After fighting two bloody wars with Russia, Finland became neutral during the Cold War, allowing it to integrate with Europe while preserving its relationship with Moscow—a policy dubbed “Finlandization” by West German politicians as a derisive term for a seemingly independent country kowtowing to Russia. Finnish politicians humorously characterized the policy behind closed doors as the art of bowing to the East without mooning the West. In reality, the policy was far more nuanced, involving tough behind-the-scenes talks with Soviet leaders (some of them taking place in a sauna) to keep Finland independent and outside the Warsaw Pact, earning Kekkonen credit for leading Finland’s emergence in the postwar years.
This balancing act also helped make Finland a go-to host for major international summits. In addition to the 1975 summit, Helsinki welcomed President George H. W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 to discuss how to handle an increasingly aggressive Saddam Hussein, and later hosted a wheelchair-bound Bill Clinton and an ailing Boris Yeltsin in 1997 to discuss arms control and iron out the kinks of their post–Cold War relationship.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland has increasingly turned westward, joining the European Union in 1995 and adopting the euro in 1999. But it has not forgotten the role it played during the Cold War. Alpo Rusi, who worked on the 1997 summit as former president Martti Ahtisaari’s foreign-policy adviser, told me that hosting such gatherings is how a small country like Finland can have a role on the global stage and improve its own situation in the process. “We are fully aware that by having these types of summits that we are also strengthening our own security,” Rusi said.
This leaves Finland treading familiar territory as host for the Trump-Putin summit in July. “Finland has credibility with both sides,” Anna Wieslander, the director for northern Europe at the Atlantic Council think tank, told me. “That’s what made Helsinki a smart choice.” Speaking to journalists on Thursday, Niinistö touted Finland’s organizational prowess in hosting high-level meetings, saying that his country’s longstanding track record made it an appealing, known commodity to both Moscow and Washington. The main concern, Wieslander said, is less to do with the host and more about what happens between the American and Russian presidents. While many European governments see the logic in sitting down with Putin, there’s less confidence that Trump will hold the West’s line during the talks.
“Finland can’t control what Trump does or says,” Wieslander said. “All they can really do is remind the world where they stand.”