War in Ukraine

Prospect of Nato membership brings relief to Finns on border

HIIVANIEMI (Finland) • Troubled by the war in Ukraine, Finnish pensioner Martti Kailio, 73, keeps his hunting rifle to hand at his home in Hiivaniemi, a village overlooking the Russian border on the other side of a lake.

"It makes me so angry that I would be among the first volunteers to go out there with a loaded gun, even though I'm not young enough to be a soldier any more," he says.

For many Finns living on the eastern border, the prospect of their country applying to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) has been greeted with relief.

"We should have joined earlier. No point in dragging it out any more," Mr Kailio says.

Sharing a 1,300km border with Russia, Finland has in the past stayed out of military alliances.

But after its powerful eastern neighbour invaded Ukraine in February, political and public opinion swung dramatically in favour of membership, with the Finnish president and the prime minister last Thursday calling for the country to join Nato "without delay".

For some Finns, Russia's assault on Ukraine has brought up painful memories of the 1939 Winter War, when Red Army troops invaded the Nordic country.

As in Ukraine, the small Finnish army put up a fierce resistance and inflicted heavy losses on the Soviets. Nevertheless, Finland had to cede vast areas of land to the Soviet Union.

Mr Veli-Matti Rantala, 72, whose farmhouse in the town of Suokumaa is just a short walk from the Russian border, holds a rusty army helmet and tells stories of the battles that took place in the surrounding forests.

"I'm not too worried about the situation any more; now that we're joining the Western community, help is coming," he says. To him, Finland joining the alliance is a "necessity".

Living just a few hundred metres from the Russian border in Vainikkala village, teacher Jaana Rikkinen, 59, grew up hearing the Russian border guards on the opposite side of the lake.

Ms Rikkinen, who lost her uncles in the Winter War, also feels "relieved" that Finland is now joining Nato, even though previously she had her doubts about the bloc.

She recalls how even after the war, there were regular illegal border crossings near her home. "It always happened at night. First, you heard the hounds, and then the gunfire," Ms Rikkinen says, adding that she hoped she only ever heard warning shots.

In 2001, a Russian army deserter crossed the border and broke into a house next door before killing himself after an exchange of fire with police. Ms Rikkinen fears that if the situation in Russia deteriorates, there might be more people trying to cross the border.

Despite the area's history, the residents have always had plenty to do with those on the other side of the frontier.

"While Russia has always been feared - throughout the ages - in these parts, we have had an everyday interaction with Russians," says Mr Rantala.

He says Finns living on the border are very familiar with Russia and many have friends there.

Before the war, Ms Rikkinen used to go shopping weekly across the border and on weekend trips to Saint Petersburg, and had nothing "negative to say" about Russians.

But that "trust towards our neighbours is now gone". "The border is shut, and if we went there, we don't know what could happen," she says.

As most livelihoods in Vainikkala are linked to Russia, and the train station and border guard employ most of the villagers, Ms Rikkinen fears that the border communities are going to suffer because of the conflict. "I just hope the war will end," she says.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2022, with the headline Prospect of Nato membership brings relief to Finns on border. Subscribe