Heikki Hakala: President Niinistö’s disputed trip to Sochi

Heikki Hakala

PHOTO: Erakogu

Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö visited Sochi last Thursday and went on to Kiev on Friday, meeting Presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko. As a devoted observer of Estonian society, I could not help but notice how some of the more visible comments regarding Mr Niinistö’s trip – and on Finland’s policies regarding the Ukraine crisis – have been rather negative, even angry.

It is regrettable that much of the harshest criticism seems to be based on inaccurate or superficial information as well as false assumptions; this reveals a more general mistrust in the foreign and security policy conducted by Estonia’s northern neighbor. Although I am obviously not privy to the Presidents’ confidential discussions, perhaps you will allow me to raise a few of the sharpest distinctions between fact and fiction.

Probably the most widespread misconception has been that the aim of President Niinistö’s visit to Sochi was cunningly to strengthen a «special relationship» between Finland and Russia at an extremely critical moment, and by doing so, to erode the EU’s common policy, including imposed sanctions. Such an assumption reflects prejudices rather than reality. I won’t speak to those prejudices in detail here but readily admit that, based on past experiences, they may not be entirely unfounded, to say the least. 

Given what we know today, it is most likely that the primary purpose of Mr Niinistö’s discussions with Putin and Poroshenko was to outline a direct meeting of those two heads-of-state together with EU leadership and the Presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan. This meeting is scheduled to take place in Minsk next week.

Niinistö’s mission was of a principally diplomatic nature; his agenda contained no major topics related either to bilateral issues or to sanctions imposed by the EU, just as he repeatedly emphasized in his statements prior to and during his trip.  

It is worth noting that immediately before the trip President Niinistö and the Cabinet Committee on Foreign and Security Policy reminded Russia that it is essential to stop assisting the separatist groups in East Ukraine in accordance with what the EU has urged Russia to do.

Furthermore, the President and the Committee said, «Since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, Finland has stated that Russia, with its actions in Ukraine, has violated key principles of international law and numerous international commitments, including the Helsinki Final Act. Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity have been violated. Russia's actions cannot be accepted.» The fact that Russia has not halted its support to the separatists was explicitly mentioned.

Even more recently, when President Niinistö expressed those views in the press conference in Sochi, it must have been clear to Mr Putin, standing beside him, that this was not going to be another pleasant little chitchat between old friends, perhaps like some he was used to with his former Finnish counterpart, President Tarja Halonen. Russian state media, not surprisingly, maintained an emphasis on bilateral relations but were not able to deny Niinistö’s message on Ukraine. Kommersant, the Moscow business daily, even wrote about Finland’s «ultimatum», not entirely without irony of course.

In light of this course of events, it would require an exceptional amount of imagination – or appeal in conspiracy theories – to assess them as any kind of a cover-up for Finland’s actual desertion from the common EU front.

And if Mr Niinistö would have been looking for bonus points from the Kremlin, why bother leaving Sochi immediately after his meeting with Putin and heading for a visibly warmer encounter with President Poroshenko in Kiev?

Before departing for Sochi Mr Niinistö said that he was doing what he felt was his duty. I think that pretty much crystallizes the essence of his mission.

I would like to encourage those tempted to look for «useful idiots» or «new Chamberlains» not to continue focusing on Finland’s present political leadership as that would be an ultimate waste of time. There are politicians in both Estonia and Finland inclined to empathize with Putin’s «legitimate» interests more than those of our own nations.  However, the highest levels of both countries’ leadership are committed to maintain unity with the EU in relation to Russia and its actions.

At a time when we may be living «on the doorstep of a new cold war»– President Niinistö’s own words – I hope Estonia and Finland will be able to work increasingly hand in hand as the closest possible partners. Regardless of different emphasis in various matters, let’s admit that, at the end of the day, all our most essential interests are shared.


Heikki Hakala is a Finnish senior communications consultant and contributing editor sharing most of his time between Helsinki and Tallinn.