The meeting between President Sauli Niinistö and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin dragged on late into the evening in Moscow on Tuesday.

While Niinistö emphasised the significance of achieving a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Ukraine, Putin – somewhat surprisingly – proposed that Finland and Russia develop their co-operation in the field of nuclear energy.

“Europe is not in a state of peace,” Niinistö stated at a press conference organised at Novo-Ogaryovo, the official residence of Putin outside Moscow. “Now, we all must do our utmost in order to establish peace in Ukraine and to mitigate tensions between Russia and the West,” he continued.

Putin, in turn, elaborated on his views about the ongoing conflict only after being prompted to do so by Finnish reporters. He estimated that Russia has exerted its influence on Donetsk and Luhansk, where a shift in opinion has taken place. The Minsk agreements, he added, are the only means to resolving the conflict in Ukraine.

In addition, Putin commented on the growing presence of Nato in the Baltic Sea Region. “The most important security guarantee for Finland is its neutral status,” he said.

Putin was also asked to address the concerns of Finns about arms proliferation in Russia and Nato. Non-alignment, he replied, will guarantee the security of Finland because Russia is prepared to respond to new military threats emerging in nearby regions. He pointed out that Russia has yet to observe any particularly disconcerting developments and that it is Nato that has edged closer to Russian borders and not the other way around.

“The indifference to the Nato membership of Finland came across in a rather pointed manner. It reflects the relations between Russia and the West. The West, and especially Nato, is being portrayed as an enemy in Russia,” analyses Teija Tiilikainen, the director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

The widely-expected differences in emphasis were evident as soon as the two heads of state sat down on Tuesday.

Putin moved the issue bilateral economic co-operation and dwindling trade volumes to the top of the agenda. Niinistö, in turn, was primarily interested in the views of his counterpart on the conflict in Ukraine and expressed his concerns about the situation and the failure to comply with the Minsk agreements without delay.

“I'm also very pleased to see you,” he said in Russian, prompting a “kiitos” from Putin.

Niinistö in closing identified the willingness of world powers to engage in a dialogue over the situation in Syria as an encouraging sign from the viewpoint of Finland.

Sources within the Finnish Government admitted that the proposal of Russia to develop co-operation in the field of nuclear energy came as a surprise to Finland.

Russia, however, had expressed its preparedness to supply a third nuclear reactor to the Loviisa Nuclear Power Plant already before the meeting. Although Niinistö was willing to comment on the proposal, he reminded that the issue does not fall within his purview but rather that of the Finnish Parliament.

Putin was accompanied in the talks by the chief executive of Rosatom, Sergey Kirienko. Niinistö, in turn, brought no trade delegation with him to Moscow.

Russia is believed to have brought up the issue of nuclear energy co-operation in an attempt to shift attention away from the conflict in Ukraine and to discourage questions about its military support to pro-Moscow separatists, secret casualties and non-compliance with the Minsk agreements.

Niinistö ensured that the issue was on the agenda from the start.

Overall, the meeting portrayed a cordial but distant picture of Russo-Finnish relations. Finnish government officials stress that Finland recognises the importance of maintaining direct lines of communication with Putin as he has the power to steer developments in Ukraine.

All member states of the European Union had been notified of Niinistö's visit to Moscow ahead of time.

Anneli Ahonen, Tiina Juujärvi – HS
Aleksi Teivainen – HT