Niinistö meets Putin in Moscow with trade, transport and climate on the table

The Finnish and Russian presidents met face-to-face for the first time in more than two years, with some fraught issues possibly on the agenda.

Finland's President Sauli Niinistö (left) met Putin in MOscow on Friday 29 October. Image: Mikhail Klimentyev / AFP

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Friday at the Kremlin in Moscow. The meeting came just as the Russian capital heads into lockdown amid record-high daily Covid-19 death tolls.

Due to the pandemic, it was their first face-to-face meeting since Putin visited Helsinki in August 2019. The two have held telephone conversations since then.

The presidents have usually met once or twice a year since they both took office in 2012 (Putin previously held the post from 1999 to 2008).

The meeting was scheduled to begin at 1 pm Finnish time, but was delayed by about 50 minutes. In their comments in a joint press conference after the meeting, President Niinistö thanked his counterpart for their three-hour meeting and emphasised climate questions..

"It's really good to get to talk to you during this period when big international questions are on the agenda, and of course big risks too," said Niinistö, in a reference to climate change.

Putin thanks Niinistö for bringing up environmental issues. He mentioned Russia's chairmanship of the Arctic Council and said he hoped that the discussions would also cover Arctic co-operation.

Niinistö wished Russia success in their stint chairing the body. He said countries in Europe are united on at least one issue: forests.

"Forests are even more valuable as carbon sinks than we have thought," said Niinistö.

Trains and timber

Niinistö said in a press conference after the meeting that the leaders discussed rail services between Finland and Russia, with Putin expressing the hope afterwards that rail passenger trains between the two countries might resume.

They have been suspended because of the Covid pandemic, and Niinistö said after the meeting that they were likely to continue, given the Covid situation in both countries.

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Due to Covid restrictions, the Allegro train has not operated between Helsinki and St. Petersburg for a year and a half. Image: Petri Kivimäki / Yle

Allegro express trains between Helsinki and St. Petersburg are due to resume traffic before the Christmas season. Last week Russian media reported that the service might re-start on 12 December, but this depends on agreement on Covid restrictions between the two countries' authorities. Unlike neighbouring Estonia, Finland does not allow entry by visitors who have received the Russian Sputnik vaccine rather than EU-approved jabs.

The leaders also discussed the timber trade. Russia intends to stop the export of raw timber via the cross-border Saimaa canal and two other border crossing points, but Finland still wants to negotiate the issue. Russia also aims to restrict the export of softwood timber to Finland.

Niinistö said afterwards that the issue was raised during the meeting, and Putin had said he would talk to his government about the matter.

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Russia intends to stop the export of raw timber via the Saimaa Canal. Image: Jari Tanskanen / Yle

International tensions

The talks come as major issues are on the international agenda, such as Belarus, the occupation of Crimea and the war between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. The issues have led to tensions with the EU, including sanctions and counter-sanctions. Niinistö has previously signalled that Finland would be prepared to mediate in the conflict.

In late August, he attended the Crimea Platform summit in Kiev and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. As in the past, Niinistö may also raise human rights issues such as the treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Relations between Russia and the military alliance Nato are also at a historical low. While Finland is not a full Nato member, it is a close partner, as seen during this week's visit to Helsinki by Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the North Atlantic Council ambassadors.

Just after the Nato meeting, Niinistö's office announced that he would visit the Kremlin a few days later.

Kristi Raik, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, suggested that Niinistö intended to send a message that Finland has not forgotten its relations with Russia, despite its close ties with Nato.

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Sauli Niinistö (right) and Vladimir Putin (left) dined at Suomenlinna in August 2019. Image: Roni Rekomaa / Tasavallan presidentin kanslia

In comments to journalists Niinistö once again mentioned the 'Helsinki Spirit, reiterating his proposal for a summit in 2025 to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). It brought together an unprecedented grouping of leaders from East and West.

The successor to the CSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), holds a ministerial meeting in Stockholm in December, when Finland may formally propose such a summit.

Black carbon threatens Arctic

Niinistö has discussed environmental issues on several occasions with Putin, focusing on black carbon in the Arctic. Typically generated from flaring in oil and gas fields as well as shipping, black carbon or soot plays a threatening role in the fragile Arctic environment and global warming.

Russia currently holds the Presidency of the Arctic Council. Finland, for its part, took over the presidency of the smaller Barents Euro-Arctic Council this week, so there are hopes for cooperation on the issue.

On Monday Niinistö heads to Glasgow, Scotland, to attend the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.