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Putin’s comment about location of Russian troops baffles

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed during his Friday visit to Finland that Russian troops have been pulled back 1,500 kilometres from the Finnish-Russian border in the spirit of peaceful relations, warning that this could change if Finland applies for full NATO membership. In fact, the Russian military presence near Finland's borders has grown in recent years, with the closest Russian naval air base located just 60 kilometres from the eastern border.

Sauli Niinistö ja Vladimir Putin
The Finnish and Russian presidents met in Naantali on Friday. Image: Mikhail Metzel / TASS / AOP

A comment from Russia President Vladimir Putin during his one-day visit to Finland on Friday caused many people to wonder if they had heard him correctly. The Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle even went so far as to issue a correction to its news item later in the evening, saying that the interpreter had perhaps misunderstood what the eastern leader was trying to say. Early Saturday morning, Yle clarified: Putin did indeed say the following:

“We have pulled back our troops from the border between Finland and Russia to a distance of 1,500 kilometres. We have not changed this to this day. That’s the way it is. But on our Baltic country border, NATO continues to bolster its forces. What are we to do?” Putin said.

Even the Russian press was confused. If President Putin’s claim were true, this would mean that Russia defended its western border with Finland from behind the Ural Mountains, almost into Asia.

Latitude, not distance

Although Putin repeated his 1,500-kilometre statement twice on Friday, his advisors later clarified that the Russian president meant to say that the Russia troops have fallen back from the 1,500-kilometre latitude, not 1,500 kilometres from the Finnish border.

The Finnish tabloid Ilta-Sanomat reported on Saturday that Andrei Kolesnikov, Putin’s trusted reporter, wrote on the same day in the Russian paper Kommersant that he had asked Putin’s administrative chief Sergei Ivanov to clarify the comment, to which he replied, “it is not a question of distance, but latitude.”

Kolesnikov reported that Ivanov admitted that there was some confusion about the issue. What 1,500 kilometre latitude?

“We have no troops whatsoever from the Leningrad Oblast to Murmansk,” Kolesnikov claims Ivanov had replied. 

In reality, Russia has many troops stationed near the border with Finland, primarily in the Leningrad Oblast region around St Petersburg and in Petrozavodsk. In early 2015, Russia also stepped up its military activity in the Arctic region, reopening an abandoned military base on the Kola Peninsula in the Russia city of Alakurtti, just 60 kilometres from the Finnish border. Both Russia and NATO have clearly bolstered their positions on the Baltic Sea since the Ukraine crisis.

The signature smirk

During the same press conference, Putin said it is Finland’s business alone if it applies for full NATO membership sometime in the future, and said that Russia would respect this decision.

He however warned with a smirk that NATO would have no qualms about fighting Russia down to the last Finnish soldier, if Finland’s defence forces would become a part of the military alliance’s infrastructure. This second provocative comment was covered extensively by the English-speaking press, but largely ignored by the Russian media. 

“The comment, that was apparently meant as a tongue-in-cheek threat, was perhaps more familiar to the Russian public, who is used to hearing NATO references that contain strong language,” writes Yle’s correspondent Erkka Mikkonen from Moscow.

Edit: changed a border detail in Putin's comment at 23:08.

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