The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In interviews, Finland’s leaders see peril in standoff between Russia and the West

Washington Post London Bureau Chief Griff Witte sat down for separate interviews with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja in Helsinki. The following are excerpts from those interviews.

Read the full story: Finland feeling vulnerable amid Russian provocations

Preisdent Sauli Niinisto

The Washington Post: We've seen in the past few months various instances of what seems to be provocative behavior by Russia. You've experienced that here in Finland. I’m wondering what you think Russia’s objective is.

Niinisto: Well, first we have this catastrophe in the Ukraine. But alongside that catastrophe there’s a lot of tension between Russia and the West. And what we have seen now, in the Baltic Sea area, is surely a [result] of these kind of increased tensions internationally.We have had five violations of our airspace during the summer.

WP: The concern is that something like this could escalate very quickly. Is that a concern that you have?

SN: I wouldn't say it would escalate as a military conflict very easily, not intentionally. They were testing how we'd react. But accidents might happen.

WP: Is there a broader strategic objective on Russia’s part? It seems like there is a new push.

SN: Undoubtedly that is due to the tension I described. The Russians want to show "we are here."

WP: How have events in Ukraine and how have these violations in Finland’s airspace affected the mood here in Finland?

SN: We have a long history with Russia — not that peaceful all the time. So everything Russians are doing, surely the Finns notice and think very carefully what that might mean.

WP: This country was successful in staying non-aligned during the entirety of the Cold War. You say we're at the gates of a new Cold War. The way this new Cold War evolves, is it possible to be non-aligned? Or is this a situation where you have to choose sides?

SN: We are not part of NATO. But we are part of the European Union and part of the West. I would answer your question by explaining how we see our security at the moment. It’s a balance. We still have conscription. We have a strong army. It’s 250,000 men.

WP: A lot smaller than Russia’s army.

SN: But 250,000 men is something you have to at least take notice of. We are increasing our defense budget. We are cooperating with Sweden very deeply and that is developing very fast. We are advanced partners of NATO. And in the end I like to mention the E.U. dimension. We all know according to the Lisbon Treaty we have given a guarantee that we will help member states if they face severe problems.

WP: But that’s not the same sort of ironclad guarantee that is Article 5 under NATO.

SN:  No, it’s not the same kind of guarantee. But it’s nevertheless a very strong political statement

WP: Ukraine has paid a huge price for leaning toward the West but not being protected under Article 5.

SN: They were not members of the E.U. A big part of the problem Ukraine faces is due to their own inability to build up a democratic society. That is a huge problem. If you look at Finland, things are totally otherwise, so you can’t make any comparison to Ukraine.

WP: The prime minister has been outspoken in saying he'd like to pursue NATO membership.

SN: No one so far made a clear proposal. It hasn't been discussed, surely not decided. The question is: When? I think our prime minister has expressed, like many other NATO supporters here in Finland, that now is not the correct time.

It is very obvious that if Finland joins NATO, that would undoubtedly harm our relations [with Russia]. You have to keep in mind that 1,300 kilometers is a long, long border, and you just don’t keep it closed. On the contrary, it’s a living border.

WP: The E.U. sanctions that Finland is a part of, and Russian counter-sanctions, are they having an impact on the Finnish economy?

SN: The sanctions themselves and the counter-sanctions, if you just look at what impact they have had, it surely isn’t a very big one. But the sanctions mean that the business environment gets cautious. That has meant a weakening ruble. That has meant weakening GDP [for Russia]. That has meant the purchasing power of ordinary people has been eroded, and that has meant something for Finnish exports and not as many Russian tourists coming to do their weekly shopping in Finland.

WP: Before you came into office, you were considered more pro-NATO.

SN: Surely I'm not against NATO. I see that as a possibility. It has to be an open choice and that is important, because it is also part of our balance.

WP: The prime minister has been quoted as saying Finland should have joined NATO 20 years ago. Do you agree with that?

SN: It would have been a very easy step. Russia was very weak at that time.

WP: Do you think that was a missed opportunity?

SN: It was an opportunity, undoubtedly.

Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja

The Washington Post: How do you regard Russian violations of Finnish airspace this summer?

Tuomioja: We have a 1,300-kilometer border between Russia and Finland. From our point of view, but also from a Russian point of view, it’s the most stable and least problematic frontier they have, and I believe they want to keep it that way as long as they have no reason to believe that the Finnish territory would be used for hostile action. That’s the basis of our position since the second World War.

WP: But obviously across Europe, we’ve seen an increase in these sorts of incidents. What message is Russia trying to send?

ET: Generally, of course, it’s sending a message of power politics, that they have military powers, that they have nuclear weapons, but even then you have to recognize that Russian military power today, even with their far-reaching powers, is far from what was the case in Soviet times.

WP: Has Russian behavior caused Finland to reconsider its own policies?

ET: There is a debate going on in Finland about NATO. What has happened is that those people who have always been for NATO membership have found more arguments for this. But those people who have been against NATO membership have also found more arguments. So it is sort of a polarization of opinion more than any shift.

WP: And your own position?

ET: My position has been against NATO membership. We are the one country that has not run down conscription or defense in our country, unlike many others that are now trying to take back what they have done.

WP: Do you think NATO membership is going to be an issue in the election this coming spring?

ET: I don’t think so, because no party has interest in doing so. The Conservative Party and the Swedish Party are very much in favor of NATO membership. But the electorate is not, so they are not going to win if they do it. And neither are we, the Social Democrats, going to make this into a bigger issue.

Yes, people are concerned: Is this the return to the Cold War? I have never experienced any previous elections where there is so much interest in security and foreign policy. If I am at a meeting where I speak half about foreign policy and security and the other half about internal politics and economics, the discussion will mostly be about the first, nothing about internal politics.

WP: Does Finland have a role to play in being a channel of communications between [Russia and the West]?

ET: We are not offering ourselves as any kind of mediators. We are members of the European Union and we don’t divert from E.U. policy.

WP: But you do talk with Russia.

ET: We do talk with Russia. We don’t discuss sanctions, E.U. issues. But we do discuss Ukraine. We do discuss everything that is going on in the world, and if there’s something we can do to facilitate solutions, putting an end to this conflict, of course we are always ready.

WP: When there are the violations, as there were this summer, what has your message been to [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov?

ET: We say this: We have the evidence and this is unacceptable. Can you see to it that this is not repeated? I think the Russian foreign ministry is not party to this. They are more embarrassed by this, including Lavrov himself.

Full story: As Russian planes move in, Finland weighs joining Nato

Graphic: Russia unnerves its neighbors