Niinistö and Putin agree on Arctic, but at odds on NATO during Sochi talks

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Finnish President Sauli Niinistö speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia on August 22, 2018. (Pavel Golovkin/Pool via Reuters)
The language turned sour as soon as the Russian and Finnish presidents touched on the role of NATO and an upcoming major allied exercise.

The talking went smoothly when the state leaders described their conversations on Arctic cooperation, climate change and environment. Vladimir Putin confirmed his support for Finland’s bid to hold a major Arctic summit as part of its running chairmanship of the Arctic Council. And he called on joint efforts in promoting search, rescue and safe shipping in Arctic waters.

But judging from video footage from yesterday’s press conference (in Russian) there had recently been serious talks in the back premises. In the room were a number of ministers and high-ranking officials from both sides, and their faces all looked stern and gloomy.

The meeting between Putin and Finland’s Sauli Niinistö took place in Sochi, just a few hundred kilometers away from the Azov Sea, the area where Russia now is accused by Ukraine of blocking access to all non-Russian ships. The situation in southeastern Ukraine was one of the issues on the agenda for the meeting between the presidents.

NATO, a thorny matter
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a joint news conference following their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia on August 22, 2018. (Pavel Golovkin/Pool via Reuters)

However, in yesterday’s press conference there were other issues that seemed to be the ones that raised tensions.

In July this year, Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu made clear that the increasingly close cooperation between Finland and NATO now forces Russia to take countermeasures.

In a comment on that issue, Vladimir Putin underlined that his country is closely following the situation and that it will “strengthen its infrastructure”. He especially lashed out against what he said was a buildup of troops and weaponry along the border and a growing number of exercises in the area.

“More military exercises are being conducted. Major NATO exercises are being planned right here, next to this place, as well as in the Baltic region”, Putin said, a transcript from the press conference reads.

“We must respond to US missile defence assets deployed next to our borders.”

The meeting between the Finnish and Russian presidents comes just a few weeks ahead of Trident Juncture, a major NATO exercise that will be held near Trondheim in central Norway. More than 40,000 participants from over 30 countries will take part in what is the biggest allied military exercises in several years.

Finland will be an active participant in the drills and contributes with about 2,000 persons from all services of its Defence Forces. The Finnish Army units participating in the exercise will include an infantry company from the Pori Brigade and the company will train as a part of a Swedish brigade, the Finnish Armed Forces state. The Nordic country will also send several Navy units and 1-2 foreign flight detachments will be operating from the Rovaniemi air base, northern Finland.

It is a thorn in the eye for the Kremlin, which continues to see the neighboring neutral country as a possible bridge for Russian influence.

Niinistö walks the tightrope
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö during their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia on August 22, 2018. (Pavel Golovkin/Pool via Reuters)

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö is carefully seeking balance between conflicting interests, and during the press conference made clear that he ” not heard a single word of criticism with regard to Finland during [his] trip”.

He added that he finds it important that “we all work for enhanced mutual understanding in the world”, and that this was his approach to the current visit.

In July, Ninnistö facilitated the top meeting between President Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump. Before that, the chiefs of staff of the two countries, Mr Valery Gerasimov and Joseph F. Dunford Jr, met for talks in Helsinki.

At the same time, Niinistö continues to move his country closer to the North-Atlantic Alliance and makes no doubt that Finland has the sovereign right to choose allies. “Like any self-respecting nation Finland provides itself with the best self-defence capabilities”, he underlined in the Sochi press conference.

Note: Quotes from Vladimir Putin and Sauli Niinistö during the press conference found in the original Barents Observer article have been modified by Eye on the Arctic to reflect the official English transcript. The quotes in the original article were the Barents Observer’s own translations of the official Russian transcript.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada extends air defence monitoring zone to entire Canadian Arctic, Radio Canada International

Finland: Finnish poll shows mild support for NATO membership despite tensions with Russia, Yle News

Norway: Adding U.S. Marines in Norway creates instability, says Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia holds surprise drill in east Arctic ahead of giant war games, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Sweden to buy U.S.-made Patriot air defence systems, Radio Sweden

United States: New symposium brings U.S. military’s attention to the Arctic, Alaska Public Media

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Atle Staalesen, The Independent Barents Observer

Atle Staalesen, The Independent Barents Observer

For more news from the Barents region visit The Independent Barents Observer.

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