Sauli Niinisto, now halfway through his second six-year term as Finnish president, tends to be discreet.
A lawyer by training, Niinisto is the leader of the European Union’s northernmost member—which also happens to be the one that shares the longest border with Russia—and is the only Western leader who could be said to have good relations with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump. “He knows which fights to pick and which to avoid,” observes Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
Niinisto also knows how—and when—to make a point, as he did last October when he held a joint press conference with Trump, on the eve of the latter’s impeachment. “You have a great democracy,” he said, locking his eyes with Trump, as the latter listened intently (or seemed to). “Keep it going on.”
Still, Finland’s 72-year-old president has quite a few bones to pick, as he made clear in the course of a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Policy last month, beginning with the troubled state of democracy itself. “Democracy could use some nurturing,” he said.
The fact that a Finnish president can be taken seriously as a spokesperson for Western democracy illustrates how both Finland and Europe have changed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Thirty years ago, Finland was Europe’s odd man out. Its foreign policy was described as active neutrality; it shared a mutually beneficial, if onerous so-called special relationship with the Soviet Union, which, among other things, obliged Finland’s leaders to avoid entangling alliances with the West.
The Finnish state still bore the effects of the quarter-century reign of former President Urho Kekkonen, its Cold War-era leader who used his own special relationship with Moscow to win four terms in office, while the Kremlin acknowledged Finnish neutrality.
Today Finland no longer calls itself neutral. “Non-aligned is the word we use now,” Niinisto said. “We are also part of the European Union.” Finnish support for the EU, which it joined in 1995, remains strong.
“We belong to the West,” he continued, pointing to Finland’s resiliently democratic culture as proof. “But we also are a neighbor to the east,” he adds. Even though the most arduous, military dimension of the special relationship—the odious mutual defense pact by which both pledged to hold joint military discussions in the unlikely event of an invasion of Russia by NATO via Finnish territory—was formally dissolved after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Finnish head of state still listens to Putin.
The reverse is also true. “I get along with him very well,” he says of his Russian counterpart. “We can discuss issues very openly, even sensitive matters.”
“Niinisto is a cool-headed realist, and not an idealist,” says Mika Aaltola, director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “This means he is not going to bother Putin with long liberal lectures. He has maintained a good working relationship with Putin, irrespective of events in the Ukraine or other serious security concerns … it is in the Finnish realist tradition not to turn your backs on Russians and show fear.”
High on the list of sensitive matters which Niinisto discusses with Putin is the possibility of Finland upgrading its current status as a NATO partner to full membership, something which Putin has explicitly warned Finland against. “The Russians have made it quite clear that when they look across the border, they see Finns,” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2018. “If Finland were to join NATO, they would see enemies.”
For the moment, a majority of Finns also oppose NATO membership. For Niinisto, keeping the option of joining NATO open while maintaining a strong, independent, well-equipped defense force, is a sufficient deterrent. “Our defense forces can equip 280,000 trained soldiers,” Aaltola points out. “This compares very well with most European defense forces.”
Finland also ranks among the most militarily prepared nations in the world, in terms of the percentage of its population that is willing to defend itself—with nearly 80 percent of Finns willing to take up arms, something which Putin is doubtless aware of.
As proof of the two leaders’ special connection, Niinisto tweeted that he had phoned Putin and discussed “the possibilities of settling the tense situation in Belarus,” as well as the condition of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was allegedly poisoned with Novichok on Aug. 20, according to doctors treating him in Germany.
Navalny’s staff later explicitly thanked Niinisto for helping persuade Putin to allow his sickened critic to be flown to Berlin for medical treatment.
The savvy Finn also felt he knew both Trump and Putin well enough to give the former “a pep talk” on how to mix it up with the latter before the two leaders met in Helsinki in July 2018, according to John Bolton, the former U.S. national security advisor.
“It is important to get along with Washington, if you want to have a stabilizing influence on Moscow,” says Aaltola. “And obviously it is in Finland’s interest to know what is going on in Moscow.”
“Niinisto reminded Trump that Putin was a fighter, and Trump should therefore hit back if attacked,” Bolton describes in his book, The Room Where It Happened. “As if preparing for a boxing match, Niinisto warned Trump never to provide an opening or give one inch.”
Trump had difficulty taking Niinisto’s advice, as the farcical press conference that followed their meeting made clear. But no one questions that the advice Niinisto proffered was sound.
“You have to understand, we Finns have had to study and understand the modus operandi of the Kremlin more than any other Western country,” Michael Franck, the noted Finnish filmmaker points out.
According to Bolton, after telling Trump that Finland didn’t want to join NATO at their meeting in Helsinki, Niinisto reminded Trump that “Finland had an army of 280,000 if everyone was called up to make it clear the price would be high if they were invaded.”
