As the Ukraine crisis simmered, there are few European Union leaders on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s official call list.
There was French President Emmanuel Macron last week. Before that, there was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in December.
And then there was Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, who after 10 years in his role has one of the most established ties to Putin among EU leaders and is a discreet channel to inform Western movements in the confrontation with Putin.
The British newspaper Sunday Times recently dubbed Niinisto “Putin’s whisperer”.
“I think it’s always better to talk than to be silent, and that’s even more true when you have problems or conflicts,” he said in a video interview from his office in Helsinki. A few days before his last call with Putin, on January 21, Niinisto spoke with President Joe Biden at the request of the White House. It was the second time he had spoken to the two leaders in the space of just over a month.
After German Chancellor Angela Merkel retired last year after 16 years in power, no other European leader other than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has such a long-standing relationship with Putin, spanning the past decade. since both came to power.
On what Putin is facing, Niinisto said he could only respond as he did to then-President Donald Trump during a visit to Helsinki in 2018. “Sitting in this very, very large room, I said to [Trump] that Putin is a fighter,” he said. “He fights hard, but understands the answer is so hard and Putin respects if you show him respect.”
It is difficult to estimate how the current situation will play out, Niinisto said. “The risks and dangers seem to be piling up. Yet diplomacy must have a chance, on all sides.
The tension is keenly felt in Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia and a difficult history with its eastern neighbor, including its invasion by Soviet troops in the early months of World War II.
In recent days, Finland said it had stepped up its military preparedness. One of Moscow’s demands of NATO was that there should be no eastward expansion of the Western alliance, which would include a potential Finnish membership. (Finland, however, has a close relationship with NATO and has aided NATO-led operations in places such as the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.)
Niinisto thinks that Moscow knew that NATO would never agree to limit a possible expansion. “It’s so obvious that we should only decide for ourselves and that NATO will not close the doors,” he said, at least regarding the option of Finland joining. .
In separate written responses delivered to Russia last week, the United States and NATO said they would not compromise on the alliance’s open-door policy, rejecting a Russian request to ban the Ukraine to join.
Niinisto said Finland had received assurances from NATO that its open door policy was still valid. “Even during these discussions of the conflict,” he said. “We heard it.”
There is no indication from Finland that it will actively seek NATO membership at any time. But the current crisis has renewed the debate on the issue in Finland. Twenty-eight percent of Finns now support membership, according to an HS-Gallup survey.
That’s 8 percentage points higher than when the same question was asked two years ago. But 42% of Finns remain opposed, according to the latest poll.
“It raised discussion,” said Niinistö, a longtime political figure in Finland who has served as president since 2012.
Still, if Finland were to apply for NATO membership, it would have to be decided by a majority in parliament, he said, while a non-binding referendum would be the most legitimate way to gauge opinion. Population.
In an interview with Reuters last month, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said it was “highly unlikely” that Finland would apply for NATO membership during her current term.
Niinistö said he could not divulge details of his separate calls with Biden and Putin, but had “had a very long, drawn-out discussion” with the Russian president on January 21, “dealing only with current tensions. “.
During the call, Putin raised the issue of the Minsk Agreement, a 2015 deal that aimed to end a conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. . Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of violating the Minsk Agreement, which failed to end the war. The conflict has been raging since 2014, shortly after Russia annexed Crimea, killing more than 13,000 people.
Niinistö said he thought of Putin’s reference to Minsk as a sideline in their discussion, but it figured prominently in Russia’s official reading of the appeal. He said his reading is that the Minsk agreement could be “the very center of the problems now” and that progress to break the impasse would “take us further in a positive way”.
In recent weeks, the European Union has struggled to formulate a united position on how to deal with the Russian saber backlash over potential sanctions and arms shipments.
Germany emerged as an exception with an initial reluctance to use its gas pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, as leverage. The pipeline, which is complete but not in operation, connects Russia and Germany and would significantly increase Russian gas exports via a northern route that bypasses Ukraine.
“We are online now, and European opinion is being built all the time,” Niinistö said. However, there is a “lesson” to be learned.
Niinistö said he couldn’t speak to Putin’s intentions, but cited what he described as Finnish “wisdom” about experiences with relations with Moscow.
“Finns have certainly learned the wisdom that a Cossack, that is, a Russian soldier, takes anything loose,” he said, which should always be kept in mind. . “You have to be very, very clear,” he said, “where the landline is.”