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Decisively on the fence  How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ended Finnish neutrality and led to growing border barriers

Source: Meduza

Story by Mirkka Ollila for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

In southeast Finland, the construction of a barrier fence along the border with Russia has been underway since the spring. The Finnish Border Guard suggested the country build a border fence in late September 2022, shortly after Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization that set off a second wave of wartime emigration from Russia. Nearly 17,000 Russians fled to Finland the following weekend, sparking fears among Finnish officials that the border zone could become prone to unauthorized crossings or worse, an “orchestrated” crisis. Although the uncontrollable influx they feared never materialized, plans to build the border fence went ahead — reflecting the profound shift in Finland’s security policy brought on by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Having abandoned its decades-old policy of military non-alignment and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April, Finland and its 1,340-kilometer (832-mile) eastern border has become the new frontier separating Russia and the “West.” Researcher Mirkka Ollila reports for The Beet. 

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

The Allegro train connecting Helsinki and St. Petersburg began running in December 2010. Following a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the Finnish capital, then-President Tarja Halonen boarded the high-speed train for its inaugural journey across the border, which included a stop at the Vyborg station to pick up Russia’s Vladimir Putin (who was prime minister, at the time). 

Russia’s then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Finland’s then-President Tarja Halonen look at a map upon arriving at the railway station in St. Petersburg via the Allegro train. December 12, 2010.
Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Upon arriving in St. Petersburg, Putin marveled at the speed of the train, which had cut down the travel time between Helsinki and Russia’s second largest city to three and a half hours. “We didn’t even have time to talk properly,” he told journalists. “We talked about how to promote cooperation in the border region, in Vyborg, and how economic ties are developing. And not only economic ties but cultural ones, as well.” “Everything is alright,” Halonen added, in Russian. 

Getting the Allegro up and running had been a massive effort that required significant cooperation between the two countries. But despite their bitter past, Finland and Russia were on relatively friendly terms. 

Finland’s neutrality

Having lost 10 percent of its territory (including the city of Vyborg) to the Soviet Union in the 1944 Moscow Armistice, Finland pursued friendlier relations with its eastern neighbor during the Cold War in order to preserve its independence. This pragmatic policy of “neutrality,” driven by geopolitical realities, has been associated with Finland ever since — even though the country abandoned this stance at the end of the Cold War and joined the European Union in 1995.

Over the next 11 years, the Allegro shuttled Finns to Vyborg and the heart of St. Petersburg to search for their roots, and encouraged train travel to Asia. The train service also transported tens of thousands of Russians to Finland for vacations, work, and family visits. A survey conducted by the Finnish Foreign Ministry found that as of 2021, only 16 percent of Russians considered relations with Finland to be “chilly or strained.”

But relations between Russia and Finland changed overnight on February 24, 2022, when Moscow launched a war of aggression against Ukraine. 

I crossed the border from Russia to Finland on the Allegro for the last time that March. The last trains filled up quickly, and I got my ticket by sheer luck. At the time, the Allegro seemed like an important symbol of the enduring ties between the two countries; it transported people quickly and safely across the border to Finland, providing an easy way out of a confused and unpredictable Russia. The Allegro was also one of the last passenger train connections to the European Union. With international airspace quickly closing to Russian flights, the train proved to be a major means of transportation for those who wanted to leave the country. Strangers on board the train wished each other all the best and a safe future. 

I realized then that the Allegro, which once symbolized the beginning of a new era of connection, would soon be shut down. 

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‘The cold face of war’

Relations between Finland and Russia had already suffered long before the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, the decline dates back to 2014, when Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula and provoked an armed conflict in Ukraine’s east. Helsinki joined the European Union’s economic sanctions against Russia, despite some reservations about potential secondary effects for Finland’s own economy. 

By 2016, the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat reported that relations between the countries were “worse than they had been for decades.” 

Like other European countries, Finland immediately condemned Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, while also citing a sudden change in its own national security situation. “Finland is not currently facing an immediate military threat, but it is also now clear that the debate on NATO membership in Finland will change,” then-Prime Minister Sanna Marin told journalists on the day of the attack. Asked about his thoughts on Putin, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö replied with what is now a famous quote: “The mask has now come off and only the cold face of war is visible.” 

This rhetoric gave a foretaste of a soon-to-be historic change in Finland’s relations with Russia. On May 18, 2022, Finland applied for NATO membership, along with neighboring Sweden. The Finnish parliament was all but unanimous in backing the decision. By that point, public support for joining the military alliance had surged to 76 percent. 

In the fastest-ever accession process in the organization’s history, Finland formally joined NATO on April 4, 2023. With the addition of the 1,340-kilometer (832-mile) Finland-Russia frontier, the length of Russia’s shared borders with NATO members doubled that day. 

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According to Heli Hautala, a Finnish career diplomat (currently on leave) and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, Finland’s accession to NATO has brought “symbolic and rhetorical changes” to the country’s relationship with Russia, in addition to practical ones. “Gone are the days when good neighborly relations between Finland and Russia were noted positively,” she explains. “[According to Moscow] Finland is [now] an unfriendly country, part of this ‘collective West,’ whose manifestation of evil is NATO.” 

“This is a completely new situation in Finland’s foreign and security policy,” Hautala underscores. 

In recent months, relations between the two countries have cooled even further. In May, Finland’s Foreign Ministry confirmed media reports that Russia had frozen the bank accounts of its diplomatic missions; earlier, the Finnish Embassy in Moscow reported receiving envelopes filled with an unknown powder. 

