The Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) hosted President Sauli Niinistö of Finland along with a business delegation and group of panelists on Tuesday to discuss Finland’s recent bid for NATO membership; geopolitical tensions among the U.S., China and Russia; and relations between Finland and Russia. Niinistö called for trans-atlantic security cooperation amidst neighboring Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine.
The event took place in the Vidalakis Dining Hall and was moderated by Michael McFaul ’86 M.A. ’86, former ambassador to Russia and director of Stanford’s FSI.
The discussion began with remarks by Niinistö, who spoke of the war effort in Ukraine and drew parallels between the ongoing resistance by Ukraine to the Russian invasion and Finland’s war against the USSR over 80 years ago. The ‘Winter War’ of 1939-1940 saw Finland’s much smaller army able to partially hold back the much larger Soviet army.
Niinistö also called for public-private cooperation in national security matters, citing his visits to Microsoft and Amazon offices in Seattle on Monday.
He concluded his opening remarks by calling for security cooperation between and among Europe and the U.S. “Undoubtedly, Europe needs the U.S.A.,” he said. “But the U.S.A. also needs Europe.”
Niinistö has been in office since 2012, and his visit to Stanford came as part of his five-day itinerary in the U.S., which included visiting destinations like the National Nordic Museum in Seattle; The Bifrost Summit, an event for Nordic entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley; as well as meetings with U.S. senators and politicians in D.C.
The event also included various panelists such as Anna Grzymala-Busse, director of The Europe Center, Oriana Skylar Mastro, a center fellow at the FSI, H.R. McMaster, former lieutenant general and fellow at the Hoover Institution, Steve Pifer, former ambassador to Ukraine and a current affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation and The Europe Center, Alex Stamos, director of The Stanford Internet Observatory and Kathryn Stoner, the Mosbacher Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
Risto Siilasmaa, venture capitalist and Chairman of the Technology Advisory Board of the Finnish Government, was also a panelist.
Ari Chasnoff, director of communications for FSI, said that the purpose of discussions such as the panel hosting Niinistö is to bring world leaders and Stanford scholars together to discuss important issues together and with students.
“We offer them a dedicated audience, many of whom are future leaders,” he said. “We see discussions like this as an opportunity for them to learn from us and for us to learn from them.”
Pifer said that he appreciated the president’s openness. “A lot of leaders, when they do this, they want to come in and give a long speech, because they can control their speech, but they can’t control their questions,” Pifer said. “He seemed wide open to that though.”
The panelists began the event by discussing and contextualizing Finland’s defense and security strategies.
“What Finland brings … is clarity,” McMaster said. “You [Niinistö] have given the most succinct and clear description of Russian new generation warfare … in terms of Russia’s sustained effort to subvert the free world.”
Ukraine and Russia
Pifer, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the late ’90s, said that at the time, he observed that most Ukrainians were ambivalent or even positively disposed towards Russia. He said that he noticed this disposition change, however, after the invasion of Crimea in 2014.
“I recall going to Ukraine in 2014, after Russia illegally annexed Crimea and were involved in fighting in the Donbass, and my friend said, ‘Vladimir Putin has succeeded where centuries of Ukrainian nationalism has failed. He has created a Ukrainian national identity,’” Pifer said.
During the discussion, Kathryn Stoner, who has written numerous books and articles about Russia, pointed to Russia’s autocratic nature. “Should Putin die tomorrow, fall off a balcony, as some Russian leaders tend to do, especially very rich Russians these days, would [Russia] have an even more intense autocracy?” she asked. “I think that is possible, and even likely.”
Stoner spoke of Putin’s relationship with Niinistö, citing the fact that the two leaders have spoken to each other over 40 times in the past decade.
Niinistö said that he is concerned about peace and security both in Europe and on the Finnish Eastern border.
“After the Cold War … [European citizens] started to think that peace is forever. That we don’t have to worry about European defense,” he said. “We, [Finland] have never forgotten about our Eastern border. But, this wasn’t an obstacle in having a relationship with Russia.”
Niinistö said that he has worked to establish an understanding relationship with Putin, without sacrificing Finnish values.
The Finnish government has elected to begin the NATO ascension protocol in July 2022 following the invasion of Ukraine. It was additionally, in part, due to Putin’s official demand in late 2021 that NATO does not admit new members.
In an interview with The Daily, Pifer said that Niinistö’s insistence on Finland’s joining NATO following Putin’s demands strengthened the integrity of the Finnish government. He said that he believes this integrity will make Finland a strong military ally for the U.S. and NATO.
When asked if he sees good relations with Russia ever commencing, considering his relationship with Putin, Niinistö said, “I’m sure not in my time in office.”
