The Finnish president knows Putin well. And he fears for Ukraine.
HELSINKI — As the threat of another Russian invasion of Ukraine grew, the European head of state with the longest and deepest experience of dealing with Vladimir V. Putin answered calls and offered advice to French President Emmanuel Macron and other desperate world leaders. in its difficult neighbor to the east.
“’How about this, what about this or that?’ This is where I try to be helpful,” said Sauli Niinisto, the President of Finland, as harsh light shining on the snow and frozen bay poured into the presidential residence. “They know I know Putin,” he added. “And because it’s the other way around, Putin sometimes says, ‘Well, why don’t you tell your Western friends this and this and this? “”
Mr Niinisto, 73, said his role was not just that of a Nordic runner, shuttling between East and West, but of a frontier interpreter, explaining to both sides the thinking of the ‘other. The departure from politics of Angela Merkel, who for years as German Chancellor led EU negotiations with Mr Putin, has made Mr Niinisto’s role, albeit smaller, vital, especially as the drumbeat of war grows louder.
But Mr. Niinisto is not optimistic. Before and after his last long conversation with Mr. Putin last month, he said, he had noticed a change in Russian. “His mindset, his decision, his decision – it’s clearly different,” Mr Niinisto said. He believed Mr Putin felt he needed to grab “the momentum he has now”.
He said it was hard to imagine things going back to the way they were. Opposing parties disputed the Minsk agreement which the Russians insisted be honored. The remaining options boiled down to Russia pressuring Europe and securing US demands for the foreseeable future, or, he said, “war”.
Such outspokenness has made Mr. Niinisto, in the fifth year of his second six-year term, hugely popular in Finland. He is compared by some to Urho Kekkonen, who took power in 1956 and ruled Finland for 25 years, during the so-called Cold War period of Finlandization.
“We love it,” said Juha Eriksson, as he sold reindeer hides, canned bear meat and smoked salmon sandwiches at a market next to ice shards in the bay. “My generation had Kekkonen and he was the father of the country. And it’s kind of something like that. It’s a pity that he will have to step down soon.
Mr Niinisto plays down his nearly 90% approval rating as consistent with his predecessors and dismisses the hyperbolic rhetoric that he is some sort of Putin whisperer. “It’s an exaggeration that I know more about Putin or his thinking,” he said. He’s clearly cautious about upending a relationship he’s had for a decade, including numerous meetings, countless phone calls and a game of ice hockey. When asked who was the best, he replied diplomatically: “I’ve been playing all my life.”
But he pointed to some concrete benefits. After gaining support from Ms Merkel, he said he had asked in 2020 whether Mr Putin would allow Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who accuses Russian agents of poisoning him, to be transported by plane to Germany for treatment. Mr. Navalny’s office then thanked Mr. Niinisto.
“He’s a good person to call when you want to understand what’s going on in northeastern Europe and especially if you want to understand President Putin’s thinking,” said Alexander Stubb, former prime minister and minister for foreign affairs. Foreign Affairs, who accompanied Mr. Niinisto in meetings with Mr. Putin. “He’s a mastermind in power politics and finding the right balance.”
The fact that Mr Stubb was so enthusiastic about the president himself speaks volumes about Mr Niinisto’s overwhelming popularity and political dominance in Finland, as the political tensions between the two are widely discussed here.
Mr Niinisto draws his power from a critical meeting on national security which he leads and from the Constitution, which stipulates that foreign policy is “directed by the president of the republic in cooperation with the government”.
“It is the president – pause – who directs the cooperation”, explained Mr Niinisto, specifying who came first.
Finnish officials say Mr Niinisto abandons his diplomatic modesty in private and is known for his long political memory, sharp style and mission creep. “I have sometimes been criticized for remembering too much of my former history as finance minister,” he said with a smile.
Domestic politics is the domain of the Prime Minister, currently Sanna Marin, a 36-year-old former cashier and climate change campaigner who angered Mr Niinisto in January, according to Finnish political observers, when she told Reuters that it was “highly unlikely” that Finland would apply for NATO membership while in office.
“I always just say that I don’t see any major damage,” he said, with visible restraint. When asked if his statement was constructive, he replied “I repeat, no damage”.
The NATO option mattered in Finland as a strategic tool to manage Mr. Putin. In a country rife with sayings about the incorrigible nature of Russians (“A Russian is a Russian even if you fry them in butter”), Mr. Niinisto recalled one about Russian soldiers, saying: “The Cossack takes all that is loose, that is not fixed.
Although he recalled that Mr. Putin once said that the friendly Finnish neighbor would become the “enemy soldier” if he joined NATO, Mr. Niinisto, who boasts of the impressive Finnish artillery, frequently asserts the Finland’s right to become a member of the alliance. “I told Putin too, very clearly,” he said.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
Mr. Niinisto also spoke directly to other leaders who he said posed threats to democracy. At a memorable joint White House press conference in 2019, he looked squarely at President Donald J. Trump and said, “You have a great democracy. Continue like that.
“He doesn’t respect institutions,” Mr. Niinisto said of Mr. Trump in the interview, whether it’s the European Union or NATO. And the Finn saw the uprising in the US Capitol as a worrying sign for American democracy.
But in dealing with Mr. Putin, Mr. Niinisto tried to give Mr. Trump some pointers ahead of a 2018 summit in Helsinki, “actually behind this wall,” he said, pointing across the room. Before a solemn public performance that was widely seen as a disaster for Mr. Trump, Mr. Niinisto told Mr. Trump that Mr. Putin “respects whoever fights back.”
Mr. Niinisto said he told Mr. Biden something similar before Mr. Biden’s call with Mr. Putin about Ukraine last month.
Besides the difficulty of dealing with Mr. Putin, Mr. Biden and Mr. Niinisto share another tragic story. In 1995, Mr. Niinisto’s first wife died in a car accident, leaving him to raise his two young sons.
“I know his story,” Mr Niinisto said quietly, adding that he could tell the US president, who also lost his wife in a car accident when he was a young politician, “one day maybe if I had the opportunity to have a longer sit with him.
Mr. Niinisto also picked up the pieces. In 2009, then Speaker of Parliament, he married Jenni Haukio, then Director of Communications for the National Coalition Party, then 31 years old and now a poet. They have a 4-year-old son and their dogs have become beloved national mascots.
Before the couple met, he was engaged to Tanja Karpela, a former Miss Finland who was an MP in an opposition party. They separated in 2004 and Ms Karpela now trains scent detection dogs that track Siberian flying squirrels.
The year of their breakup coincided with the devastating tsunami in Thailand, where he was vacationing with his sons and was nearly swept away. He survived by clinging high to an electric pole for more than an hour. The traumatic event seemed to still shake the staid president, who lost a hundred compatriots that day. “The people who were sitting next to you at breakfast,” he said.
It was a natural disaster. Now he hoped his relationship with Mr Putin, and the “little moves” it could create, would help his partners avoid a human relationship in Ukraine.
“Dangerous times,” he said.