By MATTI HUUHTANEN , Associated Press
HELSINKI (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday tried to calm regional anxiety over joint Russian-Chinese naval maneuvers in the Baltic Sea, where tensions have grown in recent years with an increased show of military force by both Moscow and NATO.
Speaking to reporters after talks with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Putin said Russia had joined China in military exercises before and that they were not aimed at any third party.
"The cooperation of Russia and China, in its totality including the military component, is one of the most important elements of security and stability in the world. Furthermore, it is not directed against any third countries," Putin said at a news conference. "In this case, our militaries are simply polishing their skills."
In an apparent allusion to nonaligned Finland and Sweden, Putin said he respected the neutrality of nations in the Baltic Sea region, saying Russia was willing to cooperate with them.
When asked about Russian-U.S relations and the probe into possible collusion between President Donald Trump's associates and Russian officials in the 2016 U.S. election, Putin downplayed the issue.
"I do not think that this is an investigation, because investigation involves finding out the completeness of all the circumstances with study, with listening to various parties. We are simply seeing the growth of anti-Russian hysteria, most likely the use of Russo-phobic instruments in a domestic political struggle," he said. "It is unfortunate that Russian-American relations are being the sacrificed in the course of solving domestic political issues in the U.S."
Putin arrived for a one-day visit in Finland by helicopter at an airport near the southeastern town of Savonlinna for talks with Niinisto in the country's picturesque lake district. Afterward, the two leaders took a cruise on Lake Saimaa in a steam boat to Olavinlinna Castle, where they dined before attending Tchaikovsky's opera "Iolanta," performed by the visiting Bolshoi Theater as part of the annual Savonlinna Opera Festival.
Putin noted that Finland was celebrating its centenary of independence from Russia, with which it shares a 1,400-kilometer (800-mile) border. The small Nordic nation has had a precarious relationship with its huge eastern neighbor, including two bitter wars against Stalin's Red Army.
Finland was ruled by Sweden for 700 years before falling to czarist Russia in 1809 when the Swedes were defeated in the Russo-Swedish wars. It declared independence in 1917 in the wake of the Russian Revolution.