Finland frontier feels the chill Russia winds that led to an embrace of Nato

As the country prepares to apply for alliance membership, 'The National' finds that while some feel safer, others are scared

Finnish guards Tuomas Rama and Marko Hytti with German shepherd Leif near the border. Getty Images
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In the chill of the Vaalimaa crossing, guards gaze hesitantly into the mist that a short distance away clouds the Russian border.

It’s Thursday. Finland’s president and prime minister have just issued a joint statement proposing that the country join Nato.

The fog of Russian intentions is keenly felt, with one local half joking that they can hear the “rumble of Russian tanks”. That quip draws sharp stares from the Finnish officials, their hands not far from their 9mm sidearms.

The nervousness is understandable. Finland has just signalled its intention to join the world’s most powerful military alliance.

After decades of neutrality some believe it’s a fateful gamble.

“A massive mistake,” says Viejo, a retired banker from Helsinki on a birdwatching holiday to observe the Arctic geese migration. “I know I’m in the minority but I really think it is a huge mistake. Look at what happened in Ukraine. The Russians were not concerned about the proximity of Nato. They invaded.”

'You caused this'

At a stroke Finland, with its 1,340 kilometre frontier, will double the length of Nato’s border with Russia.

“You caused this,” Finland’s president Sauli Niinisto said on Wednesday, blaming Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion as the catalyst. The barb was more painful given that President Niinisto was previously regarded as the amiable “interpreter” of Mr Putin’s intentions. His sense of betrayal is tangible.

Finns and Swedes understand that after February 24 they now live in a different world. For decades the merits and downsides of joining Nato were debated, but in a matter of months that has been cast aside, with a huge shift in public support for membership.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto  after signing a declaration between the UK and Finland to deepen their defence and security co-operation. Reuters

“Russia has progressively stepped across all of the red lines we thought existed, we need to be prepared for the next phase in Europe,” said Dr Ian Anthony of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

It is a remaking of Europe’s security system that will have consequences for decades. Whenever the war in Ukraine ends, the Russian hangover will be to awake to a massive defensive alliance stretching from the Arctic to the eastern Mediterranean.

Border views

Back in Vaalimaa, the border commander, Capt Jussi Pekkala, is confident that Russia is too preoccupied in Ukraine.

“At the moment the Nato issue is not having much effect on border security, but of course every change in environment we see first at the border. Some are still very worried.”

Less than a kilometre from Vaalimaa checkpoint lies the great sprawl of the Zsar shopping centre, stocked with luxury clothes that Russians love. Its car park lies empty.

Captain Jussi Pekkala, chief of the border crossing at Vaalimmaa. Thomas Harding / The National

“People did think that we didn't need Nato,” said a border guard getting coffee at the near-empty shopping centre opposite. “But since you can't trust Russia any more ― that they do whatever they want ― what is the choice?” Then he smiles. “But we have seen in Ukraine what their army can do, so people are not that worried.”

The border is also quieter after Russia has stripped out Battalion Tactical Groups from its forces centred in Murmansk and around St Petersburg, which is a two-hour drive from Vaalimaa.

Lakes and pine

The size and number of lakes and the thick pine forests make Finland hard to conquer, as the Russians discovered during the 1940 Winter War in which they lost 300,000 troops.

The lessons have not been forgotten. Finland can rapidly assemble 280,000 war-ready soldiers and with 2,500 guns it has the largest artillery force in Europe. Every bridge constructed has to have charge holes ready for explosives.

It’s part of a comprehensive defence system that includes nuclear bomb shelters for 4.4 million of its 5.5 million population and a robust information and counter-propaganda service. Throw in the 64 US-built advanced F-35 stealth warplanes it's agreed to purchase in December and the country’s defences are impressive.

Finland has a bigger and more advanced army than Ukraine. Russia would again pay dearly for an attack. But that does not offset nervousness when considering Finland’s nuclear-armed neighbour and the question of whether Nato’s Article 5 collective defence obligation really will protect it.

Reservists from the Karelia Brigade during a defence exercise in Taipalsaari, Finland. Reuters

“I have told my children that sooner or later, Russia will repeat the Winter War in 10 or 20 years,” said the banker, Viejo. He is among the third of Finns who think Nato is a bad idea and despite three of its members having nuclear weapons ― Britain, France and America ― he does not think this will deter Mr Putin.

