Finnish President: Putin Took NATO Application News ‘Very, Very Calmly’

Sauli Niinisto tells FP about his country’s decision to join the alliance—and the Russian president’s response.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto at the United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 21, 2021. Hannah McKay / Pool / Getty Images

War with Russia is no abstract concept for Finland. The country declared its independence from Moscow in 1917 and fought two wars against the Soviet Union during the period of World II. Finland remained militarily nonaligned during the Cold War, joined the European Union in 1995, and gradually deepened its cooperation with NATO.

 Still, the country’s decision to apply for NATO membership last month came as a surprise to many people around the world. Sauli Niinisto has been in office as Finland’s president for a decade and has clocked more hours with Russian President Vladimir Putin, either by phone or in person, than most European leaders. 

In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, Niinisto said he called Putin last month to tell him Finland would be joining NATO. Putin’s response was surprisingly subdued.

War with Russia is no abstract concept for Finland. The country declared its independence from Moscow in 1917 and fought two wars against the Soviet Union during the period of World II. Finland remained militarily nonaligned during the Cold War, joined the European Union in 1995, and gradually deepened its cooperation with NATO.

 Still, the country’s decision to apply for NATO membership last month came as a surprise to many people around the world. Sauli Niinisto has been in office as Finland’s president for a decade and has clocked more hours with Russian President Vladimir Putin, either by phone or in person, than most European leaders. 

In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, Niinisto said he called Putin last month to tell him Finland would be joining NATO. Putin’s response was surprisingly subdued.

Niinisto also discussed with Foreign Policy the historic shifts underway in his country and what Finns have learned from their long history with Russia. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

Foreign Policy: In your 10 years as president, what have you learned about how Putin operates?

Sauli Niinisto: It’s difficult to say whether I know him very well, I mean, as a human being. But during these years, I would say that it has been very straightforward going, our discussions. I know their position, they know our position, and that is a very clear situation, actually. You don’t try to go over what you know. This is how they think, and they know how we think. So it’s in a way very easy. 

FP: Have you seen a change in him, in your conversations with Putin recently?

SN: If you follow his public speeches … it’s very obvious, in my opinion, that he is quite frustrated with what happened to the Soviet Union, what happened in the 1990s in Russia. And this kind of frustration, in a way, has developed into anger and maybe even hatred. And the Ukrainian situation is clearly one of the targets in this development. I don’t mean to say Ukraine or Ukrainians, but the situation in Ukraine has clearly been the target when this kind of development has happened. … It’s an open question, in his mind, the Ukrainian situation is an open question. Which he now tried to solve in a very cruel way. 

FP: When you say that Putin’s frustrations have turned into a kind of anger, who is he angry at?

SN: It seems to date back to the ’90s. He often says also in public, that somehow Russia was mishandled when it was weak in the ’90s. And I think that this sentiment started then, but it’s a very overall wide position toward the West, but specifically now it is the Ukraine situation, like I said. 

FP: I’ve heard you say in previous interviews that there is a Finnish saying that Cossacks will take everything that is loose. That is, that they will push until there are red lines. 

SN: That dates back to our history. Several times Cossacks have come here and people have learned, that’s the wisdom of people. 

FP: Do you think that we did a good job after 2014 of showing the Russians where the red lines were?

SN: I think that with sanctions that were put on at the time, I think that we believed, now I mean the so-called Western world, that sanctions had a sufficient impact. And, well, the situation stayed open nine years actually. During that time, many—including me—surely understood that it’s an open question. 

FP: That what is an open question?

SN: The Ukrainian situation is an open question, at least in Russian minds. And what we saw is that actually, during the cease-fire [struck in 2015], a lot of ammunition was used during all that eight years. So sanctions didn’t work in the way we thought that they would solve the Russian-made problem. 

FP: Given your experience with Putin, what do you make of these calls from French President Emmanuel Macron for some kind of compromise to end the conflict to avoid “humiliating” Putin. Do you think that is something that would work, even? 

SN: There are two alternatives: to try something to work for peace, or silence. And how I understand President Macron and [German] Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz is that they try to work for peace. The other alternative is to have total silence. If people see that the contacts of Macron and Scholz [with Putin] are problematic, it would also be problematic to have total silence. Not to know at all what is going on. So it’s a complicated issue. But, well, I’m a man of peace, and someday we have to have peace here. 

FP: But isn’t there a third option here, aside from a dichotomy of peace or silence, isn’t there a third option of trying to help Ukraine win? 

