While the United States debates whether it has “a Russian problem,” and who’s responsible for it, 6 million wary Finns know they have such a problem. It’s inherited, and they’re fearful again of a wrestling match with an old foe.
There’s ample history in the memory of the so-called Winter War, when Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union set out to subdue a small and largely agricultural nation early in World War II. With the Western democracies, and much of the rest of the world, cheering, the little Finnish army with its ski troops, dressed in white to make it difficult to see soldiers against the snow and with unique knowledge of winter warfare, held off the Soviets for nine months. In the end, Finland lost a tenth of its territory, including an Arctic port, ceded to the Soviet Union.
There’s a new wrinkle in the Russia-Finland relations. The Finns, feeling threatened as always by their giant neighbor, are planning one of its largest military exercises in decades. They’re going underground, building a subterranean city beneath Helsinki to form a critical line of defense. Finnish soldiers routinely train there to be able to keep the government running and the capital’s residents safe in an attack. A network of more than 124 miles of tunnels, passageways and shelters would supply utility and subway tunnels, communications, water supply and internet connections. There’s shelter space for 600,000 persons.
Russian war games will take place on Finland’s northern border as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization simultaneously boosts its own presence in the three Baltic states just across the Gulf of Finland. Finland maintains a convenient fiction of neutrality between Moscow and the West, remaining outside NATO even though it is ever more dependent on the West — and especially for its arms, both from the United States and from Sweden, which is also officially neutral.
It’s an irony that the threat of Russian bullying and incorporation into a Russian empire has raised Finland to one of the most prosperous and technologically advanced societies. The per capita income is 222 percent of the world’s average, and in a place of isolation at a frigid corner of the world.
The $300 billion (in 1939 prices) of reparations, which Helsinki was forced to pay the Soviets, was used to build a new manufacturing and economic complex to deliver 340,000 railroad carloads of goods and services to Moscow. The economic effect was to turn Finland increasingly into a high tech industrial economy, and leadership of the new wireless telephone industry.
Finland regards the Russian seizure of Crimea as a new threat to its own independence. The Finnish military has carried out an exercise based on a scenario including takeover of government buildings by foreign special forces, like those of the Russians, on their southern flank. Some of those war games were held in Helsinki’s underground labyrinth.
Finland has had to deal with pro-Russian activists, propaganda and political pressure on Finnish politicians in the years since the end of the Cold War, and while maintaining formal neutrality has had to contend with pro-Russian nongovernmental groups, social media accounts and cyberattacks attempting to influence Finnish domestic politics. This year 10 NATO countries and the European Union committed to establish a research center focused on hybrid warfare, to open in Helsinki in September. With the Cold War over, the Russian-Finnish border is still cool to the touch.