“The Russians will follow their strategy of threatening the use of nuclear weapons before invading,” Viejo said. “None of the large Nato countries will risk a nuclear war for Finland or the Baltic countries. This Article 5 has never been tested and, personally, I feel that when the time comes to test it, there will be no security guarantees.”

Neutrality abandoned

For the Finns, it was the threat from the Soviet Union that made neutrality important. For the Swedes it’s a much harder choice after 200 years of non-alignment and a significantly pacifist stance.

But Sweden too will follow Finland’s lead and surrender 200 years of neutrality in exchange for Nato security.

Empty roads at the Vaalimaa crossing. Thomas Harding / The National

The Viking Line ferry that operates between Stockholm and Helsinki, sailing carefully through Sweden’s beguiling archipelago of 20,000 pine-forested islands, carries the hopes of a slightly older population looking for continuity, but instinctively understanding that neutrality is no guarantee of peace.

“Putin changed everything by invading Ukraine. Everything!” said Anna Hakansson, 64. “Since he took Crimea [in 2014] I’ve had a feeling that this was coming, that things had changed. So we can either be like a baby without a nappy waiting for something bad, or we can wear that nappy and join Nato.”

As she speaks, dusk descends over the archipelago, a hint of rain and wind speckles the ship’s decks as we head into the open waters of the Baltic Sea, where Russian submarines patrol.

Pain and gain

Docking in Helsinki after the 16-hour trip, the disembarking passengers view a marina of large cruisers, “Finland’s Monaco”, an attractive old town. But it was the tax-free shopping malls that every day raked in a million euros from eager Russians.

Finnish soldiers during an exercise at the Niinisalo garrison in Kankaanp. AP Photo

A few days after February 24, Lappeenranta’s burghers closed it off to Russia, an economic hit made slightly less onerous following the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead, its deputy mayor said, Nato membership will bring investment opportunities from international companies seeing Finland now as more secure.

Tourism will return too, said Jari Iskanius. There is a direct flight from Israel and another from Britain with people keen on its winter wonders and glorious summers spent in log cabins among the many islands of Lake Saimaa, Europe’s fourth largest.

“A lot of risk disappears or decreases after the official Nato application and it will give investors confidence,” Mr Iskanius said. “We are not afraid of Russia. We have very good preparations.”

He is also settled on the neutrality issue. “I think the Nato train has left the station and we are both sitting in it.”

Russian émigrés

In the past two decades many Russians have abandoned the autocratic regime in favour of western Europe. The Ukraine invasion has left its mark on them too.

Denis Balu, 34, is one of the 85,000 native Russians living in Finland. He speaks fluent Finnish but is even more conscious now of his Russian accent and the instant link to the atrocities in Ukraine.

The IT worker, who has lived in Finland for 15 years, calls the invasion a “very grave mistake” and has been deeply shocked by his country’s actions.

But he is not reassured that Nato membership will not halt Mr Putin’s unpredictable ambitions. “I have some really bad dreams that it can also happen in Finland, but let’s really hope not.”

In Lappeenranta, project manager Hanna Rotinen, 27, said that Finland now felt more secure with membership. “It’s a good idea to join Nato,” she said. “If Putin is killing fellow Slavs in Ukraine, what’s to stop him doing that in Finland?”

That worry was tangible on Thursday with Finns and Swedes braced for an attack, their concerns varying from nuclear to cyber strike. But by Friday the sun was out in Helsinki, perhaps signalling the end to an unusually long winter in Finland, with trees yet to blossom

Hanna Rotinen, a project manager in Lappeenranta, favours Nato membership. Thomas Harding / The National

Taxi driver Samson Madubuike, originally from Nigeria, suggested the Nato application meant Russia was “feeling the heat from everywhere” and Moscow now faced “the pillars of the world powers”.

“My wife is Finnish and she doesn’t know if Russia is coming for them, people are scared so they want Nato. And no country wants to fight a war in two different places at the same time, the heat is too much.”

For now, Finland and Sweden appear safe, although they will have to wait about six months until they officially join Nato.

That will signal to Moscow and the world that a period of enduring isolation has begun, with a firm red line drawn down eastern Europe.

“This is one of those moments in European history,” said Alexander Stubb, former prime minister of Finland, earlier this month. “What we are looking at is the semi-permanent division of Europe into two.”

Was it a good thing joining Nato, The National asked a burly taxi driver whose grandfather fought in the Winter War. “A good thing?” he responded. “It’s the only thing. We have no option.”

Updated: May 17, 2022, 8:08 AM