The Barometer – Does Finland still have a partner on the other side of the border?

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Dinner speech 20 November 2023

Preparing myself for my posting to Moscow in the fall of 2000, I went to see the U.S. – Mexican border. I invited lieutenant colonel Ilkka Laitinen to accompany me. Five years later he became the first Head of FRONTEX, the European Border Guard Agency. After nine years as head of FRONTEX he returned to Finland and in 2018 became the Commander of the Finnish Border Guards. He tragically succumbed to a severe illness only a year later. 

What did we see in San Diego and Tijuana? We saw the Finnish nightmare — a border without a partner. Only a gigantic Mexican flag marked the presence of the other side. A border without a partner could, of course, if things would turn sour, also become the Russian nightmare on the Chinese border.

The longest serving Soviet commander of the KGB Border guards (1972-89) Army General Vadim Matrosov is still remembered in Finland. He had served during the war on the Finnish front and knew us well. He succinctly characterized the front as the barometer of our relations. 

As we know, a barometer falling rapidly predicts a storm. It is to early to say if Moscow is creating a perfect storm in its relations with Finland, but the signs are ominous. Of course, there is not just a Russian flag on the other side. But do we any longer have a partner?

The way Russia suddenly in the fall of 2015 and winter of 2016 started to channel third-country citizens without proper visas to the Finnish and Norwegian borders was a breach of confidence. Just as now, the FSB subcontracted criminal elements to locate and transport the migrants. The surprise was total, but the motives remained vague. But the breach of confidence was not forgotten. It led to an overhaul of the legislation concerning the Border Guards and prepared Finland politically and psychologically for a further similar move by Russia. The occupation of Crimea and the war in Donbas 2014 had already intensified military cooperation with NATO and especially with Sweden. The reorganization of the intelligence services was one of the major steps taken by Finland because of the changed strategic situation. 

Why were we so surprised in 2015? Since the return of the leased naval base of Porkkala 1956 and after the normalization of the border environment, a strict but functioning border cooperation emerged. Without exaggeration the Soviet and Finnish border guards shared the same task preventing ill-legal crossings from east to west. Then just as today the Soviet/Russian partner was not legally obliged to prevent crossings to Finland without proper visas, but they did it until 1990, when a large number of Somalis suddenly appeared on the Finnish border. But later the Russian Border Guard continued to adhere to the practice of checking visas until 2015. 

There are several fundamental differences between the shock of 2015 and the situation emerging as we speak. There is a full-scale war in Europe, which prompted Finland and Sweden to apply and join NATO. But there is also an important economic factor, which mitigates the hostile Russian move. Economic relations between Russia and Finland are at a historic low and the importance of cross-border traffic has all but vanished. The pioneering fast-train Allegro between Helsinki and St. Petersburg is sitting idle in Finnish depots. Finland was the largest single importer of Russian electricity until Russia cut off its export. Today Finland is a net exporter of electricity. The gas faucet was turned off and we switched to LNG. Oil is available in Rotterdam and coal on the world market. The only Russian export item we miss is cheap pulpwood. 

The full-scale Russian propaganda assault tells us that the hostile move against Finland is a political decision. In a situation where relations between Finland and Russia have been reduced to bare technical contacts at the border and scant links with the embassies the situation looks dire and difficult to predict. Although we have not yet seen attempts to traverse the land border outside the crossing points, the barometer continues falling. The shutting of the entire border cannot be excluded; indeed, it looks rather likely. The closure could also suit Russia since it is anyway isolating itself. A closed border seems like an anomaly, especially because we became used to an open border. But an open border is an exception in Russian history.