The tricky triangulation required of a Finnish president is something that the judicious Niinisto manages well, which helps account for his record-high poll ratings: around 90 percent of Finns approve of his job performance. Between that and the high support for Finland’s celebrated 34-year-old prime minister, Sanna Marin, and her Social Democratic cabinet, Finland arguably has the most popular democratically elected government in Europe.
Nearly three-quarters of the Finnish electorate voted in last year’s parliamentary elections, and Transparency International ranks Finland as the world’s third-least corrupt country. “We are almost free of corruption. Trust in authorities is high,” Niinisto proudly observes. “The health of our democracy is good.”
Still, as he gazes out from the presidential palace, Niinisto doesn’t seem to feel the same way about the health of liberal democracy in general. “We have learned that democracy is not a given thing,” he said. “We must nurture it, perhaps more so than we have had to do for a long time.”
Niinisto is outspoken on the threat posed by the social media. “Social media has added a new and even aggravating platform for aggressive behavior and manipulation,” he observes—an interesting position for the president of the country which gave the world Nokia, the company which essentially invented the mobile phone.
It seems that “connecting people”—Nokia’s old slogan—has turned out to be something of a mixed blessing, according to the president. “It is easier to write insults,” says Niinisto, “than to say them eye to eye.”
As befits someone whose job description has been likened to steering between Scylla and Charybdis—the monster and whirlpool of Greek mythology—Niinisto refrains from directly criticizing either Trump or Putin. However, he has no qualms about criticizing the two leaders’ policies.
Regarding Washington’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the World Health Organization in July, he says flatly: “I would rather have seen the U.S. stay in.” Niinisto also indirectly criticized Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. “We were all surprised by COVID-19. We received a serious lesson—climate change is not our only common enemy,” he said. “In order to stop the pandemic, it would be good to find the same common spirit as in the Paris climate agreement.”
As for the recent referendum that could allow the Russian president to remain in power until at least 2036, Niinisto said, “We do not know whether (Putin) is planning to continue or for how long.” That said, he continued mordantly, “the decision to hold the referendum does reveal that customs in Russia are very different when compared to our democracy.”
In the past, Niinisto has also been outspoken on the subject of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Explaining his balancing act, he asserts: “In Finland, we have long said we cannot do anything about geography. What we can do is to maintain a clear and consistent Western line in our relationship with our Eastern neighbor and improve understanding between East and West.”
He points out that “it has worked,” referring to the history of successful East-West summits that have been held in Helsinki—although some might exclude the one he presided over in 2018 from the list—dating back to the 1975 mega-summit and the historic Helsinki Accords. “I believe it will continue to work in the future, too.”
He isn’t surprised by Trump’s position on NATO and the U.S. responsibility for Europe’s defense. “President Trump has continued what the U.S. has requested for many years, (that) Europe should take more responsibility for strengthening its defense and fulfilling its commitment to NATO. Now he has changed the request to a demand. I do understand the American opinion on this, including President’s Trump’s viewpoint.”
Niinisto appears to have mixed feelings about the European Union. While he continues to support Finnish membership in EU, as do most Finns, he admits he is not happy with the lack of coordination with which the EU responded to the coronavirus pandemic, in contrast with the generally strong, proactive, and successful manner with which Finland and its neighbors—with the arguable exception of Sweden—conducted themselves.
He also is unreservedly critical about the body’s lack of common economic and security strategy. “The EU has a lot of potential. Counted together the EU member states have enormous economic power and 27 armies,” Niinisto continued.
“As long as I have talked with other European leaders about defense, the answer has always been” to fall back on NATO, and particularly the United States, rather than having the EU develop and maintain its own discrete, defense force, he says. “The EU must develop its common economic and security strategy, so that this potential turns into influence. It has a lot to do to make a comeback as an influential geopolitical actor.”
Like many older Finns who recall that the then-neutral United States was reluctant to come to Finland’s aid during the Finnish-Soviet Winter War of 1939-40, Niinisto remains wary of relying on Washington—or NATO—too much. He would like Europe to stand on its own, just as Finland has essentially done since World War II.
At the same time, he implied, he would like more clarity regarding the EU’s nebulous mutual defense clause which states that if a member state is the victim of armed aggression on its own territory, other member states are obliged to come to its aid. Niinisto, like many Finns, isn’t sure what that means. “Finns like clarity when it comes to defense,” says Aaltola.
Still, the president has remained mum on the subject of the continuing EU sanctions on trade with Russia enacted after Crimea, even though those sanctions hurt Finland more than other EU members—an example of a fight which Niinisto has avoided.
True to form, he is also reluctant to criticize Trump too openly. When asked how he felt about the deployment of federal troops in response to protests in the United States and if the country still had a “great democracy,” as he put it during his White House visit last year, Niinisto declined to answer.