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Experts: Russian ties may lie behind Trump-Niinistö meeting

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö is to meet with his American counterpart, Donald Trump, on Monday. Foreign policy experts speculate that there may be a range of reasons why Niinistö has received a rare invitation to the White House at this juncture.

Donald Trump ja Sauli Niinistö.
Trump and Niinistö's meeting was moved up by one day due to Trump's planned trip to Texas. Image: AOP

The main reason for Monday's meeting between the US and Finnish presidents is Washington's interest in Finland's policy toward Russia, says Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

A White House meeting between presidents Sauli Niinistö and Donald Trump that was scheduled for Tuesday was moved up to Monday following Trump's decision to travel to Texas to survey storm damage on Tuesday.

"The US is interested in Finland's knack for carrying on dialogue and cooperation with Russia without being naive and while preparing itself from the security standpoint," Salonius-Pasternak says.

He notes that increased US interest in Finland has been seen over the past two years in the form of visits to the country by high-level American officials.

Recent meetings with Xi and Putin

"Finland's international profile is now on the rise," says Salonius-Pasternak. Referring to Niinistö's busy schedule of meetings since last spring, he notes: "There are not many people in the world who have held one-on-one talks with the leaders of China, Russia and the US within a [few] months."

Niinistö met with Vladimir Putin in Arkhangelsk, Russia, in late March and then hosted China's Xi Jinping in April. In late July he hosted Putin in eastern Finland. In late September he heads back to the US for the UN General Assembly opening in New York and Finnish centenary events in Washington and Minneapolis.

Salonius-Pasternak expects Trump to ask Finland to send more troops to join the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan.

"I don't think we should agree to this without clarity about what Trump's strategy toward the country is," he says.

There were more than 200 Finns taking part in the ISAF operation in 2002, but that number has now dwindled to around 30, according to Helsingin Sanomat. Between 2007 and 2011, two Finnish soldiers were killed there and two others were injured.

Surprise and puzzlement in Washington circles

Meanwhile foreign policy experts interviewed by Yle in the US expressed some surprise and puzzlement about the meeting – including about the low profile surrounding it in Washington.

Michael Haltzel, Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), points out that it has been "a long time" since the last one-on-one meeting between a Finnish and an American president. That came 15 years ago, when Tarja Halonen was invited to the White House for talks with George W. Bush.

He says he has tried to find out what lies behind the meeting from several administration sources but that "no-one seems to know".

Some US experts interviewed by Yle speculated that Finland's centenary may have played a role in the timing of the meeting. They also suggest that Trump may raise the issue of the recent Turku knife attack.

Russian expertise may be useful

Jeffrey Rathke, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), notes that the Finnish president's expertise on Russia could be useful for Washington but downplays the idea that he would be needed as a go-between with the Kremlin.

Rathke also points out that Finland and the US are now working together closely during Finland's chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which began this year and runs until 2019, and that Finland plans to use its term to focus on the climate issue – one where the EU policy stands in stark contrast to that of the Trump administration.

The White House meeting is to begin shortly after 10 pm Finnish time.

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