Finnish President Sauli Niinisto is a careful man. He has to be: His country shares an 830-mile border with one of the world’s great predators, Russia. And unlike other small states across the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, Finland is not a member of NATO, the alliance meant to counter the Russian threat.
As he sat down for an interview this week at the president’s residence in Helsinki, Niinisto pointed to special shades on the windows to prevent sensors from recording his conversations. “The walls have ears,” he joked. At any rate, I was not allowed to bring my laptop.
Not surprisingly, when I asked Niinisto about Russian President Vladimir Putin, he was tight-lipped. By way of an answer he offered “an old bit of Finnish wisdom.” “A Cossack takes everything that is loose,” he said. “You have to be very clear and not let things become loose.”
When it comes to Russia, Finland lets its actions do the talking. In the last five years, it has begun an effort to modernize its military with weapons that are interoperable with those of the NATO alliance. It has also increased its military exercises with the U.S. and NATO member states.
Before Niinisto’s presidency began in 2012, Finland had closed the door to NATO membership. Today, he said, the government’s official position is that the door is open again — but not anytime soon. For now, Niinisto said, “Finnish NATO membership would increase a lot of tensions on its eastern border.”
For students of recent European history, this may sound familiar. During the Cold War, Finland was a border state between the Soviet Union and the West. In exchange for sovereignty over its domestic affairs, Finland agreed not to pursue a foreign policy that displeased Moscow.
But today’s Finland is different. Niinisto does not seek to provoke Russia. At the same time, he has pursued a foreign policy aligned with the West. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, his government reduced contact with and sanctioned Russia, in keeping with wider European Union policy. Finnish government officials say that it would not allow Russia to use its land, airspace or sea for an invasion of its Baltic neighbors.
Today, Niinisto’s government says it can mobilize 280,000 forces within 48 hours to defend against an invasion. “We have to have a threshold high enough so that if someone wants to come here without invitation, he knows it will be expensive,” he said. This stance harks back to Finland’s defense of its territory in 1939 against the Soviet Red Army in what was known as the Winter War.
Niinisto contrasted Finland’s emphasis on military preparedness to that of other European powers. “In the 1990s, people began to think, ‘It’s a beautiful world, and Europe is good and it will spread its goodness,’” he said. The Finns, by contrast, “are a bit stubborn,” he said. “We never reduced our army. We still have conscription.”
That said, Niinisto did not think a Russian invasion of Finland or its Baltic neighbors was likely. “If Russia and NATO had a war, it would be World War III,” he said. “I don’t believe Russians would attack Finland or the Baltics separately. If it’s an armed conflict, it will put the world on fire.”
For now Finland faces smaller provocations from Russia, what Pentagon strategists call “nibbling.” In recent years more Russian aircraft have flown into Finnish airspace without transponders. In 2016 Russia sent about 1,000 Indian and Afghan migrants to the Finnish border to seek asylum, even though the Finnish authorities determined most of the migrants were not real asylum seekers. It was a smaller version of Fidel Castro’s infamous Mariel boatlift, when the Cuban leader emptied his jails under the guise of letting his citizens flee to Florida.
In the face of this mischief, Niinisto emphasizes Finland’s resilience. This was the message he delivered last year when he hosted Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump in Helsinki for their summit, where Trump publicly agreed with Putin’s deceptions and denials about Russia’s own electoral interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Niinisto is almost as reticent about Trump as he is about Putin. “He’s a businessman,” Niinisto said of Trump. “Almost everything he says reflects that thinking. He says U.S. is paying too much to NATO, which is true. This is balance-sheet thinking.” When he met with the U.S. president in Washington in 2017, among the gifts Niinisto presented him was a vintage political cartoon: It depicted Uncle Sam looking at a ledger showing Finland had repaid its debts to America for World War II.
It was a savvy gift, yet Niinisto also seems to realize that this kind of transactional politics has its limits. As he told me, “You can’t put values on a balance sheet.”