Finland’s main parties back plans to build Russia border fence

Structure would protect areas identified as posing potential risk of large-scale migration from Russia

Finland’s main political parties have backed building a fence along parts of the country’s border with Russia, with work on a short pilot section expected to start as soon as funds have been allocated, Finnish media have reported.

Neighbouring Norway, which also shares a border with Russia in the far north, on Wednesday said it had arrested a seventh Russian national suspected of illegally flying drones or taking photographs in restricted areas in recent days.

Norway’s prime minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, said it was “obviously unacceptable for foreign intelligence to fly drones” over the country after police announced that the son of a close confidant of Vladimir Putin had been detained on Monday.

The Finnish broadcaster YLE said a meeting on Tuesday evening between the prime minister, Sanna Marin, and representatives of all main parties had confirmed cross-party support for the plans, proposed last month by the Finnish border guard.

Helsinki is increasingly concerned about large-scale illegal crossings of the 830-mile (1,340km) eastern border it shares with Russia – the longest of any EU member – as thousands of Russians flee Moscow’s partial mobilisation in response to its faltering war in Ukraine.

It is also concerned about the prospect of Moscow deploying orchestrated mass migration as a form of hybrid warfare, as Belarus was accused of doing last year by Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania.

“We were in agreement about the need,” Marin said after the meeting. “Now the government will bring concrete proposals to parliament.” Funding for the pilot section would be voted on by the start of next month, she said.

“It is a question of securing proper surveillance of Finland’s border,” Marin said. “We want to ensure our border guard has sufficient support to carry out appropriate and effective border control, and we need to be prepared for any disruptive situations.”

Finland’s border guard last month suggested building a fence several metres high, topped with razor wire and equipped with surveillance cameras and sensors along 160 miles of the border – roughly 20% of its total.

The fence would protect areas identified as posing a potential risk of large-scale migration from Russia, mainly in south-east Finland, where most traffic crosses the border, but also around border stations in the north of the country.

The project would take up to four years to complete and could cost several hundred million euros, according to border guard estimates. Final approval for the main phase could be delayed until April, when Finland is due to hold parliamentary elections.

The suspect detained in Norway was identified as Andrei Yakunin, the son of the former Russian railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, who is considered close to Putin. Police said he had been flying a drone in the strategically sensitive Svalbard region.

Earlier this week, Norway, now western Europe’s largest gas supplier and on high alert after last month’s suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines, said it had arrested four Russian citizens seen illegally taking pictures of facilities last week.

Police did not identify the four, who were carrying photographic equipment and other image-making material, but said they had came to Norway from Finland and claimed to be tourists.

Two other Russians were also arrested in Norway last week, both with drones. One had taken photos of military helicopters and airports, while the other, who held two Russian passports, had a partially encrypted 4 terabyte stash of photos and videos.

Meanwhile, Finland’s foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, warned that Turkish delays to the ratification of Helsinki’s application to join Nato were endangering the security of entire Nordic region. He said his country would resist any effort by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to separate Finland’s Nato application from that of Sweden.

Turkey and Hungary are the only two remaining Nato states yet to ratify the joint Nato application by Finland and Sweden, with Turkey demanding both countries first extradite from their territory to Turkey what Ankara perceives to be Kurdish terrorists.

Referring to the recent attack on the Nord Stream gas pipelines, Haavisto said: “We are living in turbulent times security wise and the sooner we are also covered by Nato article 5 and can contribute to Nato’s defence, the better in the circumstances. Any delay in the strengthening of the security in the Baltic Sea is of concern.

“The explosion of the Nord Stream pipeline showed the conflict is getting closer to us. When you delay you have to take into account that this has a side-effect on the security situation in the applicant countries and the entire region.”

In an attempt to speed up the ratification process before the Nato summit in June, Finland and Sweden signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkey on how issues such as extradition to terrorism, and terrorism charges, would be handled in both countries. Turkey accuses Sweden especially of harbouring PKK sympathisers.

Many observers believe Erdoğan is bargaining with Finland partly to look tough domestically ahead of next year’s elections.

Asked about the fence proposal, Haavisto said the government was being advised by its border experts that some parts of the border were vulnerable to an influx of asylum seekers, and said a fence might be electronic as well as physical.

He said so far 40,000 Russians had entered Finland, some of whom have returned or moved on, adding that it was to be determined by the courts whether asylum could be granted simply on the basis that the applicant did not wish to fight for Russia in Ukraine.

“There might be grounds for seeking asylum on the basis that the conscript was not willing to commit human rights abuses in the Russian army,” he said.


Jon Henley and Patrick Wintour

The GuardianTramp

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