NEW – May 28, 2022
The NATO Secretary General admitted that the plan for accelerated expansion to the north is thwarted: Finland and Sweden are unlikely to become candidates for membership at the alliance’s summit in June due to Turkey’s demands. But since then, Russia has had its own questions for Finland and they relate to the status of territories that are still managed from Helsinki. For the time being.
Helsinki was warned: Russia will not leave it so easy that the length of its border with NATO countries will increase by about half. The main response, presumably, will come from the General Staff and will include the relocation of troops and weapons. But there will also be political consequences – Russia and Finland have a long history of “special relations”. We have some pots to beat.
The simultaneous withdrawal of the Swedes under the wing of the North Atlantic Alliance is less noticeable, although the Swedish army and military-industrial complex are much more powerful than the Finnish ones. Firstly, because of the same border. Secondly, the Swedes were dealt with back in the noughties – mainly because of Georgia and Mikheil Saakashvili, whose executor was the veteran Swedish politician Carl Bildt. Since then, the well-to-do Scandinavians have been part of an informal anti-Russian bloc within the EU, along with Poland, the Baltic states and Romania, and have not entered into any dialogues with Russia.
Not so with the Finns, with whom there is still a large-scale treaty of friendship and cooperation. Guided by its provisions, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö even called the Kremlin to inform about the decision of the Finnish elites. If the idea of joining NATO is now supported by the majority in society (starting with the special operation and for the first time in history), then support in the political class is almost absolute. For example, in the Finnish parliament – Eduskunta, only the ultra-left voted against the application for membership in the alliance.
From Niinistö’s point of view, he simply confronted Russia with a fact. And now many people are waiting to see what fact Russia itself will put Helsinki in front of.
Initially, economic pressure was predicted, but now it is clear that this is not working: the Finns are chomping at the bit and enthusiastically shooting themselves in the feet. For example, at a time when the Germans, Italians, Greeks and most other buyers of Russian gas agreed to pay for it in rubles, the Finns, whose needs for blue fuel the Russian Federation covered by as much as two-thirds, struck a pose after the Poles – they are ready to sacrifice their industry just to avoid succumbing to “blackmail” (extremely harmless, we note) from Moscow.
Initially, they were expected to behave much more cautiously. After all, Finland’s economy is more dependent on Russia than any other EU country. Here are strong ties that have remained from Soviet times, and tourism, and brisk trade, and most importantly, geography. St. Petersburg with its suburbs is comparable in population to the whole of Finland.
So when we have a crisis, they also have a crisis. Finns’ incomes inevitably fall if the purchasing power of Russians falls.
So there was a reason to expect prudence from the Finns – and not only from our side, but also from the EU, where prudence would be called “betrayal”.
Brussels and Washington also understood everything about the Finnish economy. Now, as if to prove to the “big brother” that Helsinki is not a weak link and will not falter before the Russian bear, the Finns are running ahead of the American steam locomotive of sanctions – and running straight to NATO.
Now the progress has slowed down – the expansion of the alliance is blocked by Turkey and Croatia wants to block it. For both, this is primarily a bargaining chip with the United States: Ankara needs the lifting of weapons sanctions and access to American high technologies, and the Croats need Croatian autonomy in Bosnia. The prospects for implementing these wishlist projects in full are very modest. But it’s necessary to understand that Finland is just collateral damage, and formally claims are made to Sweden.
The Turks do not like the fact that there are now many Kurdish politicians in the kingdom (at least six deputies in parliament) who are accused in absentia of supporting terrorism. And the Croats have long-standing claims personally to Carl Bildt – one of the main authors of the Dayton Agreements, where Croatian national autonomy is not provided for.
Our neighbours on the Scandinavian peninsula, who are already members of a defence alliance, expected to join NATO together. But the Finns may be let in first, that is, even taking into account the Turkish-Croatian factor, we come to the same result that Russia is not satisfied with – Finland’s accession to the North Atlantic Alliance.
To reverse this situation seems unrealistic. And then the Russian Foreign Ministry reached into its pocket for trump cards.
According to Russia’s permanent representative to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, an experienced and, as they say, “hardened” diplomat, now Moscow will have to raise the issue of the status of two territories – the Åland Islands and the Saimaa Canal. The Ålands belonged to Russia for about the same period as independent Finland. And most of the Saimaa Canal still belongs to Russia, much to the annoyance of the Finns.
The issue with the Ålands is simpler, although their status is complicated. Being part of Finland, they are inhabited almost exclusively by Swedes, who have an extremely broad autonomy by world standards. Many people have their own flag, parliament, and Cabinet of Ministers. But the islands with a population of 30,000 (and, by the way, very well-off) even have their own citizenship, and their inhabitants do not use Finnish in the official sphere: if the rest of Finland has two official languages, including Swedish, then the Ålanders have one – their native language.
