The area where the EU ends and Russia begins is a seemingly endless forest landscape covered with masses of snow. Street signs warn of mooses, wooden houses are isolated in the forest. Where once there was busy border traffic and trade, a new NATO northern flank is emerging in eastern Finland: Hungary approved Finland's admission to the defense alliance on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his country's ratification in the near future - Finland's path to NATO seems to be on the way therefore less than a year after the application is free.
With the Finnish accession, the external border of the western defense alliance towards Russia will more than double: In addition to the almost 1000 border kilometers in the NATO states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and almost 200 more in the far north of Norway, a whopping 1340 kilometers are now added. For the Finns near the border, Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has long brought about a new reality of life.
The border crossing
Finland closed the border to Russian tourists at the end of September 2022. This does not mean that border traffic has come to a complete standstill - anyone who wants to visit close family members in Finland, for example, or has a residence permit, can still cross the barrier from Russia.
The number of border crossings in both directions has nevertheless fallen immensely, as can be seen, for example, at the Vaalimaa border crossing in the very south-east of Finland: At the once most frequented border crossing between the EU and Russia, around 1500 to 1600 people still travel in and out on weekdays, on weekends it is daily around 2000 to 2300, says Markus Haapasaari from the Southeast Finnish Border Guard.
In 2019 - the last comparable year before the pandemic - there were about three times as many as today. Russians dropped by Finland to shop, Finns happily drove over to St. Petersburg for a day trip - only about a three-hour drive from the border - or further afield to Moscow for longer trips. "Because of the tourism restrictions for Russian citizens, the numbers are not nearly as high as in 2019," reports Haapasaari.
Where Russians once shopped in Vaalimaa, a thick, untouched layer of snow now covers the abandoned parking lot: The Zsar Outlet Village filed for bankruptcy shortly after the border was closed to Russian tourists. The pandemic had hit the operators financially, and the tourism restrictions apparently finished the shopping village. People interested in the building are being sought - given the situation, it is questionable whether this will succeed.
The situation next door in the second shopping center is not much different: The Scandinavian Shopping Center is open, but the restaurants are just as empty as the aisles of the supermarkets on a working day at the end of March. There are only a dozen cars with Russian or Finnish license plates in the parking lot. Shops are looking for new tenants.
In Lappeenranta, one of the largest cities in the region, people usually go about their quiet everyday life without giving much thought to their neighbors to the east. Some report that initial fears of being next in line after the Russian invasion of Ukraine have diminished as the war progressed. Russia's obvious military problems and its ongoing NATO accession process are encouraging.
A border fence will soon be erected through parts of this region. In Pelkola, a good 40 kilometers by car east of Lappeenranta, construction work on a pilot fence around three kilometers long began a month ago. By 2025, the majority of the barrier should be in place - not along the entire length of the border, but at strategically important points near the border crossings: around 70 kilometers of fence are to be erected, most of them in south-eastern Finland.
In the border region, people are aware that such a fence will not constitute a new Iron Curtain, nor will it stop Russian tanks. That's not what I was talking about. The fence will primarily benefit border patrols between the crossings, who patrol the area on foot, by quad bike, skis or snowmobile, says Haapasaari. "This fence will help us deploy our resources. We can't patrol the entire border 24/7."
Helsinki is a very calm city, noticeably quieter than other capitals, and the people are more reserved. Nevertheless, they take a clear position on the war: From the Finnish State Chancellery, for example, you can see four Ukraine flags blowing in the cold spring wind on nearby buildings. Nobody goes to St. Petersburg anymore, and the train connection has long since been discontinued - it was the last direct public connection from Russia to the EU.
In front of the State Chancellery there is also a statue of the Russian Emperor Alexander II, who enjoys a good reputation among the Finns as the "liberator of the Tsar". Despite all the Russophobia that occasionally occurs, not all Russians in Finland are lumped together, says a scientist from the nearby university.
At the same time, the architecture, some signs or menus testify that one is closer to Russia in Helsinki than in Stockholm or Berlin. Which brings one to the difficult question of whether there will ever be a smart neighborly relationship between Finns and Russians again. Has the war destroyed too much, especially trust? Is the eastbound window closed forever?
"From a long-term perspective, this is a very crucial question," says historian Henrik Meinander of the University of Helsinki. "It will take a lot of time, but it is necessary to open the window again one day." The expert on the checkered Finnish-Russian history is certain that mistrust of Russia will remain for a long time to come. "But for Finland it would be desirable if things get back to normal. It's not healthy to have such a closed relationship." How long will all this take? Long, very long, says Meinander. "I think we'll have to wait around 20 years for that - if things go well."
Security Policy Analysis Finnish Border Guard Yle to Zsar Outlet Village Border Fence Border Guard to Border Fence