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25th May 2019

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Putin promises Finland to reduce Baltic tensions

  • Finland’s and Russia’s presidents agreed it was a good idea to turn on transponders when flying over the Baltic. (Photo: Juhani Kandell/Tasavallan presidentin kanslia)

The presidents of Finland and Russia met on Friday (1 July) amidst EU sanctions, Swedish objections and a Nato summit in the making.

Vladimir Putin doesn’t go to Europe much since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. But he opted to visit Finland’s president Sauli Niinisto at his summer residence in Kultaranta.

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”Vladimir Putin always liked Finland in the summer,” said Hanna Smith, a scholar of Aleksanteri Institute, the Russia research arm of Helsinki University.

A press conference gave Putin the opportunity to rattle out facts and figures on Russian investments in its Western neighbour and to remind people that Russia was the first country to recognise Finland's independence in 1917.

He said he looked forward to the celebrations next year.

But he also indicated that Finland is in thrall to the EU in terms of its relations with Russia.

The meeting took place the same day that the EU prolonged sanctions against Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Finland’s president Sauli Niinisto said Helsinki fully backed the roll-over of the sanctions and that they should stay in place until Russia complies with the so called Minsk ceasefire accord on Ukraine.

"Implementing the Minsk agreement would be an extremely important matter," he said.

He told journalists that he was worried both about the ”situation in Ukraine” and about heightened tensions in the Baltic region.

He said Russian warplanes should turn on their transponders - the identification devices that allow flights to be monitored - when flying over the Baltic.

”We all know the risk with these [unmonitored] flights,” Niinisto said. He said that turning on the devices would be ”a first, small step of building confidence”.

Putin said that Nato planes flew with their transponders off twice as often as Russian ones, but he warmed to the proposal.

”I will order the foreign and defence ministries to raise this matter at the coming Russia-Nato council meeting, which is to take place after the Russia-Nato summit in Warsaw,” he said.

Hanna Smith, of the Aleksanteri Institute, spoke positively of the summit outcome.

”You won’t agree on big things if you don’t agree on small things,” she said.

The meeting had upset some people in Sweden, including former defence minister Karin Enstroem, who is now an MP and who said that he was wrong to give Putin a PR opportunity when invited to Niinisto's residence in June.

Smith defended Finland’s decision, however.

”These face-to-face meetings are important in the context of rising tensions”, she said.

She said the Niinisto-Putin talks on Minsk could help to refresh Russia’s commitment to the pact.

The leaders of non-aligned Finland and Sweden will join a dinner with their Nato counterparts in Warsaw next week.

For all the good cheer, Putin vowed a military response if Finland opted to join the alliance.

He said Russia had withdrawn its troops a distance of 1,500 km from the Finnish border. ”Do you think they will stay there [if Finland joined Nato]?“, he asked journalists.

“I could say that Nato would probably be pleased to wage war on Russia until the last Finnish soldier," he added. "Do you want this? We don’t. As for you, you should decide for yourselves."

Smith said that Putin’s remarks on moving troops back toward the border had little meaning because he already had a large military and naval presence in the towns of St Petersburg and Murmansk in north-west Russia.

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