Facing Russia, Close and Personal, the-american-interest.com

Jeffrey Gedmin, editor-in-chief of The American Interest

Sauli Niinistö is stoic, wily, and seems almost wired to be anti-Russian. But that’s not the way he describes the state of play. Finland’s President, responsible for national defense and security, insisted to me during a recent conversation at his residence in Helsinki that his approach toward Russia is one marked by pure pragmatism.

There are ties that bind. As Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin liked to visit the city of Turku in southwestern Finland, where Niinistö studied law and worked nearby as a rural police chief early in his career. Even today, when the two Presidents meet, Putin will still ask about this or that acquaintance in common. “Putin never forgets that he was handled in a respectful way when he was not so high up. He doesn’t forget that kind of behavior. He still invites the then-Mayor of Turku to Moscow,” says Niinistö.As for Russian foreign policy, the 70-year-old Niinistö—who cuts a figure both stocky and lean, and a demeanor both cool and sympathetic—never forgets what are in his view the basics. “You must say no, clearly,” Niinistö stresses […]

Last summer, President Niinistö told the Financial Times that the mere possibility that Finland could apply for NATO membership is “a security weapon in itself.” He tells me he always endeavors to be direct with Vladimir Putin about these matters:

We make very clear what we think, for example on sanctions and defending Finland. In Russia there were worries about why American troops were in Finland, so I said clearly to him [Putin], “Yes, we want to develop our interoperability and our skills.” Why? I said, “Every independent country maximizes its protection.” […]

I sat down with the country’s current President, Kersti Kaljulaid, at the presidential palace in Kadriorg, the expansive park a mile east from Tallinn’s old town. […]

I asked Kaljulaid about her recent visit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, which she called “cold but polite.” She was criticized in Estonia, as the meeting with the Russian leader also stirred some concern in neighboring countries. I heard about this in Latvia, the Latvians claiming not to have been informed in advance. It’s one for all and all for one in these parts. Kaljulaid’s case for the visit is a simple one: “We say bad things about the Russians all the time. We need to talk to the Russians.” All this echoes the approach of Sauli Niinistö. Läs artikel