Analysis: low energy presidents give lacklustre performance on camera

President Niinistö hosted President Putin for talks in Helsinki today, but was there more to the visit than diplomatic formalities?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Sauli Niinistö (R) at Helsinki press conference 21st August 2019 / Credit: Roni Rekomaa, TPK

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a reputation for keeping his international hosts waiting, and Sauli Niinistö has a habit of avoiding direct answers to journalists’ questions.

So it seemed like a match made in heaven when the two leaders, and neighbours, finally met in Helsinki on Wednesday afternoon. Putin was two hours late, and Niinistö rambled at a set-piece press conference (although to be fair, so did Putin) where Finnish and Russian media got to dutifully ask two questions each, surely vetted in advance by presidential handlers.

Neither man seemed particularly interested to be talking to journalists, and of all the topics that might have been high on the agenda – Russia’s continued illegal occupation of Crimea; deteriorating human rights and democracy situation; nuclear explosions; EU sanctions; rule of law; Baltic Sea security and the Arctic environment – Niinistö chose to talk first about waste management. Garbage.

“It fits into the overall pattern of how Finland manages its relationship with Russia and with Putin. And I mean that in all possible ways” says Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a Senior Research Fellow covering Finnish security and defence policy at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA.

“This is how Finland works. You talk about mundane stuff and the bilateral relations, electronic visas and waste management. But one gets the sense they chose to discuss the most pressing global issues after the press conference was done and they didn’t have to meet the media any more” Salonius-Pasternak explains.

“At least Niinistö seemed to indicate there was some worthwhile serious discussions that would be taking place, and everyone speculated it would be about Ukraine” he adds.

Offcial discussions between Finnish and Russian presidents in Helsinki, 21st August 2019 / Credit: Roni Rekomaa, TPK

Addressing human rights issues  

Asked by a Finnish journalist whether Russia respects the human rights of its citizens – more than 2000 pro-democracy protesters arrested, several viciously beaten by police in recent Moscow protests – Putin said that his country does respect human rights, and said that worse things happen in other European countries; Niinistö said it would be easy to say that such things don’t happen in Finland, and that the government maintains close contacts with civil society.

Both statements might be true, but it was disappointing perhaps that President Niinistö didn’t have a more forthright answer. Although just one day before he spelled out to a room full of Finnish diplomats that small states really couldn’t expect to be able to change the course of a large nation’s policies after the ship had already set sail.

“In a way it all went as scripted, but it’s not unsurprising that Niinistö didn’t speak as forcefully as he could about the Moscow protests” says FIIA’s Charly Salonius-Pasternak.

“Do I think he should have said something more forceful? He probably could have, but at least he could have not implicitly agreed with Putin’s whataboutism on protests in other countries” he adds.

President Putin (L) meets President Niinistö (R) at Presidential Palace in Helsinki, 21st August 2019 / Credit: Roni Rekomaa, TPK

Nuclear testing 

On the subject of nuclear non-proliferation, the Russian president said that if the US placed their recently-tested modified Tomahawk missiles in Romania or Poland, it would be “a threat to global security”.

Niinistö said to his knowledge the US had no such plans, and fell back on his reliable crutch of saying it’s better for all countries with nuclear weapons to bound up in international treaties.

Putin conceded that an explosion in northern Russia recently, 400km from the Finnish border, was the result of testing a new type of nuclear weapon with global strike capabilities.

But there was no mention from either Putin or Niinistö about the Russian Iskander nuclear missiles, which experts widely agree break the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, based at Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

Was this another missed opportunity from Niinistö, or is the President playing the role of wily statesman?

“It would have been gratifying had the president mic-dropped and simply mentioned Iskander. But he didn’t” Charly Salonius-Pasternak tells News Now Finland.

“It wasn’t a dialogue where they’re commenting strictly on each other’s back and forth, but since Putin brought up that the US must have been preparing their own nuclear test before dropping out of INF treaty, there would have been a path for Niinisto to mention, even in a very generic way, about Iskander missiles or Russian nuclear testing” says Salonius-Pasternak.

“But it doesn’t seem to be his style to pick Putin up on things like that” he adds.

After the press conference the presidential pair headed to Suomenlinna for dinner.

On the menu was artichoke soup, Finnish lake-caught fish, duck, and fresh berries from the president’s Kultaranta garden with honeysuckle sorbet