Finland's President Knows Putin Well. And He Fears for Ukraine.

Finland's President Is aware of Putin Nicely. And He Fears for Ukraine.

HELSINKI — Because the threat of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine grew, the European head of state with the longest and deepest expertise coping with Vladimir V. Putin fielded calls and doled out recommendation to President Emmanuel Macron of France and different world leaders determined for perception into his troublesome neighbor to the east.

“‘What do you concentrate on this about this, what about this, or this?’ That’s the place I attempt to be useful,” mentioned Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland, as the cruel mild gleaming off the snow and frozen bay poured into the presidential residence. “They know that I do know Putin,” he added. “And since it goes the opposite means round Putin generally says, ‘Nicely, why don’t you inform your Western pals that and that and that?’”

Mr. Niinisto, 73, mentioned his function was not merely that of a Nordic runner, shuttling messages between East and West, however of borderland interpreter, explaining to either side the pondering of the opposite. The departure from politics of Angela Merkel, who for years as Germany’s chancellor led Europe’s negotiations with Mr. Putin, has made Mr. Niinisto’s function, whereas smaller, important, particularly because the drumbeat of battle grows louder.

However Mr. Niinisto just isn’t optimistic. Earlier than and after his final lengthy dialog with Mr. Putin final month, he mentioned, he had observed a change within the Russian. “His way of thinking, the deciding, decisiveness — that’s clearly totally different,” Mr. Niinisto mentioned. He believed Mr. Putin felt he needed to seize on “the momentum he has now.”

He mentioned it was laborious to think about that issues would return to the way in which that they had been earlier than. The opposing sides disputed the Minsk settlement that the Russians insisted be honored. The remaining choices boiled right down to Russia pressuring Europe and extracting calls for from the US for the foreseeable future, or, he mentioned, “warfare.”

Such plain talking has made Mr. Niinisto, within the fifth yr of his second six-year time period, wildly standard in Finland. He’s in contrast by some to Urho Kekkonen, who took energy in 1956 and dominated Finland for 25 years, through the so-called Finlandization period of the Chilly Conflict.

“We love him,” mentioned Juha Eriksson, as he bought Reindeer pelts, canned bear meat and smoked salmon sandwiches in a market subsequent to ice shards within the bay. “My era had Kekkonen and he was the daddy of the nation. And he’s somewhat one thing like that. It’s a pity that he should go away workplace quickly.”

Mr. Niinisto performs down his close to 90 percent approval ranking as constant together with his predecessors and dismisses the hyperbolic discuss of his being some type of Putin whisperer. “It’s an exaggeration that I someway know extra about Putin or his pondering,” he mentioned. He’s clearly cautious about upsetting a relationship he has nurtured over a decade, together with many conferences, numerous cellphone calls and a recreation of ice hockey. Requested who was higher, he responded diplomatically, “I’ve been enjoying all my life.”

However he did level to some concrete advantages. After gaining help from Ms. Merkel, he mentioned that he requested in 2020 if Mr. Putin would let Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition chief who accuses Russian operatives of poisoning him, to be flown to Germany for medical remedy. Mr. Navalny’s workplace later thanked Mr. Niinisto.

“He is an efficient individual to name whenever you wish to perceive what is occurring within the northeastern nook of Europe and particularly if you wish to perceive the pondering of President Putin,” mentioned Alexander Stubb, a former prime minister and overseas minister, who has accompanied Mr. Niinisto in conferences with Mr. Putin. “He’s a mastermind in energy politics and to find the proper stability.”

That Mr. Stubb was so effusive in regards to the president itself mentioned one thing about Mr. Niinisto’s overwhelming recognition, and political dominance, in Finland, as political tensions between the 2 are broadly talked about right here.

Mr. Niinisto derives his energy from a important nationwide safety assembly that he runs and from the Structure, which states that overseas coverage is “led by the president of the republic in cooperation with the federal government,”

“It’s the president — pause — who’s main in cooperation,” Mr. Niinisto defined, making it clear who got here first.

