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Why is Finland a meeting point for superpowers?

A secretive meeting is taking place between top US and Russian military officials in Vantaa. Yle delves into the history of quiet top-level gatherings.

American delegation head General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. is meeting his Russian counterpart Army General Valery Gerasimov at Königstedt Manor in Vantaa. Image: AOP ja Lehtikuva

With relations currently strained between the US and Russia, annual meetings such as the one convening in Vantaa on Friday, aim to strengthen relations between the two superpowers. Top-level military meetings are shrouded in secrecy and delegates are typically tight-lipped about discussions, with little information seeping out about covered topics.

Finland 'safe' ground for superpowers

Helsinki has a history of serving as ’neutral’ ground for superpower meetings, most famously in 1975, when it hosted the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which guided European security and collaboration processes for decades.

More recently--earlier this year--North Korean, South Korean and US representatives held unofficial talks in Finland, and last autumn US and Russian deputy foreign ministers met in Helsinki. In the spring of 2014, a group of foreign policy experts and former diplomats from Russia and the US gathered on the island of Boistö, just off Kotka and Loviisa, to discuss a resolution to the Ukraine crisis.

History of US-Russia meetings

Russian and American top military command have met in Finland once before, in 2008. At the time, Michael Mullen, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Russian General Nikolai Makarov. The meeting took place in the aftermath of the five-day war in Georgia, which was likely to have been the subject of the talks, though little information was shared on the outcome of discussions.

Finland: Happy to host

Finland’s Foreign Ministry told Yle that while it welcomes dialogue between Washington and Moscow, and that it gladly facilitates these types of meetings, it's not up to Finnish authorities to publicly disclose the time or place of high-level gatherings. It is the duty of respective embassies to publicise the meetings, should they want to do so, the ministry told Yle.

On Friday American delegation head General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. is meeting his Russian counterpart, Army General Valery Gerasimov at Königstedt Manor in Vantaa. The two last met in winter of 2017 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Friday’s meeting is expected to centre on conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

Speculation is also swirling that Friday’s powwow could be laying the groundwork for a meeting between the presidents of the US and Russia next month.

Parliament in the dark

Pertti Salolainen, deputy chair of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told Yle that while Friday’s meeting was a vote of confidence for Finland, he wondered about the fact that reporters learned of the meeting before lawmakers. Yle sources said the meeting was fast-tracked.

A small firestorm erupted at the time of the last meeting between US and Russian military command a decade ago when reports emerged that then-prime minister Matti Vanhanen had only learned of the high-level event from the news.