On a recent afternoon along Finland’s border with Russia, an attack on Russian military bases a few miles away seemed a distant prospect.
That’s not just 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 green forest of pine, spruce and birch.
But there were a few Russians to be seen on a sunny June day at the Vaalimaa border crossing, about halfway between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Flute came and went, many in expensive cars: an Audi Q7, a black BMW with two elegant bicycles mounted on a rack. These Russians were likely dual passport holders, possibly headed for other European countries that they can only reach by land due to flight restrictions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
For anyone trying to cross the border illegally, border guard foot patrols roam the forest. But their trail-sniffing dogs encounter few Russians trying to sneak into Finland.
“We do have some Finns trying to sneak in like that,” said Matti Pitkäniitty, a Finnish Border Guard officer who guided a visitor around the site, “but normally they are mental cases.” Perhaps the biggest concern this afternoon was a black bear seen roaming 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 concern prompted Finland to seek membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last year, a process that ended in April when Finland became its 31st member in what Mr. Biden calls a strategic coup for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
That move infused a long, quiet relationship between Moscow and Helsinki with sharp new tensions. In January, the Russian military announced plans to add a new army corps to the border region of Karelia.
And on Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry said it was expelling nine Finnish diplomats — payback for Finland’s expulsion last month of nine Russian diplomats accused of being spy agents — and would close Finland’s consulate in St. Petersburg this fall. Statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Finland’s membership in NATO and its support for Ukraine pose a “threat to the security of the Russian Federation” and amount to “clearly hostile acts”.
But Finnish officials say the only threat is Russia.
“The Finns think we could quite easily be in the position the Ukrainians are in,” Mr Pitkäniitty said. After gesturing to a road that crosses the border through the forest, he added: “If a Russian division wants to attack Helsinki, they must go through here. You would see ruins and smoke here.”
Such an attack would have far greater consequences, now that Finland’s border – an 830-mile border that runs roughly north-south from the Barents Sea to the Gulf of Finland – has become a NATO border, more than doubling Russia’s existing borders with NATO- countries . According to 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 cautious.
Etched into the country’s national memory is Joseph Stalin’s 1939 invasion and conquest of thousands of square miles of Finnish territory, which 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 was not difficult for Finns to imagine themselves in the Ukrainians. They walked in them,” said Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken during a visit to Helsinki in early June. “For many Finns, the parallels between 1939 and 2022 were striking.”
Currently, 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: American and European officials have visited to assess its vulnerabilities and Finnish preparations.
The Finns say not to worry. First, they proudly remember 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 like the Ukrainians almost a century later. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, later said that while the Soviets were victorious over the vastly outnumbered Finns, they actually suffered defeat, because “it encouraged the conviction of our enemies that the Soviet Union was a colossus with feet of clay.”
Thanks in part 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 troops are equipped with body armor and semi-automatic rifles, although one team of three that patrolled around Vaalimaa on a recent day hid that gear; the only visible enemies were constant swarms of mosquitoes.
In their current numbers, however, the border guards would be of little use against a Russian military attack. It’s one for which Finland 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 has boomed in the last decade.
But border traffic today is below one-third of its pre-pandemic levels, and the road is lightly traveled.
The strength of the NATO alliance, and its Article 5 treaty requiring collective self-defense, allays fears of an attack. “That’s the biggest reason why we joined — to get the article 5 cover,” Brig. General Sami Nurmi, a Finnish defense policy official, said in an April interview. “And also, of course, that cowardly look.”
Soon, the Finns are more concerned about a very different form of warfare – armed migration. About 60 miles north of Vaalimaa, Finland began installing its first border fence.
In late 2015 and early 2016, Finland experienced an increase in asylum-seeking migrants crossing the Russian border, most of them from third countries. Finnish officials have seen 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’s quite obvious that such activity is a managed effort.”
The Finns were caught off guard. “Never in my wildest dreams did I foresee that we would have, say, Bangladeshis coming on bikes to a high northern border crossing when the sun is not 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 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. “It’s no use arguing. You just end up in a dispute that doesn’t allow for solutions.”
For years, he said, acceptable topics of conversation with the Russians included fishing, hunting and sports. “Now we have to exclude sports because they no longer participate in international sports,” said Mr. Pitkäniitty. “Then about fishing and hunting, which you may safely talk to the Russian officers about.”
At the same time, “I know they will not hesitate to shoot me in the back if ordered to do so,” he added. “Just like I would do the same to them.”
John Ismay contributed reports from Washington