I started my undergraduate studies at Furman University in the United States the same year that the Berlin wall fell in 1989. Two years later the Soviet Union collapsed.
It was exciting times for a young political science student focused on international relations. Eastern and Central Europe embraced liberal democracy and market economy. Self-determination and independence integrated the East with the West.
Today Russia is one of Finland’s biggest trading partners, together with Germany and Sweden. Last year we issued some 1.1 million visas to Russian nationals; there were over 11 million border crossings.
But we share a lot more than just trade and a 1,300-kilometre border. Whatever happens in Russia always interests us – greatly.
Our joint history goes back centuries. From 1809 to 1917, Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. During the Second World War, we fought hard against the then-Soviet Union to keep our independence.
I have lived most of my adult life with a dream that Russia would become a European country like others, abiding to international rules. In Finland, we have also worked hard towards this.
After the Cold War, Russia took steps towards democracy. It also established closer relations with the EU and NATO. It eventually joined the WTO. But in the past few years the trend has, unfortunately, reversed.
When I was Foreign Minister, I was closely involved in mediating peace in the war in Georgia in 2008. Power politics, armed conflict and spheres of interest had returned to the borders of Europe. Two additional frozen conflicts emerged: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Things calmed down for a while, until last year. That’s when Russia violated international law by annexing the Crimean peninsula and by starting the destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine.
For Finland this is not a “far-away” conflict. It takes less than two hours to fly to Kiev from Helsinki. That’s why we have tried to do our best to solve the conflict first and foremost as a steadfast member of the European Union, and secondly through normal bilateral channels.
Peace mediation is never easy. For lasting peace, there needs to be pressure and political will. Pressure can be either political or economic. Money is often the best peace broker in the world. The Ukrainian economy is in bad shape. The Russian economy is also on the brink.
The thing with these kinds of conflicts is that you need patience – one of the greatest virtues in international politics. Negotiations are not a shortcut to a solution, but they are the only sustainable way to get there. Similarly, economic sanctions need time to show their true strength.
The paradox is that the whole conflict broke out because Ukraine, an independent and free state, wanted to choose the European path. It wanted an association agreement with the EU. This did not fit the Russian master plan, and the result is unfolding before our eyes.
We Finns are pragmatic problem solvers. We are also good at facing facts. The fact remains that Russia has been, is and will be our neighbour in the future. That is one of the many reasons we want to give peace a chance in Ukraine.