On July 6, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced that nine Finnish diplomats would be expelled from Russia and that Finland’s consulate in St. Petersburg would be shut down beginning in October. This came after Finland expelled nine Russian diplomats on suspicion of espionage in June.

An about-face

Finland banned entry to Russian nationals traveling on Schengen tourist visas in late September 2022, shortly after Putin announced a partial mobilization that sent hundreds of thousands of people rushing for the border. Finnish authorities subsequently reported an 80-percent increase in crossings, with almost 17,000 Russians entering the country over the course of a single weekend. (Finland’s statistics agency later reported that more than 6,000 people immigrated from Russia to Finland in 2022 — breaking the record seen after the Soviet Union’s collapse.)

Around the same time, Finland’s Border Guard proposed building a fence along the country’s eastern border due to “recent changes in the security environment.”  

Discussions about a border fence had last cropped up in 2021, against the backdrop of the Belarus-European Union “border crisis.” Beginning that summer, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania saw a dramatic increase in illegal border crossings, as thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa attempted to transit through Belarus to the E.U. European leaders accused Belarus of using migration as a “weapon” in a “hybrid war” waged with Russia’s support. 

The 2021 E.U.-Belarus border crisis

‘I didn’t have a life in Iraq’ In limbo in Belarus, migrants cling to hopes that EU countries will open their borders

The 2021 E.U.-Belarus border crisis

‘I didn’t have a life in Iraq’ In limbo in Belarus, migrants cling to hopes that EU countries will open their borders

As relations deteriorated, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania decided to build fences along their borders with Belarus. But the idea of putting up a barrier on Finland’s eastern edge was seen as too costly, and public discussion on the matter fizzled out. 

However, Russia’s violent attack on a neighboring country in 2022 awakened painful memories in Finland of the 1939–1940 Winter War with the Soviet Union. In the summer of 2022, parliament amended the Border Guard Act to allow for the construction of fences in Finland’s border zone. The Border Guard, in turn, quickly deemed a barrier along the border with Russia essential to national security and, within six months, construction on a pilot fence had broken ground near the town of Imatra. 

“It’s about being able to make sure that the border is well controlled and we can preemptively influence the situations that may occur,” Marin stressed after the parliamentary parties backed the construction of the fence in October 2022. 

According to the border forces, three kilometers (1.86 miles) of the pilot fence will be built in Imatra’s Pelkola suburb and another 300 meters (328 yards) in the Immola garrison area over the summer of 2023. The final structure, which will cover some 200 kilometers (124 miles), is scheduled to be completed by 2026. The project is expected to cost 380 million euros (about $422 million) total.

“The border fence [...] wouldn’t have happened without this new Russian attack on Ukraine. It was a big shock to Finns, to relations between Finland and Russia, and to Finland’s Russia policy as a whole,” says Hautala. “It’s a clear reaction from Finland to this changed situation.” 

A Finnish border guard at a section of the initial stretch of fence under construction near Imatra, in southeast Finland. May 30, 2023.
Roni Rekomaa / Bloomberg / Getty Images

When I visited Imatra in May, opinions among locals seemed divided. “The border fence is kind of an about-face from the Border Guard, because a year ago they said there wouldn’t be a fence and now a pilot version is already being made,” one resident said. “Some politicians in Helsinki decided that [a fence] was needed and then they started building it. They didn’t ask those who live in small cities anything,” he added.

“It could potentially prevent large crowds. But on the other hand, is there any benefit? Especially when the fence is relatively short,” said another woman who had lived in Imatra since the 1980s. (Made up of a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, the barrier is roughly four meters, or 13 feet, tall.) “This is a moral symbol for Finland, but there is hardly any benefit from it, so to speak,” added her friend.

* * *

The Allegro train service ceased operations on March 28, 2022. The trains then stood idle in a depot in Helsinki for months. Finally, in August, Finnish state railway company VR Group announced that it had written off all Allegro trains and spare parts totalling 45.4 million euros ($50 million). 

The connection that improved bilateral relations all those years ago is now a symbolic example of how any bond between Russia and Finland has deteriorated since February 2022. Finland’s eastern border is deserted, and Russia is isolated from the West. But the process of breaking off ties continues to this day. 

Lehtikuva / imago images / Scanpix / LETA

In late June, Finnish customs began turning away trailers and semi-trailers with Russian license plates in accordance with new E.U. sanctions aimed at closing loopholes that allowed for evasion. Helsinki also tightened entry restrictions for Russian nationals even further beginning on July 10. Finnish energy company Gasum’s earlier termination of its long-term natural gas pipeline contract with Russia’s Gazprom is yet another example of Helsinki continuing to sever long-standing connections (even if the Russian gas giant continues to supply Finland with liquefied natural gas). 

The way Hautala sees it, this trend will likely continue so long as Russia keeps waging war on Ukraine — and what will happen after the war is anyone’s guess. “The prediction is that this will [go on for] a long time, that the war will continue. And how will it end? What will Russia look like then?” Hautala asks rhetorically. “When traveling decreases, contact decreases; fewer and fewer Russians have recent experience in Finland. This decrease in contact between people will make an even greater difference.”

“It’s in the interest of Finland to be able to maintain administrative relations with Russia,” Hautala adds. “How to move on from there depends on how Russia will act in the future.”

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Story by Mirkka Ollila for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart.

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