At the Russian border of Finland, NATO welcomed with relief

Disturbed since the start of the war in Ukraine, Martti Kailio, 73, keeps his rifle handy at his home in Hiivaniemi in eastern Finland, with views of Russia across the lake.

“It makes me so angry that I would be among the first volunteers to go there with my loaded weapon, even if I am no longer young enough to be a soldier,” the pensioner told AFP.

For many Finns living near the border with the powerful Russian neighbor, the imminence of a Finnish candidacy for NATO, which must be formalized this Sunday, is greeted with relief.

“We should have joined earlier. It makes no sense to wait any longer,” said Mr. Kailio.

Finland, which shares a 1,300 kilometer border with Russia, has historically remained outside military alliances since its independence in 1917.

But after Moscow invaded Ukraine in late February, public opinion and politicians swung dramatically in favor of the NATO umbrella, with the president and prime minister calling on Thursday to join it “without delay”.

For some in Finland, the war in Ukraine has brought back painful memories of the Winter War, when the Red Army invaded the Nordic country in 1939, 22 years after its independence from Russia.

Like Ukraine today, the small Finnish army put up fierce resistance, causing heavy losses to the Soviets, even though the country had to cede a large portion of its territory at the end of the conflict.

– “A necessity” –

Veli-Matti Rantala, a 72-year-old former maritime pilot whose farm is a short walk from the Russian border at Suokumaa, holds a rusty old helmet in his hands, recounting the battles that took place in the surrounding forests.

“I’m not too worried about the situation anymore, now that we’re joining the Western community, help will come,” he says. For him, joining the alliance is a “necessity”.

Living a few hundred meters from the Russian border, in Vainikkala, Jaana Rikkinen grew up hearing Soviet and then Russian border guards on the other side of the lake where her sauna is located.

This 59-year-old teacher, whose uncles died during the war with the Soviets, also feels “relieved” to probably soon be able to join NATO, even if in the past she had doubts about the bloc led by the Soviets. Americans.

Even after World War II, life near the Soviet border was sometimes scary, she says, with illegal border violations regularly taking place near her home.

“It always happened at night. First we heard the dogs, then the gunshots,” recalls Ms. Rikkinen.

In 2001, a deserter from the Russian army crossed the border and entered a neighboring house, before committing suicide a little later after an exchange of fire with the local police.

Despite the region’s painful history, Finland’s cross-border commuters have always lived in close interaction with the Russians on the other side.

– A confidence gone –

“Even though Russia has always been feared throughout the ages, in these corners there were also daily exchanges with Russians,” says Veli-Matti Rantala.

Many like this have friends across the border, he says.

Before the war in Ukraine, Jaana Rikkinen also used to go shopping or spend weekends in St. Petersburg, without having “nothing negative to say” about Russians.

But this “trust in the neighbor is now gone”, explains the fifty-year-old.

“The border is closed, and if we cross it, we don’t know what could happen,” she thinks.

As much of life in Vainikkala is tied to Russia, with the station and border guard employing most of the villagers, the Finn worries that her community is suffering from severed ties with Russia.

“I just hope the war will end,” she says.

The article is in French

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