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Defence Minister blames media for military exercises furore

Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö denied inviting the USA to participate in proposed military drills in Finland before talking to President Sauli Niinistö.

Deence Minister Jussi Niinistö. Image: Jarno Kuusinen / AOP

Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö said that he held talks with President Sauli Niinistö about proposed military exercises well before it became a contentious issue.

"I discussed [it] with the President of the Republic before and during the outcry," Niinistö said in an interview with Yle's Ykkösaamu morning radio programme on Friday.

An uproar arose after Niinistö invited US Defence Secretary James Mattis to participate in the drills, when it appeared that he had not discussed the exercises with President Sauli Niinistö, who leads Finnish foreign and security policy, as well as parliamentary committees responsible for defence and foreign policy.

On Tuesday, members of Parliamentary and Foreign Affairs Committees grilled the defence minister on the issue.

The minister's comments on Friday appeared to be at odds with comments from President Niinistö on the subject.

"I spoke with the defence minister about it today," the President said during a press conference on Monday 6 November.

However the minister spoke to commercial broadcaster MTV about the planned drills on Friday 3 November.

According to Minister Niinistö, the idea that the military exercises were in an advanced stage of planning was a misconception.

"It was more on the scale of an idea than it has been during this uproar, and now it will be proposed for the government programme," Niinistö commented.

The government's foreign and security policy committee will join President Niinistö in December to decide on exercises due to take place next year. The minister said that the drills that he is proposing will also be on the agenda for discussion.

"I didn’t invite the US to join drills"

The minister also came in for some flak for apparently inviting the USA to join the planned exercises during a visit by US Defence Secretary James Mattis earlier this month.

"I did not offer an invitation, I only informed Mattis of the possibility to organise international military exercises in Finland after 2020. I did not even know whether or not the USA will come," Niinistö said Friday, adding that Mattis did not comment when he received the information.

"He got the information, I won't comment any further on that," the minister remarked.

In September, the US participated in a large-scale military drills organized by Sweden. Niinistö said that he would like to see similar exercises in Finland. He blamed the media for the drama that ensued after his comments earlier in the month.

"It's been the media's way every year to highlight some drills and to emphasise it and to get comments from the opposition, who then grasp on to it," the minister noted.

Missiles can’t replace fighter jets

Sweden plans to purchase a US-made Patriot anti-missile system to counter the positioning of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad in Russia.

The minister said that in the future Finland will discuss developing a missile defence system, but that it doesn’t preclude acquiring new fighter jets.

"No state will replace fighter jets with missiles," he declared.

With a price tag of up to 10 billion euros, the jets will be Finland's most costly purchase ever. Niinistö said that 64 is an appropriate number to buy.

"If you ask me it could be even more. But the price range is now between seven and 10 billion euros, which is about the same that we decided to pay for Hornets back in 1992," he explained.