Introduction: In a significant move, Finland has decided to close half of its border crossings with Russia, marking another development in the strained relationship between Russia and the European Union. The Finnish government's decision comes in response to alleged attempts by Moscow to provoke a migration crisis by facilitating the entry of individuals without proper documentation into Finnish territory.
Background: The affected border points, Vaalimaa, Nuijamaa, Niirala, and Imatra, all located in the southern region where the majority of Finland's population resides, will cease operations from midnight on Friday until February 18, 2024. This strategic move aims to address the surge in asylum seekers from various countries, including Syria, Somalia, and Iraq, who have been arriving daily, with the Finnish Prime Minister, Petteri Orpo, emphasizing the necessity of ensuring border security.
Accusations Against Moscow: Accusations have been raised against Moscow, with claims that Russian border guards are not only allowing but actively assisting and escorting individuals without valid visas to the Finnish border. Prime Minister Orpo, leading a coalition government that includes the far-right Finns Party, points to a notable increase in daily arrivals, suggesting a deliberate effort to exploit the immigration issue for political purposes.
Duration and Potential Escalation: While the initial closure is set until February 2024, Prime Minister Orpo has issued a warning that further measures may be implemented to safeguard Finland's borders. This decision follows President Sauli Niinistö's public accusation that the Kremlin is complicit in allowing the passage of undocumented individuals, creating a situation that demands a clear response from Finland.
International Response and Criticism: The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, has hinted at potential retaliation from Moscow, criticizing Finland's decision for not consulting with the Russian government. She views this move as creating new divisions in Europe without addressing the underlying issues. The geopolitical implications are noteworthy, with echoes of similar migration-related tensions seen in previous events, such as Belarus in 2021.
Parallel to Previous Crises: Finland's decision draws parallels with the migration crisis of 2015, when a sudden influx of asylum seekers reached its northern border. The situation was resolved through an agreement between President Niinistö and Russian President Vladimir Putin, restricting the use of two border crossings to citizens of Finland and Russia for a limited period.
NATO Membership and Regional Concerns: Having joined NATO in April of this year, Finland's geopolitical alignment adds complexity to the situation. While not perceived as an immediate threat by Putin, the proximity to Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, and the disputed Arctic region, adds nuances to the geopolitical landscape. This move is reminiscent of Norway's vigilance, another NATO member, in response to unexpected migrant arrivals in 2015.
Potential Regional Ramifications: Estonia is considering a similar course of action following Finland's lead, with the Chief of the Estonian Border Guard, Veiko Kommusaaare, stating that a total or partial blockade depends on how the migrant flow redirects toward Estonia. This echoes a regional concern similar to the crisis triggered by Belarus in 2021.
Impact on Travel and Trade: The closure of key border points, especially those proximate to Helsinki and the densely populated southern region, is anticipated to impact the daily movement of over 3,000 individuals between Russia and the EU. Additionally, Finland's ban on passenger rail transport to Russia since March 2022 and the airspace restrictions imposed by the EU on Russia due to the Ukraine invasion further complicate travel options.
Conclusion: Finland's decision to close border crossings underscores the complex interplay of geopolitics, migration concerns, and regional security. The potential ripple effects on neighboring countries and the broader EU context add layers to an already intricate situation. As the international community watches, the coming weeks will likely unveil the broader implications of this move on Finland's relationship with Russia and its role within the European Union.