Finland Seals Off Final Border with Russia

Finland Seals Off Final Border with Russia

In an extraordinary move, Finland has decided to temporarily close its entire 1,340 km eastern border with Russia from November 30 to December 13.

The government cites national security reasons and accuses Russia of orchestrating a “hybrid campaign” by facilitating the illegal entry of migrants from countries like Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan.

The decision was taken during an emergency cabinet meeting on November 28 after nearly 1,000 third-country nationals crossed into Finland from Russia since August 2023, most on bicycles and lacking proper documents. Hundreds arrived just in November alone.

Prime Minister Petteri Orpo said Russia is “enabling the instrumentalization of people and guiding them to the Finnish border in harsh winter conditions.”

While Finland is determined to curb the phenomenon, Russia has denied the allegations.

No Cross-Border Traffic Aloud

As per the government’s decision, Finland’s land border with Russia will be entirely shut to all traffic, including Finns, from midnight local time on November 30.

Interior Minister Mari Rantanen said, “In the current situation, it is necessary to close the entire eastern border. We have taken this decision to protect Finland’s national security against this Russian hybrid operation.”

The closure means asylum applications can only be submitted at Finnish ports and airports. Passenger vehicles and buses also cannot cross.

However, railway freight services continue between the two countries.

Finland had already closed seven of its eight border crossings last November 23 after the migrant influx rose sharply, leaving only one checkpoint open at Raja-Jooseppi in the Arctic Lapland region. However, even that will now be temporarily shut.

Response to Perceived Hybrid Threats

Finland and other Western nations have accused Russia of encouraging illegal migration into Europe to foster instability as retaliation for European Union (EU) sanctions over Ukraine.

Prime Minister Orpo stated, “Russia is enabling the instrumentalization of people and guiding them to the Finnish border in harsh winter conditions. Finland is determined to put an end to this phenomenon.”

The recent migrant influx, facilitated by Russian authorities, is seen as Moscow’s payback for Helsinki joining NATO earlier this year. At the time, Russia had threatened retaliation.

Interior Minister Rantanen echoed the sentiment that the border closure is to counter Russia’s hybrid campaign involving migrants. 

The decision aims to curb what the government calls “exceptional circumstances” created by “state-influenced” migration pressure.

Walking a Legal Tightrope

The Finnish government’s decision to close the border had earlier been blocked by the Chancellor of Justice Tuomas Pöysti last week, who raised international protection concerns.

However, this time, the Chancellor has greenlighted the move after reviewing the government’s classified memo outlining the necessity and proportionality of the decision.

However, legal experts like Professor Tuomas Ojanen of the University of Helsinki argue that the measure seems “exceptionally forceful” as it impacts core rights like the right to seek asylum.

As per the government’s rationale shared in the memo, arrangements have been made to identify vulnerable groups like children, the disabled, pregnant women, and trafficking victims among the migrants to provide access to Finnish authorities for protection.

The memo does acknowledge tensions between the security decision and EU laws safeguarding asylum rights. However, it justifies the temporary restrictions as “necessary and acceptable.”

Border Shutdown Disrupts Travel Plans

Finland’s temporary eastern border shutdown will impact travelers from both EU and non-EU countries.

As per the Schengen Borders Code, EU citizens can be subject to border checks only under exceptional circumstances, for instance for national security reasons.

With no passenger traffic allowed on Finland’s eastern border with Russia until December 13, EU citizens who regularly commute these border crossings for work or family reasons will be affected during this period.

Meanwhile, visitors from non-EU countries applying for Schengen visas via Finnish embassies will likely face processing delays as diplomatic resources get diverted towards border security issues.

Those already holding valid Schengen visas could also see travel disruptions given the border situation. This may hamper plans for tourists as well as immigrants like migrant workers or students planning to legally enter Finland from Russia.

Business travelers with urgent cross-border commitments may need to seek special permissions or alternative routes into Finland.

Once the ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorization System) comes into effect in 2025, visitors from over 60 visa-exempt countries will need prior ETIAS approval before entering Schengen. 

With Finland’s Russia border closed, ETIAS holders may need to carefully verify which checkpoints remain open.

Hardened Stance Against Border Crossings

The temporary Russia border closure signifies Finland’s increasingly strict immigration stance as it sees rising non-EU arrivals as a national security threat facilitated by Russia to potentially destabilize Finnish society.

Earlier in November, Finnish law enforcement had to accommodate over 900 mostly Middle Eastern and African migrants that suddenly arrived across the Russian frontier.

Authorities see this influx as an exceptional situation exploiting immigration channels for political ends. It has reinforced Finland’s assessment of immigration pressures on the Russian border as a hybrid warfare risk.

As such, the border shutdown represents not just a temporary logistical change but a hardening of Finnish immigration policy regarding its long eastern frontier.

This is aligned with broader European moves to strengthen external border security through systems like the upcoming ETIAS program. 

Once enforced, ETIAS is likely to face implementation challenges on unstable borders like Finland’s border with Russia.

Experts Weigh Complex Security Dilemmas

Experts note that while allowing immigration and refuge are important values, the hybrid threats pose complex dilemmas, especially for border states like Poland and the Baltics facing similar Russian aggression.

Professor Klaus Dodds of London’s Royal Holloway University observes, “The Finns are quite right – the Russians have been weaponizing migration for some time.”

However, decisions like border closures that restrict immigrant rights also risk playing into Moscow’s aims to divide European societies. 

Latvia’s Prime Minister Evika Siliņa notes that, unfortunately, “It’s impossible to know the thinking of Lukashenko and Putin.”

Cracks in Europe’s Defenses Exposed

For now, Finland’s entire eastern frontier faces a sweeping temporary shutdown – an unprecedented move in Finland's modern history. 

The full implications of this decision remain uncertain given the unpredictable security situation with Russia.

With Europe already embroiled in multiple crises from the Ukraine war to rising far-right populism, the Finnish border predicament highlights Europe’s increasing vulnerabilities. 

As the EU bolsters its defenses through measures like ETIAS, more complex emergencies like hybrid warfare reveal cracks in the system.