(Bloomberg) — US President Joe Biden dropped into a meeting at the last minute in the White House to see a man all of Washington wants an audience with: Sauli Niinisto, once upon a time known as the “Putin whisperer.”
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The impromptu get-together was thrown together as Biden joined Niinisto and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. The pair of presidents have now met three times and spoken four times since late 2021 — giving the Finnish head of state unprecedented access to the world’s most powerful leader.
At stake is the stalled expansion of NATO, with Turkey and Hungary holding up the biggest shift in the security landscape of western Europe in several decades.
But there’s also the trajectory of the war in Ukraine, now past the one-year mark since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of his neighbor. Insights into what the Russian leader is truly thinking are increasingly elusive and any kernel of knowledge there is a rare commodity.
Speaking in an interview with Bloomberg Television immediately after meeting with Biden, Niinisto said that the pair discussed Finland and Sweden’s NATO applications, which are still awaiting final ratification, and the broader “geopolitical situation worldwide.”
What makes Niinisto, 74, valuable to US policymakers is his history.
He is the architect behind Finland and Sweden’s applications to join NATO, a move aimed at boosting collective security following Russia’s unprovoked attack on neighboring Ukraine. Officials in Finland, which borders Russia, and Sweden, just a short distance from the Kaliningrad exclave, were alarmed by the invasion and applied for membership in May.
Niinisto, who last spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin that month, has been described as the “Putin whisperer.” Asked if he would ever speak to his Russian counterpart again, Niinisto said he saw no upside to such a discussion.
“I have said that I’m totally prepared to speak with him if there is some benefit from that, but at the moment we haven’t found out anything like that,” he said.
Russia’s demand in December 2021 that NATO roll back almost a quarter-century of expansion by withdrawing forces from eastern Europe and halt further growth signaled a return to an era where great powers surrounded themselves with spheres of influence, according to Niinisto.
It was the first impetus for the Finnish move to seek NATO membership.
“That was a game changer in our eyes because so far we had always thought and said that from our own side we will remain militarily un-allied, but who believes it after Putin says that, well, ‘you can’t join’,” Niinisto said. “When he said that he demands that NATO doesn’t enlarge anymore, practically it means that he wanted a NATO-free zone in front of Russia.”
Formerly ruled by both Sweden and Russia, Finland has been independent for just over a century, defending its sovereignty against the Soviet Union in two wars in the 1939 to 1944 period.
As the Nordic nation awaits the final ratifications of its bid to join NATO, Niinisto said his country had always been ready to safeguard its border, pointing to steps such as maintaining conscription and purchasing F-35 fighter jets.
“We have always been prepared to protect our borders, and joining NATO surely gives, in my thinking, more coverage that nothing will happen,” he said. “We are not afraid, but we are fully awake.”
The Finnish leader is visiting Washington as part of a week-long US trip that’s included stops in Seattle and Palo Alto, California, and met with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy Thursday.
Finland’s entry into NATO, pending signoffs from Hungary and Turkey, would lengthen the alliance’s border by 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) — doubling its eastern flank — as well as adding an army strong in firepower.
NATO and the Nordic countries have called for completing the expansion as fast as possible — at the latest by a summit to be held in Vilnius in July. The process is, so far, the fastest in the alliance’s history, but Turkey has voiced concerns over Sweden’s entry, and Hungary has dragged its feet without detailing its reasons.
Lawmakers from Budapest visited the two Nordic capitals this week for talks ahead of a potential parliamentary vote later this month, and talks with Turkey were held in Brussels on Thursday.
–With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs, Ott Ummelas and Leo Laikola.
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