Finnish officers say that Mr. Niinisto sheds his diplomatic modesty in personal, and is thought for his lengthy political reminiscence, chopping fashion and mission creep. “I’ve been generally criticized for remembering an excessive amount of my previous historical past as minister of finance,” he mentioned with a smile.

Home coverage is the territory of the prime minister, presently Sanna Marin, a 36-year-old former cashier and local weather change campaigner who raised Mr. Niinisto’s ire in January, based on Finnish political observers, when she advised Reuters that it was “very unlikely” that Finland would apply for NATO membership whereas she was in workplace.

“I nonetheless say solely that I see no main damages,” he mentioned, with seen restraint. Requested if her assertion was constructive, he mentioned “I simply repeat, no damages.”

The NATO possibility mattered in Finland as a strategic software to handle Mr. Putin. In a rustic with an abundance of sayings in regards to the incorrigible nature of Russians (“A Russian is a Russian even in case you fry them in butter”) Mr. Niinisto recalled one about Russian troopers, saying, “The Cossack takes all the things, which is free, which isn’t mounted.”

Regardless of recalling that Mr. Putin as soon as mentioned the pleasant Finnish neighbor would turn out to be the “enemy soldier” if it joined NATO, Mr. Niinisto, who boasts about Finland’s spectacular artillery, continuously asserts Finland’s proper to turn out to be a member of the alliance. “I’ve mentioned it to Putin too, very clearly,” he mentioned.

Mr. Niinisto has additionally spoken on to different leaders he prompt had been threats to democracy. In a memorable joint information convention on the White Home in 2019, he regarded squarely at President Donald J. Trump and mentioned, “You’ve got a fantastic democracy. Hold it happening.”

“He doesn’t respect establishments,” Mr. Niinisto mentioned of Mr. Trump within the interview, whether or not it was the European Union or NATO. And the Finn thought-about the revolt on the U.S. Capitol constructing a worrying signal for American democracy.

However in coping with Mr. Putin, Mr. Niinisto tried to offer Mr. Trump some pointers earlier than a summit in 2018 in Helsinki, “really behind that wall,” he mentioned pointing throughout the room. Earlier than a solicitous public efficiency that was broadly thought-about a catastrophe for Mr. Trump, Mr. Niinisto advised Mr. Trump that Mr. Putin “respects the one who’s preventing again.”

Mr. Niinisto has mentioned he advised Mr. Biden one thing comparable forward of Mr. Biden’s name with Mr. Putin over Ukraine final month.

Moreover the issue of coping with Mr. Putin, Mr. Biden and Mr. Niinisto share one other, and tragic, historical past. In 1995, Mr. Niinisto’s first spouse died in a automobile accident, leaving him to lift his two younger sons.

“I do know his historical past,” Mr. Niinisto mentioned quietly, including that he may carry it as much as the American president, who additionally misplaced his spouse in a automobile crash as a younger politician, “sometime perhaps if I had the potential of having an extended sit with him.”

Mr. Niinisto additionally picked up the items. In 2009, then the speaker of Parliament, he married Jenni Haukio, then a 31-year-old director of communications for the Nationwide Coalition Get together and now a poet. They’ve a 4-year-old son, and their dogs have become beloved nationwide mascots.

Earlier than the couple met, he was engaged to Tanja Karpela, a former Miss Finland who was a member of Parliament in an opposition celebration. They broke up in 2004, and Ms. Karpela now trains scent detection canine that monitor Siberian flying squirrels.

The yr of their breakup coincided with the devastating tsunami in Thailand, the place he was vacationing together with his sons and was practically swept away. He survived by clinging excessive up on an electrical pole for greater than an hour. The traumatic occasion nonetheless appeared to shake the staid president, who misplaced 100 countrymen that day. “Individuals who had been sitting beside you at breakfast,” he mentioned.

That was a pure catastrophe. Now he hoped his relationship with Mr. Putin, and the “small strikes” it’d create, would assist his companions keep away from a man-made one in Ukraine.

“Harmful instances,” he mentioned.

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