Former President Donald Trump with President Vladimir Putin during a joint news conference in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. Credit - Doug Mills—The New York Times/Redux
President Joe Biden stood just 120 miles from Russia’s border when he stopped in Helsinki on Thursday to celebrate Finland’s newly-minted membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a club the Nordic country had resisted joining for seven decades.
The trip to Russia’s doorstep amplifies both Biden’s steadfast support of NATO and Finland’s very public rebuke of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in joining the alliance. But the moment also draws a stark contrast to one five years earlier, when an American President traveled to Finland’s capital for a very different meeting, and delivered a very different message.
When Donald Trump arrived at the Finnish Presidential Palace in July 2018, he met privately with Putin alone for two hours. The two leaders’ translators were the only other people in the room. No notes were taken. Trump then stood next to Putin during a press conference and praised his Russian counterpart as a “good competitor” and called the U.S. itself “foolish” for allowing its relationship with Russia to fray.
When asked if he believed the detailed information collected by his own intelligence agencies showing how Russia had hacked Democratic National Committee computers and intentionally released emails to interfere with the 2016 elections, Trump sided with Putin. “I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump said, “but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Trump’s refusal to rebuke Putin and his unwillingness to defend the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies reverberated through the country and Europe. For European allies, it was a public demonstration that Trump wouldn’t stand up to Putin’s actions and sowed doubts that Trump would be willing to back up the U.S. obligations under Article 5 of NATO’s treaty to defend Europe in the face of a Russian attack.
Biden’s visit to Finland five years later, with both Finland and Sweden joining NATO, and the treaty signatories increasing military support for Ukraine, provides a striking contrast to his predecessor’s 2018 visit, showing how much repair work Biden has presided over since taking over the White House from Trump.
“When Putin and his craven lust for land and power unleashed his brutal war on Ukraine, he was betting NATO would break apart,” Biden said during his speech Wednesday at Vilnius University before departing Lithuania for Finland. “He thought our unity would shatter at the first testing. He thought democratic leaders would be weak. But he thought wrong.”
During his four years as President, Trump repeatedly questioned NATO’s value and belittled members of the alliance who he said weren’t contributing enough to their own defense.
“Trump was leading us toward a future in which NATO might have broken up and every ally would have to fend for themselves in dealing with the Russians,” says Tom Malinowski, a senior fellow at the McCain Institute and a former member of Congress. Biden’s trip to Helsinki, he adds, is “a symbol not only of his embrace of the NATO alliance but of the revitalization and expansion of the alliance under American leadership. NATO is obviously stronger and bigger than it was just a few years ago when it was in danger of falling apart.”
In Helsinki, Biden met with the leaders of Nordic countries and talked with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö about his country’s security concerns along its 800-mile border with Russia. With the addition of Finland and Sweden on track to join NATO, the alliance’s commanders will need to launch new military assessments and contingency planning for how to respond if there’s a Russian border incursion against either of those countries.
Niinistö said that 80% of Finns support the country’s NATO membership and a similarly high percentage support Finland coming to the defense of other NATO countries. Biden’s leadership was instrumental in changing how Finland secures itself. “The new era in Finnish security policy has begun and you will be one of those who brought it to history,” Niinistö told Biden during a joint press conference on Thursday.
Before boarding Air Force One to return to Washington, Biden had a message for Putin about his flailing effort to conquer Ukraine and make it part of Russia. Putin’s attempt to roll tanks into Kyiv early last year played a major part in convincing Finland and Sweden to join NATO. “Putin’s already lost the war,” Biden told reporters. “Putin has a real problem. How does he move from here?”