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Finland urges mending of relations between Russia and the West

President of Finland Sauli Niinisto speaks during a welcoming ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Thursday.

COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images

The crisis in Ukraine could lead to a resurgence of Cold War-style policies if Russia and the West are unable to maintain a constructive dialogue, Finland's President is warning.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Sauli Niinisto said his country, which shares a 1,300-kilometre border with Russia, is fully supportive of European Union sanctions and was quick to condemn the annexation of Crimea.

But he added that Russia and the West should both keep talking to prevent current tensions from growing worse.

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The crisis in Ukraine began last year, when former president Viktor Yanukovych reversed plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union. After Mr. Yanukovych fled the country amid protests, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in the country's east signed a ceasefire deal in early September after nearly five months of fighting.

Finland has historically maintained a friendly relationship with Russia, which is one of its most important trading partners. But those ties have been strained during the past year as the European Union – which counts Finland as a member – slapped sanctions on Russia over its behaviour in Ukraine.

Mr. Niinisto has attempted to act as a mediator at times, and held talks in August with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The meetings garnered praise from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who thanked the Finnish President for his efforts during a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last month.

Speaking with The Globe during a visit to Ottawa last week, Mr. Niinisto said he's worried about the long-term damage the crisis has inflicted on the relationship between Russia and the West.

"My thinking is that, yes, the catastrophe has hit Ukraine, Ukrainian people, and that is [a] terrible catastrophe. That's unbelievable," he said. "… but there's an additional element, and that is more global. That is the question of whether we are entering back to a Cold War situation, which is not beneficial for anybody."

He said it was important to remember who started the conflict and called for Russia to respect the current ceasefire and be constructive in negotiations about the future of Eastern Ukraine. But if Russia plays its part, the EU, United States and Canada should make sure lines of communication with Moscow remain open and be willing to consider lifting sanctions in the future, Mr. Niinisto said.

"We have a long way back to the situation which existed in the first decade of this millennium in relations [between the] West and Russia. And even that wasn't the best possible," he added.

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Mr. Niinisto travelled to Ottawa and Toronto last week for meetings with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several other Canadian officials. A statement from Mr. Harper's office, released Thursday, said the two discussed the crisis in Ukraine, co-operation on Arctic issues and the threat posed by Islamic State militants.

Mr. Niinisto told The Globe that Finland has seen a high proportion of its citizens and residents leave the country to join extremist groups, including some who have begun to return. Finnish officials say about 40 people have travelled to Syria during the current conflict there.

Finland is reviewing its own legislation and will examine, in particular, whether laws that criminalize plotting a serious crime can be applied in cases where someone plans to travel for terrorism-related purposes. Finland passed anti-terrorism laws after Sept. 11, 2001, but will now have to go further, Mr. Niinisto said.

Noting the Finnish Parliament has yet to make any decisions on the possibility of new legislation, Mr. Niinisto said he believes there will be challenging questions to consider about what evidence is required to go after suspected foreign fighters.

"It is very difficult to prove that if somebody is going to – even if we know he or she is going to, let's say, Syria or Iraq – it's very difficult to prove that he or she is going there on terrorism purposes," he said.

Canada's Conservative government passed a law this year giving it the power to revoke citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said recently that the government has revoked passports "on multiple occasions."

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Mr. Niinitso said Finland has not considered revoking citizenship from suspected foreign fighters, adding he's not aware of the details but, "Let's say that my general feeling is that you can't cancel citizenship," he said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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