SN: That is what, actually, we are doing, by helping Ukraine with armaments and with all kinds of civil aid so that Ukraine could defend herself. Even the model that you ask, whether Ukraine will win, even in that case, we need a peace. Which is, in my thinking, the headline. 

FP: When it comes to that moment of there being renewed negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, would Finland be willing, would you be willing, to play a role in that process, given your history of being on good working terms with both Russia and Europe?

SN: I have been discussing several times also with [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelensky, and I have tried to deliver his wishes further. For example, he has said several times, President Zelensky to me, that he’s prepared to discuss straight, eye to eye, with President Putin. And this is something I have been discussing also with President Putin, who refuses to meet. Time after time. But otherwise it seems that Turkey is now doing its best, trying to negotiate, and I think that there’s actually no room or need for any other mediators here. But like I said, Finland is always prepared to [offer] its good diplomatic services if needed. 

FP: When you called the Russian president to let him know that Finland was going to apply to join NATO, I understand that that did not provoke a strong reaction from him. Were you surprised by that? 

SN: I wanted to call him just to say that this is now the situation, because I’m not a person who sneaks away around the corner. So it was very clear. I just said that we are now applying for membership in NATO, and he clearly was well aware of our discussions and the process here and said that “you make a mistake,” in his opinion. But it was like our discussions always, very straightforward going. We are here. You are here. Clear. But I was a bit astonished that he took it very, very calmly.

FP: How do you expect Finland and Sweden joining NATO is going to affect the security situation in the Arctic, given that both are Arctic nations, and that Russia has been building up its military presence in the region?

SN: I would say that it’s stabilizing and it’s actually a deed of peacekeeping here. You know that the Nordic countries, we have a kind of brand of being very democratic. And I would add to that in the future security, too, when Finland and Sweden become members. 

FP: So an expansion of that “Nordic brand” to include security as well as democracy?

SN: In a way, yes. Understanding at the same time that as members of NATO we, like all the other members, have responsibilities to all the NATO area and to all our partners. 

FP: You have visited Washington, I believe, twice since the war in Ukraine began, with your first visit coming in the very first weeks after it began. And I understand that it was your office that initiated the idea of that visit to the White House in early March. Why did you feel it was critical at that moment to come to Washington and to meet with [U.S. President Joe] Biden in March? 

SN: Well, you have to keep in mind that I met President Biden in October in Glasgow[, Scotland, at the United Nations climate conference]. I had telephone contact with him in December, in January. Even then we discussed that it would be very useful to have a longer meeting, not just a phone call or the meeting in Glasgow. And, well, that happened in March, early March. It was surely a very important meeting for us.

FP: Did the Biden administration ask you for any advice on how to deal with Russia, or how to deal with the Russian president?

SN: I would estimate that after each contact [I have had with Putin], whether it has been a meeting or a telephone discussion, we have a lot of requests and people around the world asking what’s going on. And in a similar way, when somebody else has contact with Putin, we ask, was there anything interesting. So this is, I would say, normal diplomacy. And on those limits, surely, it’s good to have these kinds of discussions also with the United States. 

FP: Going back to Finland’s application to join NATO, obviously this was spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the surge in support for the move in opinion polls was still remarkable. What specifically do you think it was about the invasion that prompted so many Finns to change their minds? 

SN: Maybe I have to describe how I felt, and many others. When Putin, Russia, said in early December last year that NATO should not enlarge, and NATO should not take any new members—that included Finland and Sweden. During these years we have understood our position [in] Sweden and Finland, that militarily nonalignment helps, in a way, stability in the Baltic area. And we have underlined that this is our own will to stay militarily unaligned. So when Russia says that NATO can’t take new members, after that, it was very difficult for us to [say] that, yes, it’s our own will to stay as we are, as we are used to, because everybody could very well, and correctly, think that [we] don’t have any alternative because Russia has denied. So this was the first element actually in my mind, and I know very many other Finns felt the same way already in December.

FP: It sounds like what you’re saying is that many Finns felt the need to be defiant in the face of what Russia had said about NATO not expanding. To defy that demand. 

SN: Well, it was not only being against their opinion, in a way it was hurting our sovereignty, which is a [much] deeper feeling than just to have an opposite opinion than Russia’s. And when you asked about Finnish mindset in the issue, surely the 24th of February changed a lot. That Russia really was ready to attack, totally, a neighboring country, it changed a lot of people’s minds.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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