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As tensions rise between Russia and the West, Finland’s president keeps a quiet back channel

Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, addresses the 76th session of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21 in New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As the crisis over Ukraine has brewed, there are few European Union leaders on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s official call list.

There was President Emmanuel Macron of France last week. Before that, there was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in December.

And then there was Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, who after 10 years in his role has one of the most-established connections with Putin among E.U. leaders and is a quiet back channel to inform Western moves in the showdown with Putin.

The British newspaper Sunday Times recently dubbed Niinisto the “Putin whisperer.”

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“I believe it’s always better to talk than to stay quiet, and that’s even more true with when you have problems or conflicts,” he said in a video interview from his office in Helsinki. A few days before his latest call with Putin, on Jan. 21, Niinisto spoke with President Biden at the request of the White House. It was his second time to speak to both leaders in the space of just over a month.

After German Chancellor Angela Merkel retired last year after 16 years in power, no other European leader other than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has such a long-established relationship with Putin, spanning the past decade that both have been in office.

On what Putin is like to deal with, Niinisto said he can answer only as he did to then-President Donald Trump during a 2018 visit to Helsinki. “Sitting in this very, very room, I said to [Trump] that Putin is a fighter,” he said. “He fights hard, but understands that the response is so hard and that Putin respects if you show respect to him.”

How the current situation will unfold is hard to estimate, Niinisto said. “Risks and dangers seem to be mounting. Yet diplomacy must be given a chance, by all sides.”

The tension is acutely felt in Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia and a difficult history with its eastern neighbor, including its invasion by Soviet troops during the first months of World War II.

In recent days, Finland has said it has enhanced its military readiness. One of Moscow’s demands to NATO was there should be no eastward expansion of the Western alliance, which would include potential Finnish membership. (Finland, however, maintains a close relationship with NATO and has aided NATO-led operations in places such as the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.)

Niinisto says Moscow knew NATO would never agree to limits on possible expansion. “It’s so self-evident that we should only decide ourselves and self-evident that NATO will not close the doors,” he said, at least when it comes to the option of Finland joining.

In separate written responses delivered to Russia last week, the United States and NATO said they would not compromise on the alliance’s open-door policy, rejecting a Russian demand to bar Ukraine from joining.

Niinisto said Finland has received assurances from NATO that its open-door policy still stands. “Even during these discussions about the conflict,” he said. “We have heard it.”

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There are no indications from Finland that it will actively seek NATO membership anytime. But the current crisis has renewed debate over the issue in Finland. Twenty-eight percent of Finns now support membership, according to a HS-Gallup survey.

That is eight percentage points higher than when the same question was asked two years ago. But 42 percent of Finns remain opposed, according to the latest survey.

“It has raised the discussion,” said Niinisto, a longtime political figure in Finland who has served as president since 2012.

Still, if Finland were to seek membership in NATO, it would need to be decided by a majority of the parliament, he said, while a nonbinding referendum would be the most legitimate way to measure the opinion of the population.

In an interview with Reuters this month, Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, said it was “very unlikely” that Finland would apply for NATO membership during her current term in office.

Niinisto said he could not divulge details of his separate calls with Biden and Putin but that he’d “had quite a long, lengthy discussion” with the Russian president on Jan 21, “only dealing with the current tensions.”

During the call, Putin had raised the issue of the Minsk agreement, a 2015 accord that sought to end a conflict between Ukraine’s forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of breaching the Minsk deal, which has failed to end the war. The conflict has raged since 2014, shortly after Russia annexed Crimea, claiming more than 13,000 lives.

Niinisto said he had thought of Putin’s Minsk reference as a sideline in their discussion, but it had been featured prominently in Russia’s official readout of the call. He said his reading is that the Minsk agreement could be “the very center of the problems now” and progress to address the impasse “would take us further in a positive way.”

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In recent weeks, the European Union has struggled to formulate a united stance on how to act in the face of Russian saber reacting when it comes to potential sanctions and weapons deliveries.

Germany has emerged as an outlier with an initial reluctance to use its gas-line project, Nord Stream 2, as leverage. The pipeline, which is finished but not in operation, connects Russia and Germany and would greatly expand Russia gas exports via a northern route that bypasses Ukraine.

“We are connecting now, and the European opinion is building up all the time,” Niinisto said. Still, there is a “lesson” to be learned.

Niinisto said he could not speak to Putin’s intentions but cited what he described as Finnish “wisdom” on experiences in dealing with Moscow.

“Finns certainly learned the wisdom that a Cossack, that means a Russian soldier, takes all that is loose,” he said, which should always be kept in mind. “You have to be very, very, clear,” he said, “where the fixed line is.”