Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 162

Visiting Finland on September 2-3, President Vladimir Putin toned down Russia’s objections to the Baltic states’ goal of joining NATO. Queried repeatedly by the media on that issue, Putin chose to reply more in sorrow and feigned astonishment than in anger.

At the concluding joint press conference with Finnish President Tarja Halonen, Putin declared that Russia does not plan any “campaign of hysteria” over Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s determination to become NATO members. “It is their choice, but we do not see any objective reasons for the Baltic states to join NATO.”

Putin also harkened back to the argument that “NATO’s eastward enlargement is anachronistic. We are not glad about this, we think it is a mistake. This step will not contribute to European security.” And he also used some old-style defensive language in protesting Russia’s peaceful intentions: “Only a feverish mind can imagine that any country in Europe, Russia included, harbors aggressive intentions.” Whether calculated or an impromptu, this last observation would seem to exonerate NATO as well.

On the whole, Putin appeared intent on casting himself and by implication Russia as a party to a debate, rather than a practitioner of intimidation vis-a-vis neighbors who wish to join NATO. Putin’s stance carries two interrelated implications. First, that Moscow is beginning to realize that it can not-least of all through bluster-stop NATO’s Baltic enlargement. Second, that it might try to influence the actual terms of the Baltic states’ accession, by initiating a dialogue with NATO and possibly with the Baltic states themselves on the issue. Perhaps Moscow is beginning to position itself for such discussions in the hope of securing some quid pro quo, or stretching out the enlargement timetable in the region, or negotiating limits to NATO’s future military deployments there.

As could be expected, Putin underscored the nonalignment of host country Finland, and neutrality in general, as an suitable foreign policy model for Russia’s neighbors. But his remarks on the subject carried rather an academic and almost routine tenor. For her part, the Finnish president declared in Putin’s presence that the Baltic states’ NATO membership was both a matter of sovereign choice and one of “when, rather than if.” With that, Halonen eliminated the reservations she had notoriously expressed in the Spiegel interview earlier this year, and which had boomeranged both at home and in the neighboring Baltic states.

The preceding week, nonaligned Finland and neutral Sweden had taken a step clearly related to Putin’s Finnish visit. During a regular session of the five Nordic and three Baltic states’ foreign affairs ministers, Sweden and Finland endorsed the sovereign right of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to join NATO, while stressing at the same time that such a development need not or would not cause Stockholm and Helsinki to follow suit. Putin must have found this latter point reassuring, although-or perhaps because-this is increasingly a matter of debate in Sweden or Finland (Helsingin Sanomat, September 1, 4; Interfax, Russian Television, September 2-3; BNS, September 2-4; see the Monitor, June 20, July 5, 13, 30, August 27; Fortnight in Review, June 22, August 31).