Finland regions

Russo-Ukrainian war: tiny Åland islands in question as Finland tries to join NATO

Finland is about to join NATO, breaking its longstanding policy of neutrality. Video / ABC

Moscow has lambasted Finland’s official offer to join the NATO alliance, threatening unspecified retaliation if it succeeds. But early on he targeted an obscure set of islands and a strategic channel.

Finland’s bid to join the 30-nation military alliance comes after Russia invaded Ukraine. But the Russian representative of the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, declared that he would formally oppose Finland’s candidacy for NATO.

“As far as Finland is concerned, I immediately have a question on two aspects,” he told state-controlled RuNews24.

One is the Saimaa channel. It was built by the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1856 – then part of the Russian Empire. Finland ceded its southern part in 1940 after a short but brutal war.

“That is to say, it leaves the center of Finland approximately [Russia’s] Vyborg,” Chizhov explained.

Finland currently leases access to the Russian part of the canal.

“What will happen to this now? We will have to see, ”asked the diplomat.

The second challenge is the status of the Åland Islands in Finland. The region has been a demilitarized zone for more than a century.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov insisted that Moscow would not agree to Finland or Sweden joining NATO. “NATO should have no illusions that we will simply accept this – in Brussels, in Washington and in other NATO capitals,” he said. “That is to say, the general level of military tension will increase and there will be less predictability in this area.”

According to Finland’s former intelligence chief, Major General Pekka Toveri, this is why his country decided to choose sides.

“It’s all Putin’s fault,” he said. “For years Russia has said that Finland shouldn’t join NATO, but that’s Finland’s decision. But in December [2021]when Putin said that Finland could not join NATO and that if Finland joined NATO there would be consequences, it was a direct threat, trying to force Finland’s hand.”

Moscow has lambasted Finland's official bid to join NATO, threatening unspecified reprisals if it succeeds.  But he targeted an obscure set of islands early on.  Photo/PA
Moscow has lambasted Finland’s official bid to join NATO, threatening unspecified reprisals if it succeeds. But he targeted an obscure set of islands early on. Photo/PA

Saimaa Channel

Finland is sometimes ironically defined as an island. Much of its territory is a tight mass of lakes. And that means that around 90% of its trade is transported by sea.

A network of around 120 of these lakes is connected to the Baltic Sea via the town of Vyborg. The southern part of it – including Vyborg – was lost to Russia in Joseph Stalin’s brief – but largely unsuccessful – Winter War of 1939.

But the economic importance of this deep-water channel remains important for the regions of northeastern Finland.

Helsinki was granted a 50-year lease on the Russian part of the canal in 1963 – partly in exchange for its neutral status during the Cold War. The lease was renewed for 50 years in 2013.

But this remains a strategic “bottleneck”, both for NATO and for Russia.

Vyborg, along with the city of St Petersberg, is one of Russia’s few access points to the Baltic Sea other than the isolated enclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Estonia. If NATO were to extend its border with Russia (Finland will add another 1300 km), this would increase the strategic pressure on the two Russian outposts.

The island of Åland is located between Sweden and Finland.  Photo/Google Maps
The island of Åland is located between Sweden and Finland. Photo/Google Maps

Aland Islands

The island of Åland is an autonomous district of Finland, comprising some 6700 islands and islets. It is now home to some 30,000 people. It is far from the Russia of today.

Instead, the self-governing islands lie at the junction of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia – between Finland and Sweden. But, like the neighboring Swedish island of Gotland, its strategic importance made it the center of Russian diplomatic and military attention for more than a century.

Britain and France attempted to seize the islands off the Russian Empire (and its self-governing vassal, the Duchy of Finland) in the 1850s. They were returned to Russian control only after he promised not to fortify the islands.

Åland then sought independence from the League of Nations in the 1920s, shortly after Finland gained independence from Russia in 1917. Although it was declared a demilitarized zone, the appeal was rejected .

This demilitarized status has remained in place ever since.

But the prospect of Finland joining NATO has raised questions about whether or not the islands will retain that status – especially as Finland is responsible for defending the area.

Finnish parliament speaker Matti Vanhanen inflamed controversy last month, saying a permanent troop presence there would help defend the territory against intrusion. The Russian consulate in Åland’s capital, Maarianhamina, objected to this suggestion.

They are little known with only 30,000 occupants, but this small group of islands is fanning the fires between Russia and their new enemy.  Photo/Getty/Google Maps
They are little known with only 30,000 occupants, but this small group of islands is fanning the fires between Russia and their new enemy. Photo/Getty/Google Maps

Clear and present danger

President Vladimir Putin appears to have sought to downplay Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership.

“Regarding expansion, including through new alliance members – Finland, Sweden – Russia would like to inform you that it has no problem with these states,” Putin said. to the Russian-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes nine states of the former Soviet Union. “Therefore, in this sense, expansion because of these countries does not pose a direct threat to Russia.”

But, says Harvard professor Stephen Walt, Sweden and Finland feel directly threatened.

“Whatever Putin’s motives, it is now very clear that he miscalculated and on many levels. He underestimated Ukrainian nationalism and he overstated Russia’s military capabilities. Like other aggressors who failed, he also failed to understand a key lesson from the outsider. Political realism: States oppose threats. And using force to revise the status quo is just about the most threatening thing that a country can do.

The future

Ratification of Finland and Sweden as NATO members could take four months to a year. All NATO countries must approve new members. And two – Turkey and Hungary – have expressed reluctance to do so.

Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev upped the ante last month when he warned that Moscow would deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in the Baltic Sea if the two nations renounce their neutrality.

Major General Toveri says Finland considers itself in a relatively safe place.

“Traditionally, Russia has used political, economic and military pressure – and power,” he says. “Well, there is no more political power. Their economic power is very small. Then the military power, His forces are blocked in Ukraine… Except nuclear weapons, in conventional terms, they have nothing with which they could seriously threaten Finland’s independence and existence.”

Either way, Finland and Sweden now face the reality that Russia is prepared to use military force to achieve its goals, Walt adds.

“States are sensitive to power, but they are even more sensitive to how power is used. If you have a big stick, speaking softly is smart. So is using power wisely – and not very often,” he said.

“The exaggerated denunciations of so-called Ukrainian Nazis and the brutal behavior of Russian soldiers simply facilitated the Swedish and Finnish decision.”