Putin Meets Finland's President for a Steamboat Ride and Opera Diplomacy

  • Russian president visits Finland for centenary celebrations
  • The heads of state meet for the second time this year

How Putin Became the Symbol of Russian Power

After the stiff formality of the G-20 summit earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin is engaging in some more relaxed diplomacy with the west.

Russia’s leader arrived in Finland on Thursday afternoon to celebrate the former duchy’s century of independence. Together with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Putin will hop on a steamboat built in 1893 for an hour-long lake cruise near the southern part of the border between the two countries. He’ll then head to a medieval castle, Olavinlinna, where the visiting Bolshoi Theater will perform Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta -- the opera’s first airing in Finland in 100 years.

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The western leader with whom Putin arguably gets on best will be the first head of state from the European Union to meet with the Russian president since the G-20 meeting in Hamburg.

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Arkady Moshes, who heads a research program on Russia at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki, says Putin is probably “more comfortable” talking to Finland, a non-NATO member of the EU, than to others. “The relationship is much more pragmatic with Finland, less problematic than with any other neighbor Russia would have in this part of the world,” he said by phone.

“Finns and Russians both find this relationship useful,” Moshes said. “It’s a part of a long tradition.”

The presidents discussed a pick-up in bilateral trade and tourism, as well as increased military traffic on the Baltic Sea, and the situation in Ukraine, Niinisto said. U.S.-Russia relations also came up, after Putin’s first meeting with Donald Trump at the G-20. And Finland’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council puts climate change, in the age of Trump, on the agenda.

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The talks take place as Russian and NATO military exercises in the Baltic Sea region intensify and as warships ply the waters off the coast of Finland and Sweden. Both NATO and Russia are building up their potential in the area, as decisions taken three years ago -- when Putin annexed Crimea -- are implemented.

“The military-political situation in the Baltic Sea is challenging and worrying,” Moshes said. “The general situation is bad but the current dynamics are not as bad as they could be,” he said.

Niinisto called for ongoing talks with Russia on the subject, saying “continued dialogue is quite necessary to avert such developments, which no one wants to see.” Niinisto also said the situation in Ukraine hasn’t improved and told Putin a ceasefire would be key in the first stage.

The special relationship between the Finns and the Russians is rooted in one key factor. Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border with Russia, has stayed out of NATO chiefly in deference to the government in Moscow (though the Finnish military is now fully compliant with equipment used by the alliance.) Leaders of the two countries are in touch with each other several times a year and lower-ranking officials are in contact much more often.

Russia appreciates Finland’s independent foreign policy, Putin said on Thursday, after last year warning policy makers in Helsinki not to join the alliance. This time, the tone of talks seemed more relaxed.

Visiting Finland is “psychologically easier” for Putin “because it’s a celebration,” Moshes said.

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