OLYMPIA — In a historic appearance in Olympia, Finland President Sauli Niinistö told state lawmakers Monday his nation would maximize its security and be a “strong contributor” for the defense of NATO members if its bid to join the alliance succeeds.
He decried Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, lauded Ukrainians’ fight for freedom and called for strengthening economic ties with Washington in an address to a joint session of the state Legislature.
And Niinistö worked in a reference to the Seattle Kraken in a roughly 15-minute speech, the first-ever by a foreign head of state to an assemblage of legislators in the Capitol.
“The past year has seen horrors we did not expect to see in Europe in this day and age. Cities destroyed. Schools, homes and critical infrastructure demolished. Thousands of lives taken. Millions forced to leave their homes,” he said, adding Finland and the United States have supplied Ukraine with ample military aid and humanitarian relief. “We must continue to do so, until a just and sustainable peace is achieved.”
Monday marked the start of a five-day visit to the United States for Finland’s president.
Gov. Jay Inslee invited him to Olympia last fall when the governor and a delegation of civic and business leaders, and lawmakers traveled to Finland. Among them was Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, the son of Finnish immigrants.
While in this state, the president reportedly planned to meet with executives of Microsoft and Amazon. Monday evening, he was to chat with Liias at the National Nordic Museum in Ballard. The two were expected to delve into subjects such as the war in Ukraine and international trade.
Niinistö will be in California on Tuesday then travel to Washington, D.C., where he is expected to meet with President Joe Biden.
The trip comes as Finland edges closer to joining NATO after years of steering clear of the trans-Atlantic alliance in favor of a posture of military non-alignment.
Finland shares a roughly 800-mile border with Russia. Niinistö told lawmakers the decision to pursue NATO membership followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demand in December 2021 that the alliance not expand eastward.
“We in Finland knew what it was about. He sought to re-establish spheres of influence,” the president said. “And by so doing, he wanted to limit also our right to choose our own alliances. We could not let him do that.”
Asked how he might use his experience to explain the relevance of the conflict to an American family, he said: ”First of all, we’re all human beings. We see other people killed, tortured. We have feelings.”
More broadly, he said, Finland’s pursuit of NATO membership is for democracy and the fight in Ukraine is for democracy, he said.
“We can’t forget that if an autocratic system would win somewhere, it never stops. After one win it might be another win,” he said. “We have to keep in mind that a household here is actually not that far away from a household in Finland or a household in Ukraine. The world is getting, all the time, smaller and smaller.”
Inslee assured the Finnish president residents in this state are with him.
“Washington state stands with the people of Ukraine. Washington state stands with the people of Finland,” he said. “We are going to be there with you to see this through.”
Switching topics, Niinistö in his speech described Washington as one of Finland’s “core partners” in the United States.
The first Finnish families settled in the state at the end of the 19th century, he said. The Finnish and Nordic communities are still strong and active, he said.
He drew smiles and laughs when he expressed pride in having “our ‘own’ representative” in the Legislature, Liias.
In November 2021, in Seattle, Lt. Gov. Denny Heck signed an agreement with Finland Minister of Transport and Communications Timo Harakka aimed at increasing cooperation on research, technology and development of green industries.
Last fall, Inslee led the delegation to Finland.
Niinistö cited the agreement Monday, noting leaders of several Finnish companies accompanied him to Washington.
“We are working to accelerate our cooperation in crucial fields of the future: That is high technology and green transition,” he said.
Combatting climate change is a shared goal, he said. Open dialogue on developing and deploying emerging technologies will be vitally important in coming years as well, he said.
“In fields such as 6G, quantum computing and artificial intelligence, we have a lot to gain from cooperation,” Niinistö said. “Only together can we ensure that these crucial technologies will be developed and used in line with our own values.”