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Lessons From a Decade of Talking to Putin

Adam O’Neal

WSJ, June 12, 2022

“In late November, or early December, we heard Russians also saying that NATO must not or should not take any more new members. Well, that led to an odd situation.”

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö called Vladimir Putin on May 14 to let him know that Finland was applying to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Kremlin had threatened Helsinki over its prospective application but later played down the news. “Putin was very calm and cool,” Mr. Niinistö says during an interview at the presidential palace last week. “If a Russian is angry, yes, be careful. But if he’s calm, be even more careful.”

Like most every other Finn I spoke with, the president is a student of his country’s long and violent history with Russia. But he also has the advantage of having spoken with Mr. Putin countless times since taking office a decade ago. This has brought him as much insight into the dictator’s mind as any Western leader in power has today.

“Not giving that information straight to Putin, or straight to Russia, I understand that would have been something like sneaking away around the corner,” he says of the NATO application. “That’s not the Finnish way.” He recalls that Mr. Putin simply told him Moscow doesn’t pose a threat and “you made a mistake.”

Mr. Niinistö also forwarded Mr. Putin a “greeting” from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “He wants to look Putin eye-to-eye. ‘Just the two of us,’ like Zelensky said. Putin refused,” Mr. Niinistö says. The Finnish leader also “tried to ask him about the warfare, and when would there be any possibility of cease-fire or anything. His answer was a long story he repeats to everybody. Not very constructive.”

Other European leaders seem more optimistic. French President Emmanuel Macron has kept up his own telephone chats with Mr. Putin and says the West shouldn’t humiliate Russia. Mr. Niinistö sees some value in keeping lines of communication open but says, “I would be a lot more worried about Ukrainians than how Russians feel.”

How has Mr. Putin changed over the years? “Somehow, he has a feeling that Russia was betrayed in the ’90s by the West,” he says. Over time, this “basic sentiment” became more consuming, pushing Mr. Putin to “just find things that support this kind of negative thinking. Maybe then they are not even real, but if you tend to think that they betrayed us, they will betray us again.” Ukraine has been caught up in that spiral of negativity.

“I don’t necessarily think that he hates Ukrainians,” Mr. Niinistö says. “But he hates the situation when Russia has lost its touch to Ukraine. First frustrated, then anger, and then maybe hatred. I think that we see in normal life, some people who, in a way, feed themselves with their negative feeling and end up to hatred.” That hatred has now put millions of lives at risk as the Russian war against Ukraine grinds on.

The President of Finland visits NATO | Joint press point wit… | Flickr

Finland had leaned toward the West for decades—it joined the European Union in 1995 and has cooperated with NATO for years—but full alignment was something only Mr. Putin’s behavior could prompt. Mr. Niinistö and the prime minister announced their support for joining the alliance in May, but the process began months earlier.

“In late November, or early December, we heard Russians also saying that NATO must not or should not take any more new members,” Mr. Niinistö explains. That would include Finland and Sweden, which also is pursuing membership. “Well, that led to an odd situation.” The countries hadn’t felt much need to join NATO, though they had kept their options open. Mr. Putin’s demands created an intolerable situation, as the world would assume they were kowtowing to the Kremlin by not seeking membership. “It changed in a way, mentally, the situation.” Mr. Niinistö makes clear that “I had a different opinion” on whether Mr. Putin could decide who Finland allied with.

The benefits of NATO membership, most notably its mutual-defense clause, are clear for Finland. But what’s in it for the U.S.?

“We are more strengthening NATO than weakening it,” Mr. Niinistö says. “If we call our trained reserves, we have approximately 300,000 men or women in arms. That’s more than Germany if they call their reserves.” Note there are 84.3 million Germans and 5.6 million Finns. 

The Finnish Constitution requires every citizen to contribute to national defense. Men between 18 and 60 are “liable for military service,” according to the Finnish military. “After completing military service, they are mustered out into the Finnish Defence Forces’ reserve.” The country fields the largest artillery arsenal in Europe and recently ordered 64 F-35 fighter jets. Sisu, the Finnish fighting spirit, is an intangible advantage. Finland contributed to the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and against Islamic State in Iraq.

The president, born in 1948, insists his country “never forgot” the lessons of World War II. Estimates vary, but some 200,000 Soviet soldiers died during a botched invasion of Finland in 1939-40. Moscow lost perhaps another quarter-million in fighting between 1941 and 1944. This saved Finland from Russian dominion but also delayed full integration with the West.

Today Russia isn’t the greatest threat to Finnish NATO accession. That would be Ankara. “The message from Turkey, it has changed a bit. First, they were positive. Erdogan said to me that we will do a favorable assessment,” Mr. Niinistö says, citing an April 4 conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Days later, Erdogan suddenly said no.”

Could Finland do more to assuage Turkey’s concerns? One problem is knowing what exactly they are. “First it was arms restrictions,” he says. “Then it was more PKK,” the Kurdish terrorist group that Ankara rightly worries about. “We saw that there’s actually no major difference between Finland and the average European NATO countries in how to deal with the PKK.” Yet the Turkish position is “changing all the time” and Mr. Niinistö appears frustrated: “I just can’t guess, or I don’t even try to guess, how Turkey is behaving.”

Jussi Halla-aho, chairman of the Finnish Parliament’s foreign-affairs committee, tells me “this has more to do with Sweden, which has a strong tradition of acting as a moral superpower and telling others how to behave and what to do, and I can easily believe that is very annoying and irritating from the point of view of leaders like Mr. Erdogan.” When I ask Mr. Niinistö whether Finland would join even if Sweden couldn’t, he responds, “Turkey knows very well that we walk hand in hand.” Mr. Erdogan may back down, but he is unpredictable.

Sweden and Finland aren’t the only countries with an interest in resolving the dispute. Mr. Putin has sought an end to NATO’s open-door policy for years, because he knows few Western nations would freely choose Russia over the West. “NATO has a lot to safeguard here,” says Mr. Niinistö. President Biden, who ran on a promise to strengthen alliances, has a unique responsibility to find an acceptable resolution and prevent what could be a generational disaster.

Mr. O’Neal is a Europe-based editorial page writer for the Journal.

To view the original article, click here

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