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 (Read my interview with the Finnish President here).
There was a bristling consistency about this single, simple thought as I made my way through ministries and media in the Finnish capital (I was part of a recent study tour to Finland, Estonia, and Latvia organized by the Hudson Institute). Ask Finns, for example, whether it was sensible to admit neighboring Baltic nations into NATO and you get a clear “yes,” often with an air of bemusement that the question is even asked. “If the Balts were not in NATO, we’d have Russian fighter jets roaming the skies above Helsinki today,” one defense analyst tells me. There’s no room here for the logic that would have you believe that, if only the West had not made Russia feel encircled through NATO enlargement, we would have a kinder, gentler Kremlin today. American diplomats say the first thing they hear from Finnish counterparts when they arrive in the capital is that “Moscow lies, all the time.” Goes one refrain: “If it’s not nailed down, the Russians will steal it.”
This doesn’t quite add up to the image many of us have of Finland. During the Cold War, “Finlandization” was synonymous with appeasement. The term was first used in West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s as a pejorative by those concerned about a possible draw down of American forces coupled with Bonn’s rapprochement with the Soviet bloc. Today, realists talk of Finlandizing Ukraine, meaning pressuring the country to put an end to its aspirations of joining the EU and NATO as a means of making peace with Russia. Ukrainians are unconvinced that any such thing would have the effect of domesticating the Russian bear.
In Finland’s case, the country is a member of the European Union but has never belonged to NATO. The debate about joining comes and goes. Finland is one of five countries known as NATO’s “Enhanced Opportunity Partners,” nations that make “particularly significant contributions to NATO operations and other Alliance objectives.” 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.”
Finns have experience with their neighbor to the east. They were part of the Russian empire for most of the 19th century. They mightily resisted Russification in cultural affairs—and pressures for Czarist control in local political and administrative matters. Eventually they declared independence in 1917. Their relationship with Russia has remained, shall we say, rocky ever since.
When the Soviet Union invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, the Finns fought the Red Army and won victories on a number of fronts. They eventually lost the war, of course. But not before killing roughly 150,000 of the enemy, against the loss of 30,000 on the Finnish side. Then and today, Finnish defense doctrine rests largely on the concept of wearing down the aggressor in lake areas and heavily forested terrain before the fight reaches vital strategic areas.
There is conscription for men and voluntary service for women, who are present in all units of the Finnish Defense Forces and Border Guard (and whose fighting tradition goes back to the 1918 Finnish Civil War). The plucky Finns comprise a nation of 5.5 million, from whom 280,000 troops can be mobilized in the first 48 hours of a conflict. After Russia annexed Crimea the Finnish government sent out a letter—“We want to have a word with you,” went the greeting—to all 900,000 of the country’s reservists, aged 20-60 years old, reminding them of their role in a crisis situation. “We have a long history with Russia,” said Niinistö at the time. “So everything the Russians are doing, surely the Finns notice.”
This is all personal, and close. Finland has an 833-mile border with Russia. In the midst of the 1997 debate over an international agreement to ban the use of land mines, the Finns stood outside the EU consensus, often with the retort, “we are your land mine.”
A Swedish report from last year contends that the Finns have been investing since Crimea and are now ahead of their EU counterparts in defending against hybrid threats. “We are far from trigger happy people,” Finnish defense researcher Antti Seppo tells me in an email exchange from Berlin, “but we do have a deep sense of patriotism and duty when it comes to defending Finland.”
Of Russia today Niinistö tells me that Putin, “in a way, sees it as a form of respect if you push back.”
In Tallinn, the capital of Estonia (population 1.3 million), one encounters comparably clear and hawkish views. On a hotel roof top bar in the city center we share a drink with ex-President Toomas Ilves, who likes to say that Putin’s approach to international relations is “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine.”
During his decade in office (2006-16) Ilves helped turn Estonia into a leader in cyber security and defense. Like Finland, for Estonia such matters are not merely academic in nature. In April 2007, amidst disagreement with Russia over the relocation of a Soviet-era statue, Estonia was hit with a series of cyber attacks affecting parliament, banks, ministries, and media.
During his tenure, Ilves also became the public face for his country’s aggressive campaign against Russian spying. Russian intelligence has been particularly active in the Baltics and Nordic states, as the Kremlin looks for ways of reaching into the EU, and into high tech sectors in particular. The Ilves approach on spying went something like this: nab, name, shame, and expel or imprison the culprits. Estonians are wily. Ten Russian spies have been caught and convicted in Estonia over the past three and half years.
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. Kaljulaid, in office since October 2016—a biologist by training and businesswoman by career—is Estonia’s first female President. At 46-years-old, she also became the youngest President in Estonian history.
We talked as much about domestic politics as we did about Russia and foreign affairs. Kaljulaid takes flak at home, including from her predecessor, for her insufficiently clear words on Estonia’s Conservative People’s Party. EKRE, as the populists are known by their Estonian acronym, gained 17.9 percent in 2019 elections and have secured the interior and finance ministries. Some in EKRE are anti-immigration traditionalists, national conservatives. Others are far-right.
Kaljulaid calls EKRE’s rhetoric “disruptive” and “disrespectful to parts of the population.” To be sure. “If you’re black, go back,” says EKRE’s board member, Martin Helm, son of the party’s chairman. Kaljulaid, herself a socially liberal politician of the center—she ran as a non-partisan candidate—sees all this as a concession to reality and a reflection of the complexity of Estonia’s coalition politics, a problem that will work itself out.