“[Putin] has always been disappointed by the fact that the West betrayed Russia in the ’90s,” he said. “The feeling of being betrayed, it developed into frustration and then even into hatred.”
NATO and Great Power Competition
Panelists also discussed the Great Power Competition, referring to geopolitical competition among the U.S., China and Russia. Finland’s application to join the security bloc NATO, of which the U.S. is a founding member, further implicates the nation in tensions and relations among the triad of countries.
Mastro said that Russia and China have a “unidirectional” relationship that has been “very closely aligned, but for the specific purpose of helping China challenge the United States in Asia.”
She said that China’s relative lack of support for Russia in Ukraine, “does not necessarily mean that Russia would not offer greater aid to China in the event of a conflict in East Asia.”
When discussing the role that China could play in ending the war in Ukraine, Mastro said, “they’ll play that mediation role, but you better believe they’re not doing it for free … What is the cost that the United States will have to pay in terms of security in Asia to get China on board to help end this war?”
“The Chinese view is that they can continue to support Russia and pay no cost to their relationship with their European partners,” she said. “China really values their relationship with European countries. If that was not the case, we’d see much less Chinese support for Russia.”
Elbegdorj Tsakhia, former president of Mongolia and current visiting fellow in the FSI, attended the discussion and spoke with The Daily about Mongolia’s role in the Great Power Competition, given that the country is nestled between Russia and China.
“We [the free world] are always one step behind. It is so important that we understand China soon,” he said.
Tsakhia also expressed his excitement for the event, noting that he “was really happy that [Niinistö] agreed to come to this. It shows his interest in communicating and understanding more about the wider world.”
Finland’s bid to join NATO comes less than two years after former President Trump called on NATO to increase its involvement in the Middle East in the aftermath of the assassination of a top Iranian military commander.
In response to a student’s question concerning NATO’s involvement in the Middle East, McMaster connected the issue to the Great Power Competition and said that he believes that the U.S. and NATO should take a more engaged role in the region. He warned that a lack of engagement could leave a power vacuum that Russia may occupy and that the future may hold a “series of cascading crises” involving “the authoritarian regimes that we are concerned about”, including China, Russia and Iran.
“This is why Russia is able to play the role of arsonist and fireman in Syria,” he said. “We tend to look at these conflicts and competitions as separate to one another, but they really are interconnected.”
Mastro cautioned that the U.S. and NATO have limited resources and suggested that they instead prioritize security interests in East Asia.
Technology and national security
The panelist’s conversation also touched on the influence of developing technologies on national security.
Stamos, who is a member of NATO Cybersecurity Advisory Board in addition to his capacities here at Stanford, described his concerns with cybersecurity in NATO. “NATO has no idea what it’s doing around cybersecurity … NATO is a non-entity from a cybersecurity perspective,” he said.
Stamos said that he believes that Ukraine is doing exceptionally well on the cybersecurity front in their war against Russia because Ukraine has built “immunity” through more than a decade of peacetime cybersecurity attacks, and its technological infrastructure is less advanced, so it is inherently less exposed. He contrasted this with the U.S., who he said he believes would suffer in a war against Russia or China, particularly due to a lack of public-private partnerships.
“The private sector sees themselves as a component of the war fighting and defensive capabilities of Ukraine. That is not true in the West,” he said. “[Our companies] didn’t really understand that they are political players, that they are part of the defense of the general West and their specific countries.”
Stamos said that he believes Finland’s ascension into NATO can help fix this issue, given Finland’s strengths in public-private cooperation and cybersecurity. Siilasmaa highlighted the need for governments to adopt smart regulation and utilization when it comes to technological developments.
“In order to do smart regulation, we need tech understanding, so we need to send our politicians back to school,” he said.
The discussion also allowed for audience engagement. Many attendees, such as Pekka Lundmark, the current CEO of Nokia and students in attendance were able to ask Niinistö and the panelists questions.
Hasan Ahmad ’25, who attended the discussion, said that he appreciated the Finnish president’s transparency.
“I was in Helsinki last November. I learned that when the war in Ukraine started, many Finns traveled to the battlefield because of their fierce historical opposition to Russia,” he said. “I was pleased that the President did not avoid questions and clearly addressed issues such as energy independence and Finland’s military contribution to Ukraine.”
Grzymala-Busse said in an interview with The Daily that experiences like this panel discussion can be foundational to students.
“More often than not, [these discussions] expose students and academics to perspectives of real politicians,” she said. “The opportunity to learn from their real-life experiences, their different ideological and geopolitical perspectives, is critical to gaining a much more sophisticated and learned perspective.”
Ahmad also said that he enjoyed the discussion and the fact that it brought scholars, students and practitioners of international security in one place. “This was also an excellent opportunity for students like me to meet people like H.R. McMaster and Michael McFaul, and have frank conversations with them.”