HELSINKI — Finland's long-term interests would be better served by deepening its defense relationship with Russia rather than aligning itself militarily to NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a heads-of-state summit meeting in Finland earlier this month.
Moscow remains opposed to the possibility of Finland joining NATO. Instead, Russia wants non-aligned Finland to develop closer links in the area of military cooperation and defense-industrial collaboration.
The July 1 summit meeting with Finnish president Sauli Niinistö, the commander-in-chief of Finland's Armed Forces (FAF), was held at Niinistö's summer residence at Kultaranta in south west Finland.
Referring to its expanding military cooperation with NATO, Putin warned Finland that the Western Alliance would be prepared to fight Russia in a possible future conflict "down to the last Finnish soldier".
However, Putin said that while relations would be "tested" if Finland joined NATO, Russia would "respect" this decision.
"Membership of NATO is a decision for Finland to make on its own," said Putin.
Finland wanted the summit meeting to further normalize relations with Russia. This could lead to revisiting bilateral defense-industrial collaboration, proposed in 2013, in the event of the European Union (EU) lifting trade sanctions with Russia.
Russia offered Finland expanded access to sizable defense contracts in return for a broad defense-industrial agreement under which Finland would be able to purchase significant weapons systems, including aircraft, surface-to-surface missile systems, mobile field artillery, battle tanks and ships, from Russia.
The proposal, intended to influence Finland's position away from ties with NATO, was presented to the Finnish government during a visit to Helsinki by Russia's defense minister Sergei Shoigu.
Moreover, Shoigu suggested that Finland could become a military partner to Russia in the greater Baltic Sea area.
The offer by Russia was followed by the ministries of defense in both countries establishing working groups to identify potential areas for defense-industrial cooperation, including the possibility that primary Russian defense programs could be opened to Finnish subcontractors.
However, the forward momentum for talks ground to a halt in February 2014 when Russia sent troops and military equipment into Ukraine. This action triggered a sanctions war between the European Union, backed by Finland, and Russia that included military materials.