An Uneasy Quiet at NATO’s Newest Border With Russia

On a recent afternoon along Finland’s border with Russia, an attack from Russian military bases a few miles away seemed a distant prospect.

That’s not only because, as NATO’s newest member, Finland now enjoys the guaranteed protection of 30 nations, including the United States — a development that President Biden will celebrate during a visit to Helsinki next week.

It’s also because most of the Russians once stationed in the area went to fight in Ukraine, and many if not most of them, Finnish officials say, are dead. It may be years before Russia poses a conventional military threat from across the verdant forest of pine, spruce and birch.

But there were some Russians to be seen on a sunny June day at the Vaalimaa border crossing, about midway between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. A trickle came and went, many in expensive cars: an Audi Q7, a black BMW with two sleek bikes mounted on a rack. These Russians were likely dual passport holders, possibly headed to other European countries that they can reach only by land because of flight restrictions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

For anyone trying to cross the border illicitly, border guard foot patrols roam the woods. But their trail-sniffing dogs encounter few Russians trying to sneak into Finland.

“We do have some Finns trying to sneak that way,” said Matti Pitkäniitty, an official with the Finnish Border Guard, who guided a visitor around the site, “but normally they are mental cases.” Perhaps the biggest concern on this afternoon was a bear seen prowling the area.

The peaceful scene belies the fear among many Finns that despite Russia’s weakened state, this transit point, and their country, could one day become a Russian target. That anxiety prompted Finland to seek membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last year, a process completed in April when Finland became its 31st member in what Mr. Biden calls a strategic blow for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

That move infused a long, placid relationship between Moscow and Helsinki with sharp new tensions. In January, Russia’s military announced plans to add a new army corps to the border region of Karelia.

And on Thursday, Russia’s foreign ministry said it was expelling nine Finnish diplomats — payback for Finland’s expulsion last month of nine Russian diplomats accused of being intelligence operatives — and would shutter Finland’s consulate in St. Petersburg this fall. A foreign ministry statement said that Finland’s membership in NATO and its support for Ukraine posed “a threat to the security of the Russian Federation” and amounts to “clearly hostile actions.”

But Finnish officials say the only threat is Russia.

“The Finns think that we could quite easily be in the position that the Ukrainians are in,” Mr. Pitkäniitty said. Gesturing to a road that crosses the border through the forest, he added: “If a Russian division wants to attack Helsinki, they need to go through here. You would be seeing ruins and smoke here.”

Such an attack would have vastly greater consequences, now that Finland’s border — an 830-mile frontier that runs roughly north-south from the Barents Sea to the Gulf of Finland — has become a NATO boundary, more than doubling Russia’s existing borders with NATO countries. Under the alliance’s charter, a Russian attack on Finland would be treated as an attack on all NATO members.

No one expects such an invasion anytime soon. But history leaves Finland understandably wary.

Etched in the country’s national memory is Joseph Stalin’s 1939 invasion and conquest of thousands of square miles of Finnish territory that Russia holds to this day. The Soviet leader believed that St. Petersburg required a larger buffer area to its west for protection, so he created one by force, at the cost of many thousands of lives.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many Finns revisited that dark chapter of their history.

“It wasn’t hard for Finns to imagine themselves in the Ukrainians’ shoes. They’d walked in them,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said during a visit to Helsinki in early June. “To many Finns, the parallels between 1939 and 2022 were striking.”

For now, the NATO alliance has no plans to install infrastructure or station troops at the border, although its members are eager to learn more about it: U.S. and European officials have been visiting to assess its vulnerabilities and Finnish preparations.

The Finns say not to worry. For one thing, they proudly recall the huge casualties they inflicted on the invading Soviet forces in 1939 — employing insurgent-style ambush tactics against a poorly led and equipped enemy, much as the Ukrainians would nearly a century later. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, later said that while the Soviets had prevailed over the vastly outnumbered Finns, they had in fact suffered defeat, because “it encouraged our enemies’ conviction that the Soviet Union was a colossus with feet of clay.”

Partly thanks to bitter memories of that conflict, Finland’s border guard doubles as a branch of its military. Its members receive full military training, and its units are equipped with body armor and semiautomatic rifles, though one team of three that patrolled around Vaalimaa on a recent day had stashed that gear; the only visible enemies were constant swarms of mosquitoes.

In their current numbers, though, the border guards would be of little use against a Russian military assault. It is one for which Finland has almost literally paved the way: A few years ago, Finland upgraded the highway that runs between Helsinki and Vaalimaa to accommodate trade and travel between Finland and Russia, which boomed in the last decade.

But border traffic today is below one-third of its prepandemic levels, and the road is lightly traveled.

The force of the NATO alliance, and its Article 5 treaty mandating collective self-defense, eases fears of attack. “That’s the biggest reason why we joined — to get the Article 5 cover,” Brig. Gen. Sami Nurmi, a Finnish defense policy official, said in an April interview. “And also, of course, that deterrence aspect.”

In the near term, the Finns are more worried about a very different form of warfare — weaponized migration. About 60 miles north of Vaalimaa, Finland has begun to install its first border fence.

In late 2015 and early 2016, Finland experienced a surge of asylum-seeking migrants crossing the Russian border, most of them from third countries. Finnish officials saw the hand of Moscow, which has repeatedly directed migrants into European countries in an apparent effort to destabilize their politics.

“The impression that someone is organizing and regulating things on the Russian side is probably true,” Finland’s foreign minister, Timo Soini, told the country’s state broadcaster at the time. “It is quite obvious that activity like this is a managed effort.”

The Finns were caught off guard. “Never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate that we would have, for example, Bangladeshis coming with bicycles to a high north border crossing when the sun doesn’t come up at all and it’s minus 20-25 degrees Celsius,” Mr. Pitkäniitty said, or minus 4 to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit.

Despite that experience, Mr. Pitkäniitty said that he and his colleagues maintain cordial and professional relations with their Russian counterparts across the border. The two sides communicate regularly, he said.

“When we talk to the Russians we try to avoid politics,” Mr. Pitkäniitty said. “There is no point in arguing. You just end up in a dispute that does not allow for solutions.”

For years, he said, acceptable conversation topics with the Russians included fishing, hunting and sports. “Now we have to exclude sports, because they do not participate in international sports anymore,” Mr. Pitkäniitty said. “So it’s fishing and hunting you can safely talk about with the Russian officers.”

At the same time, “I know that they will not hesitate to shoot me in the back if ordered to do so,” he added. “Just as I would do the same to them.”

John Ismay contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.

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