Yet all this has a context. Across the West, mainstream parties are in trouble. In Finland it’s “True Finns,” a populist right-wing movement with radical elements, who have been benefiting. The Finns Party, as they are now known, won 17.7 percent of the vote in 2015, becoming the second-largest party in parliament. In parliamentary elections this past April they held steady with 17.5 percent, coming in just behind the Social Democrats.
In Helsinki, President Niinistö, while remaining optimistic, told me it all brings Weimar to mind, the disintegrating center in many European countries. Kaljulaid says mainstream politicians must say mea culpa. Of the rabble rousing, she says, the “goal is to make a lot of noise,” to always tell people, “it’s not your fault, it’s the government’s fault.” (Read my interview with the Estonian President here.)
The rabble-rousers in these parts tend to part company with their brethren elsewhere on the topic of Russia. Like Finland, Estonia has its share of experience with a predatory neighbor, the Baltic lands having also been part of the Russian empire. Estonia won independence at the end of World War I. In May 1932, the country signed a non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union. In 1940 Moscow invaded. Some 8,000 people, including most of Estonia’s political and military elite, were arrested. Roughly 2,200 were executed in Estonia, with the rest sent to camps in Russia, most never to return.
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.
While being careful not to rule out territorial conquest as a Russian aim, what the Baltic countries and Finland seem to fear most is Moscow’s energetic attempts to widen and deepen fissures in their respective countries, and across the West. Putin aims to build Russia up by cutting the West down. And for this, say many in the region, he has a thousand tricks up his sleeve.
A next step scenario for the Nordic countries? Finland’s Åland Islands, situated off the mainland to the southwest, might serve as a military target, but with political objectives.
If Russia made a move, Finland would urge assistance in response. What would the United States do for non-NATO member Finland, and over some obscure islands no less? The European Union would quickly split. The non-aligned Swedes, who have bolstered their own defense posture in recent years—with Russian submarines turning up in Swedish waters and its fighter jets straying into Finnish space—would almost certainly jump to Finland’s side. NATO countries Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania would very likely also lean in. This, while the Germans, Austrians, Italians, and Hungarians would almost certainly insist on dialogue and restraint instead.
The Swedes worry about an island of theirs called Gotland. In March of this year, ex-Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili spoke publicly of the prospect of Russia attacking Finland or Sweden in this way. In 2015, Russia’s military rehearsed an operation to seize Finland’s Åland islands.
Who cares about the minutiae, the nibbling, all so far away? As Trump ally Newt Gingrich put it in 2016, why should Americans risk war “over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg,” referring to Estonia. Indeed, Russia today is not the Soviet Union, nor is it a rising power like China.
The Pentagon takes defense in the Nordic-Baltic region seriously. Earlier this month 50 naval vessels and thousands of American and European service personnel conducted the largest military exercises off the Baltic coast since the Russian invasion of Crimea five years ago. Still, it’s the sharp power threats that may loom largest.
Everywhere I go in Europe—I was in London, Berlin, and Prague the week before Helsinki, Tallinn, and Riga—European defense and intelligence experts seem to be uniting around the idea that Putin sees a bigger picture, namely that of the West in crisis, and sees his role as being a stoker, arsonist, and provocateur. Whether he is a grand strategist or merely an opportunist, Putin is efficient in identifying vulnerabilities. He knows how to widen cracks.
Brexit was home-grown. And a separate, parallel Brexit campaign with murky ties to Russian money and Kremlin security services also worked hard to help heat things up in UK politics. In Germany, it’s thought that Russian espionage is at levels rivaling those of the Cold War. In Berlin, influence operations are flourishing, say German officials, with possibly as many as a hundred individuals in the German capital doing the bidding of Russian interests, active in PR firms, publishing houses, businesses, and politics (a Bundestag member for the populist Alternative for Germany was revealed to have links to Russian handlers this spring). In France, the National Front takes Russian money. In the Czech Republic, Russian embassy operations are ballooning, as the diplomatic post is being used as a base for a variety of clandestine work in Central Europe.
Any of these details taken in isolation do not add up to anything monumental. Nations spy. Countries meddle. But together they suggest a robust campaign to disrupt and confuse, at a time when Western democracies are struggling. The poverty of our Russia debate does not help. The President and the Mueller investigation have brought frenzy, fatigue, and foolishness on all sides.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö seems to have a pretty good compass. He has become one of his country’s most popular politicians, without pandering. He opposes same-sex marriage, while contending that same-sex couples should be allowed to have a common surname. As Finance Minister in the 1990s he pursued downright unpopular shock therapy methods in order to get Finland’s fiscal house in order. He wrote a national bestseller on how Finns tick. Niinistö was on holiday with his son Matias in Thailand in 2004 when the deadly tsunami hit, killing some 200,000 people. The two barely survived after hanging on to an electric pole for hours.
Last July, Niinistö hosted the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki. This was the meeting where the American President rebuked U.S. intelligence for its contention that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. “I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” said the American President at the time.
I neglected to ask the Finnish President what he thought of the performance, though one might suspect this was not a good example of telling Russia no, clearly.
Last June, back in Turku, Niinistö attended a book fair. He was spotted buying a stack of books before a panel that included his second wife, Jenni Haukio, a poet. The Finnish President got to the crowded auditorium a little late and decided to sit in the back on the steps.
Perhaps a dab of humility, knowing a little history, and trying to see a bigger picture would help us concentrate the mind.