President Niinistö’s caution came as relations between Russia, Ukraine and the West once more threaten to sour further – this time over controversial elections in separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine. Russia has declared that it will honour the outcome of what Kiev and the European Union see as an "illegal" election.
Speaking on the eve of the fourth gathering of heads of government from the Baltics, Nordics and the UK, Niinistö warned of the possibility of a descent into a Cold War – partly because of frayed relations over the situation in Ukraine, but also because of a failure to grasp the depth of Vladimir Putin’s gripe with the US and the EU.
Niinistö told the Guardian that Finland had a long tradition of maintaining good relations with its eastern neighbour, but was also ready to stand up to the Kremlin when needed. He cited what he called Finland’s "decisive" actions dealing with a recent spate of airspace violations by Russian military aircraft.
“The Finnish way of dealing with Russia, whatever the situation, is that we will be very decisive to show what we don’t like, where the red line is. And that is what we are prepared to do,” Niinistö said.
“We put the Hornets up there and the Hornets were flying alongside the Russian planes … The Russians turned back. If they had not, what would we have done? I would not speculate,” Niinistö added cryptically.
Finland in a position to talk to Putin
The president appeared to reiterate the view that Finland was in a natural position to act as a mediator between the West and Russia.
“We are in the position in the West of asking what is Putin up to (sic),” Niinistö said.
“Putin keeps saying the West and NATO are hostile. [He says] they have deceived Russia with NATO enlargement and they are undermining and humiliating Russia ...So this is a situation that is not promising. I have said we are almost at the gates of a new kind of cold war that could suck in all of Europe,” the president added.
Niinistö sought to clarify Finland’s relationship with the NATO military alliance, noting that Finland is a contributor to NATO operations in Afghanistan. The country – which has consistently polled negatively for joining the alliance - recently signed a NATO Host Nation Support agreement, would allow the deployment of NATO rapid reaction forces on Finnish soil. The development elicited a strongly critical reaction from Moscow, which has expressed concern over NATO enlargement in its backyard.
“We have a long tradition of keeping out of conflict with Russia … though we did not succeed in the Second World War. We can’t change geography. We have a 1,300 km border. That is more than all other EU countries together. The NATO-Russia border would be doubled [if Finland joined]. We have to consider that too,” Niinistö observed.
The president reiterated that his main concern was the prospect of edging closer to a Cold War – a development he said would result in "a very uncertain situation".
“But if you are asking are we afraid, directly or indirectly, of Russia, I would say no,” he concluded.