On a frozen border, Finland puzzles over a “Russian game”
Appearing in the drifting snow on the Finnish-Russian border is a symbol of Moscow’s biggest provocation yet towards Russia. The newest member of NATO: A sprawling pile of broken bicycles.
Dilapidated bicycles are sold for hundreds of dollars on the Russian side to asylum seekers from as far away as Syria and Somalia. They are then encouraged – and sometimes forced, according to Finnish guards – to cross the border. The Finns say it is a hybrid war campaign against their country, using some of the world’s most desperate people, just as it assumes a new position in a changing world order.
“Some of the bikes did not have pedals, and sometimes they linked arms to help each other keep moving,” said Ville Kuusisto, a Finnish sergeant at the crossing near the Russian town of Vyborg.
As Finns vote on Sunday to choose a new president, who will be in charge of foreign policy and serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Finland has become fixated on its 830-mile border, the longest with Russia of any NATO country. How the Finns deal with the challenges there is crucial, not only to them, but also to their new allies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Russia has warned Finland of taking “countermeasures” to its accession, which the Finns suspect they are now seeing in the form of infrastructure sabotage and cyber attacks. But it is the arrival of some 1,300 “human weapons,” as Finnish politicians describe it, in the past few months that has aroused the greatest public interest and concern.
European officials have repeatedly raised concerns about Russia and its allies encouraging migrants to cross their borders, with many worrying that the goal is to destabilize European governments and sow discord in a bloc sharply divided over how to handle migration.
In December, Finland closed all its crossings with Russia. Now, it is preparing a law that Finnish media said could include provisions that would allow Finland to force people back across the border — a practice known as “returns,” which is illegal under European and international law. Finnish officials have so far refused to comment on such measures.
Both presidential candidates headed into Sunday’s final round — Pekka Haavisto, of the left-leaning Green Party, and Alexander Stubb, of the centrist conservative — and have taken a hard line not only against Moscow, but also against asylum seekers.
“People see this Russian game very clearly,” Haavisto said in an interview. Asked how he felt about calls for potential returns, he said humanitarian laws prohibiting returns may need to be changed to recognize what he described as a new form of hybrid warfare.
Mr. Stapp said force on the border was necessary because “the only thing Putin and Russia understand is power, and usually raw power,” referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Whoever wins on Sunday will take the lead in shaping Finland’s new role in NATO. But immigration is now likely to occupy much of their attention, something security experts say may be an intentional distraction.
“This border problem is not the most pressing issue at the moment, but it is now an issue that will consume the frequency band of the future president and the Finnish government,” said Matti Piso, a security analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
The crossings into Finland are the latest iteration of deadly border policies that have emerged since 2021, when Belarus, a de facto state of Moscow, offered entry to thousands of migrants, allowing them to cross into Poland. Many ended up trapped between the two countries and were beaten by border guards, who forced them to cross the border back and forth.
This is not the first time this influx has reached the country. There were increases in 2015 and 2016, when more than a million people made their way to Europe, most of whom fled the war in Syria and ended up in Germany. But since then, the border has been mostly quiet.
Finnish officials say that, contrary to the previous understanding between the two countries, Russia is now allowing people without Finnish visas to pass through its checkpoints.
Finnish border guards said that when they contacted their counterparts last year to complain, the Russians insisted they were simply following procedures and could not deny people the right to cross.
Muayad Salami, 36, a Syrian who arrived at the crossing in November, said his experience showed that Russia was clearly using asylum seekers as pawns, but willing ones.
He and seven other applicants interviewed, who all arrived before Finland closed its borders, described being taken through three layers of Russian checkpoints, where their passports were taken and their visas to Russia were revoked. He and others said that the Russian authorities pursued them until the last point before the border.
“What I constantly say to the Finnish media, when they say Russia is taking advantage of us, is that it doesn’t matter,” Salami said. “How is that possible? We needed a way out. If we had to escape via Mars, we would.”
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the accusation that Russia was deliberately facilitating migrants was not only false, but “another example of the West’s double standards or lack of standards at all.”
Ahead of Sunday’s election, the crossings sparked debate in Finland about the real risks these arrivals pose to the NATO member state.
Finnish security and intelligence services have said publicly that Russia may try to recruit some migrants as spies, but have not shared any evidence to support this hypothesis.
Others say the danger is that Finland will undermine its image as a country that shares liberal values and acts in accordance with international conventions on asylum.
“It is Russia that is trying to turn us against our own values,” said Eero Sarka, a fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “We claim to be a liberal democracy, with a rules-based international order, and then we don’t even respect those treaties ourselves?”
And on Wednesday, Finland’s popular outgoing president Saul Nennius She claimed that humanitarian law was being used as a “Trojan horse” for those trying to cross.
The European Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the Finnish Human Rights Ombudsman, have warned that Finland risks violating humanitarian protection measures if it does not also provide places for people to apply for asylum.
“These players may be looking at this issue one-sidedly,” said Interior Minister Marie Rantanen. But as a government, we have to see the whole picture. “We have to take care of our national security as well, because no one else will.”
Finland is using drones and plans to build several stretches of 13-foot-high fences along 125 miles of its southern border, with the aim of having migrants cross at designated points that can be monitored. With the help of Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, they have strengthened technical surveillance, including temperature sensors and cameras.
Currently, lockdowns in Finland have prevented most new arrivals from arriving. But Markku Saariks, deputy chief of department at the Finnish Border Guard, said hundreds, if not thousands, of asylum seekers stuck in Russian border towns may still try to make the trek through the forests, especially in the spring.
More than 30 people have already made life-threatening winter journeys, including Rakan Ismail and Abdullah Al-Ali, who are from the Syrian city of Kobani.
They said that two weeks ago, smugglers took them deep into the forest in freezing temperatures at night, then robbed them at gunpoint of the last $6,000 they had borrowed for their journey.
“They shouted at us: ‘Go and die!’ “And they drove off,” Mr. Ismail, 20, recalled.
They almost did. With only their pajamas under their pants and jackets for extra warmth, they walked through the banks of snow up to their thighs until they reached the Finnish side and knocked on the door of a small wooden hut. They said they used Google Translate and begged the lone elderly resident to call them an ambulance and the Border Patrol.
Their encounter with icy death frightened them, but it was no deterrent.
When Mr. Ismail learned that asylum seekers like him were being described as human weapons, he was shocked. “We are not weapons,” he said, shaking his head. “We’re just humans.”
Joanna Limola Reporting from Helsinki and Noigama contributed, and Emma Popoola from London.