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Russia’s wary neighbor weighs militarizing Baltic islands

Although Finland’s Åland archipelago is strategically located in the Baltic Sea, an agreement prevents any military presence there — but perhaps this could change.

Outside the Russian consulate on the Åland Islands, in the middle of the Baltic Sea, emotions were running high. 

Twenty villagers had gathered with placards, flags and an assortment of small dogs to sing protest songs against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and also, they said, to stiffen their own resolve in the face of a rapidly chilling local security situation. 

“We are here to show our empathy for the Ukrainians, our disgust at the war — and maybe also because we are a little bit scared,” said Mosse Wallen, a retired journalist who led the singing.

Locals know that their islands sit along strategically important Baltic sea lanes, which have attracted the attention of nearby military powers throughout history. They worry that Russia’s government, 16 months into an attack on neighboring Ukraine, could train its sights on Åland, a territory where international treaties currently say no militarization may take place.

For Finland’s new government, likely to be led by center-right lawmaker Petteri Orpo after his National Coalition Party’s (NCP) general election win in April, the question of how best to assuage the fears of Ålanders like Wallen — in the face of intensifying Russian aggression — is emerging as a security policy priority. 

Orpo declined to comment on the issue of Åland’s demilitarization, but voices from within his NCP party have questioned the status quo.

Pekka Toveri, a former head of Finnish intelligence and military major general who was elected to parliament for the NCP in April, said Åland’s demilitarization should end.

“This would make it easier for us to react when necessary and increase the safety of the Ålanders and the rest of us if the situation worsens,” he told Finnish daily Hufvudstadsbladet in a widely reported interview.

Åland, the key

Finland answered one pressing international security question when it joined NATO — joint applicant Sweden’s bid, however, remains stranded. And the two countries’ paths are also diverging when it comes to how they manage their Baltic Sea territories. 

On Gotland, Sweden’s large central Baltic Sea island, a new army regiment is already in place and a fleet of tanks stands in newly built garages alongside freshly paved parade grounds near the western coast. 

But on Åland, Finland’s 7,000-island archipelago to the north, there are no troops or military installations, and soldiers cannot patrol or train. 

The Baltic Sea is a key waterway for NATO states — including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — as well as for Russia, with its city of St. Petersburg and a large naval base at Kaliningrad located along the water. 

As with Gotland, control of Åland is seen as key to establishing military dominance over Baltic waters. 

Finland’s anomalous security strategy for Åland has its roots in two key international treaties that enshrined the archipelago’s demilitarized status underpinned by the idea that if the islands weren’t armed, they wouldn’t be attacked. 

But in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, widely regarded as a gross violation of international law, some Finns want to see their country reexamine the treaties that limit their ability to defend this part of their country.

According to a survey published about a year ago, 58 percent of Finns said they would support a Finnish military presence on Åland, versus 16 percent against and 28 percent who took no position on the issue. 

“I think the military should at least be given the chance to train here,” said Jonas Back, a resident of Åland who recently launched a voluntary association for military reservists who live on the islands.

“It isn’t right to deny those who might have to defend the islands in a war the best chance to prepare themselves.”

War and peace 

In the glass cabinets of the Mariehamn cultural history museum, exhibits tell the story of Åland’s past.

One painting shows the moment Sweden lost Finland (including Åland) to Russia in 1809 when Russian troops chased the Swedes away over nearby sea ice. 

In the years that followed, Russia sought to strengthen its hold over Åland and the nearby sea lanes by building a fortress at Bomarsund, east of Mariehamn. But during the Crimean War of 1853-56, British ships destroyed Bomarsund to disrupt supply lines to the Russian front. 

In the settlement that ended that conflict, Russia agreed not to rebuild Bomarsund and in 1856, Åland was demilitarized in what became known as the Åland Convention.

After Finland declared independence from the collapsing Russian empire in 1917, Helsinki vowed to continue the convention, and signed a new treaty to that effect in 1921. 

Over the century that followed, the idea that Åland should be free of troops during peacetime and neutral during wartime became a key part of the islands’ self-identity — residents began calling their home “the islands of peace.” Local and national leaders said they valued this concept. 

“The Åland Convention has been, and still is, a peace-stabilizing force for Åland and, in a wider perspective, for the Baltic Sea area,” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said at a seminar two years ago to mark the centenary of the 1921 agreement. “It is not a historical relic,” he added. 

But in the two years since Niinistö made that speech, the security climate in the surrounding region has chilled markedly. 

Finland, which shares a 1,340-kilometer land border with Russia, faced threats of a “military-technical response,” as Russia called it, when Finland prepared an application to join NATO alongside Sweden last year. Meanwhile, the bombing of the Nord Stream gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea last September cast a spotlight on naval activities in nearby waters. 

And earlier this year, a report by Finnish and other Nordic public service broadcasters showed how Russian ships in the Baltic appeared to be supplying intelligence to the country’s military. 

Symbolic consulate

As the war in Ukraine has raged on, the Russian consulate in Mariehamn — which, according to a deal between the Soviet Union and Finland from 1940, has the formal task of monitoring Åland’s demilitarization — has become a focus for growing local disgust with Moscow. Russian diplomats led by a consul remain based there.

A flagpole with the Ukrainian flag has been erected in the street outside, with signs calling on Russian forces to end the attack on their neighbor. 

A live online petition to shutter the consulate has gathered around 35,000 signatories so far — slightly more than the population of Åland islands, only about 60 of which are inhabited.

In early May, the Russian foreign ministry complained about acts of vandalism against its mission in Mariehamn, including what it described as the throwing of an “explosive noise device” at the building. 

Whether this wider antipathy toward Russia will be enough to push Finland’s leaders to end the demilitarization of Åland depends on the platform of a new government in Helsinki, to be formed over the month ahead. 

Outside the consulate in Mariehamn, the protest songs went on, calling for an end to the war in Ukraine before seamlessly moving on to the singers’ vision of their own home. 

“Here we stand on our own land,” they sang. “Here, we want to live in freedom.”

Source: Politico

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