the transport authorities. We have companies which are continuing to engage in legal trade that is not under the sanctions regimes, and we need to ensure that they do not face unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles in the Russian market. Our ministers of foreign trade need to have good working contact.

Environmental issues do not wait and climate change is proceeding. Thanks to cooperation, we have already been successful in improving the water quality in the Baltic Sea. Similarly we are now looking at opportunities to cooperate in tackling emissions of black carbon in the Arctic region. Black carbon emissions originate from gas flaring, municipal heating plants and traffic.  Emissions in the Arctic region have a multiple effect on climate change compared to emissions in the south. Here we have an opportunity to build constructive cooperation between Russia, the EU and also the USA.

On the concrete level, relating to trade and border crossings, we are currently facing a positive trend, although we are still far from the peak of 2012/2013. In 2017, Finnish exports to Russia grew by 17% and Finnish imports by 39%, not least due to higher energy prices. There were 9 million border crossings (in the peak year of 2013 there were 13 million).

To sum up: In its relations with Russia, Finland strives at being predictable, solid, pragmatic – and profoundly anchored in the EU family. We are not living in times of business as usual, but we need dialogue and we need to work together on many issues essential to our citizens.

Maimo Henriksson is Director General, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Finland