Finnish President Sauli Niinistö is heading to Russia today for talks with Vladimir Putin.
The pair will meet in the Black Sea city of Sochi – host of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games – for talks and a working lunch.
The meeting takes place at Putin’s Sochi residence, followed by a press conference in the afternoon.
On the agenda, according to a press release from Niinistö’s office, “current international, regional and bilateral topics”.
“One thing I can say is that we can agree there is definitely not much substance behind this moment, however these meetings are important just to maintain contact” says Ryhor Nizhnikau, a Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA, who is a Russia specialist.
Niinistö and Putin have met several times over the years, most recently when Helsinki was the location for the first summit between Putin and US President Donald Trump in July.
Although the focus was squarely on the bilateral talks between the Russian and American sides, Niinistö also had talks with the two superpower leaders to press the Finnish agenda of Arctic issues, Baltic Sea security, and black carbon emissions.
“The Russians felt at home at the summit. They felt they were better treated, and you can actually see that reflected in some of the stories aired by the Russian journalists” says Ryhor Nizhnikau.
“The Finns are confirmed to be valuable partners in Moscow and in this regart at least they won a few extra points to their credibility” during the Helsinki summit, Nizhnikau adds.
But even before the Helsinki Summit, there was already an established pattern of regular contacts, including face-to-face meetings and phone calls, going back several years.
In July 2017, President Putin paid a one day visit to Finland, when he met Niinistö for ‘steamboat diplomacy’ in Savonlinna as part of the Suomi 100 independence celebrations.
Previously the pair have met in Finland or Russia, and enjoyed playing ice hockey together.
In fact, a recent tell-all book about Sauli Niinistö claimed that he evaluated Putin based on the way he plays ice hockey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Niinistö has apparently concluded that Putin likes to win at any cost.
All of this shores up President Niinistö’s stated strategy of keeping all lines of communication open between Helsinki and Moscow.
In advance of the Sochi meeting, President Niinistö has been doing his homework.
He called German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria and the relationship between Europe, the United States and Russia.
Vladimir Putin met with Merkel in Berlin on Saturday for talks.