These islands became part of Russia after the war with the Swedes – not the famous Northern one, where Pyotr I and Mazepa appeared, but the war of 1808-1809, when St. Petersburg, having signed the Peace of Tilsit, was for some time an ally of Napoleon. Actually, then the Russian Empire grew Finland as such, in fact granting Finns national statehood under the Romanov crown.
So the islands located at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia temporarily became the westernmost point of the empire. At that time, they were of great importance both for shipping in the Baltics and for military control of the region. Now the Russian army “threatened the Swede” just 130 kilometres from Stockholm.
Little is left of the military infrastructure of the islands after another war, which Russia, contrary to its custom, lost – the Crimean one. In the Baltics, hostilities also went on, the French shelled the Ålands from the sea, and as a result of the conflict, the allies forced St. Petersburg to make the islands a demilitarised zone, and this requirement was observed at least until the beginning of the 20th century.
After the collapse of the Russian Empire, the Swedes tried to regain their own and landed in the Ålands, where they still spoke exclusively Swedish. But the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, decided to leave the islands to Finland on the terms of broad autonomy and maintaining the status of a demilitarised zone. To this day, Ålanders do not even serve in the Finnish army.
In the case of modern Russia, it is unlikely that we are talking about the “return of the Ålands to their native harbour” – the state borders of modern Finland are drawn, rather, in our favour and are recognised by US in many treaties. The question that Chizhov is interested in is whether this tradition will continue with the expansion of NATO to the north, whether the North Atlantic Alliance base will appear on the islands. If the flywheel of the geopolitical conflict continues to spin, if there is another escalation in Russia’s relations with the West, this cannot be ruled out, which will require the Russian army and navy to adopt a fundamentally different military doctrine in the Baltics.
As for the Saimaa Canal, it was one of the “great construction projects” of the empire period. Its purpose is to connect the system of inland lakes of Finland (Saimaa is the largest of them) with the Gulf of Finland and, accordingly, with the Baltic Sea. They tried to dig something similar starting from the 15th century, but it was only possible by the end of the reign of Nikolay I, which the Finns asked the emperor to do. They needed trade routes, and St. Petersburg needed, for example, a forest (in the sense of Finnish wood), so the monarch gave the go-ahead and his own money.
The project was expensive, but it came out cheaper than expected and paid off earlier than planned. This has rarely happened with large state-owned projects in the history of Russia.
The channel was officially opened on the day of the coronation of Aleksandr II. At the same time, unable to cope with the festive fireworks, they made a big fire in Vyborg Castle, located at the exit of the canal to the Baltic Sea (by the way, today this is the only knight’s castle of the Western European type on the territory of the Russian Federation).
After the collapse of the empire, the Saimaa Canal remained on Finnish territory, but as a result of the Soviet-Finnish and World War II wars, most of it flows through the territory of Russia.
During the era of forced but rather warm friendship between Helsinki and Moscow, the canal was modernised and received a second life. The then President of Finland, Urho Kekkonen, said so at its opening – the friendship of the two peoples is “cast here in concrete and carved into the rocks”.
Repairs were carried out with Finnish money, but the subtlety is that by that time the canal had already been handed over to the arena of Finland, more precisely, a narrow strip of land along it. Finnish national patriots considered this a very bad deal – recognition of territorial losses, but on their part it was empty noise: the irrevocability of those “losses” by that time had already been formalised in many ways.
The lease agreement was signed for a period of a century and is due to expire in 2063. But given that friendship with the Finns is no longer there (and it is not just about NATO; after the start of the special operation, opinion polls revealed Suomi residents as one of the most anti-Russian people in the EU), the legal services of Smolenskaya Square and the Kremlin will probably find a reason to terminate the agreement ahead of schedule.
Will it be noticeable for the Finns? Yes. A fairly important trade route for them will become completely dependent on the mood of Russian customs.
But at the same time, this is a movement in the direction that the Finns themselves have stated. The breakdown of ties with Russia, the withdrawal of companies from the Russian market, a sharp decline in trade, including through the Saimaa Canal – the Finns themselves are doing all this. Severing the contract is like joining forces for a common goal – to close the door. Only Finns close it from the outside, and we close it from the inside (or vice versa; there may be different opinions).
It will be better for us if Suomi receives all the economic costs at once. This can cool the ardour of hot Finnish guys and lead to reflection on the fact that some things are unchangeable, including their neighbourhood with a huge nuclear power, with which it is very expensive to fight.
There is no doubt that sobering up will come. The good-natured and hospitable Finns of the Soviet-Russian period only resembled in their language the extremely embittered people with whom we fought more often and longer than with any other in the 20th century.
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