Finland’s demilitarized zone fuels debate over its ability to defend against Russia

The war in Ukraine has the Finns looking with concern at the Aland archipelago in the Baltic, where a military presence is prohibited under a treaty signed with Russia in 1856 and which could be a weak point in their defence.

The request for membership of the Nordic country to NATO, prompted by the invasion of Ukraine, has once again put on the table the debate on the military status of this autonomous archipelago of 30,000 inhabitants, located halfway between Sweden and Finland.

“We have always thought: who is going to want to attack us if we have nothing worth capturing?” Ulf Grüssner, an 81-year-old islander, told AFP.

“But this has changed with Putin’s war in Ukraine,” says this retiree who lives in Mariehamn, the capital of the archipelago that celebrated a century of autonomy this week.

According to a survey published in early June, 58% of Finns want a military presence in the Aland Islands, to dissuade Russia from any violent action.

In a further sign of the Finnish authorities’ concern for his safety, the Interior Ministry announced on Friday that it will reinforce some parts of the 1,300 km border it shares with Russia with fences.

– “Achilles heel” –

With regard to the Aland archipelago, in its application for NATO membership delivered at the end of May, Helsinki states that it wants to preserve demilitarization and respect the agreement in force with Russia. But it is a position that experts consider naive.

This archipelago “is the Achilles’ heel of Finnish defense,” Alpo Rusi, former adviser to the country’s presidency, told AFP.

“The concern is whether Finland will react quickly enough, militarily speaking, in the event of an intrusion,” says this diplomat who worked for former president Martti Ahtisaari, Nobel Peace Prize winner.

In both world wars, warring armies vied for control of the Aland Islands.

“Why believe that the troops will not rush to control Aland as quickly as possible?” says Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

But the local government is opposed to changing their status.

“Why change? I think it is a stabilizing factor in the Baltic Sea that we are demilitarized,” says Veronica Thörnroos, president of the local executive.

According to her, the Finnish army could intervene “very quickly” in the event of an attack on the archipelago.

– Under Russian surveillance –

Once occupied by Moscow, the archipelago was demilitarized with the withdrawal of Czarist Russia, under a treaty concluded in 1856 after its defeat in the Crimean War.

With the independence of Finland in 1917, the archipelago, with a Swedish-speaking population, was integrated into the new nation but with a statute of autonomy still in force.

At the end of the Second World War, which caused a bloody conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union, the demilitarization of Aland was continued by a new treaty of 1947, this time not favorable to Helsinki.

A symbol of Moscow vigilance, the USSR opened a consulate in Mariehamn in 1940, where the Russian flag flies to this day.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, it is there that, every day, the residents of Aland come to show their anger against President Vladimir Putin and his invasion.

“They have nothing to do here. Russia is always a threat,” Mosse Wallen, 71, who has come to demonstrate in front of this wooden house surrounded by fences, tells AFP.

Russia owns another house on the island, requisitioned from the family of Ulf Grüssner. His father was German and the 1947 treaty stated that all German property in Aland would become Soviet property.

“They gave my mother three days to leave,” recalls the octogenarian, showing the dilapidated house, access to which is blocked by a chain.

In 2009, a part of the property was transferred directly to the Kremlin.

Grüssner fears that the old family home and the demilitarization will serve as a “pretext” for an increased Russian presence in the archipelago.

“It’s unlikely, but on the other hand it’s not impossible,” he says.


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Finland’s demilitarized zone fuels debate over its ability to defend against Russia