On a frozen border, Finland wonders about a “Russian game”

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Across the snowdrifts on the Finnish-Russian border lies the symbol of Moscow’s greatest provocation towards The new member of NATO: a sprawling pile of broken bicycles.

Damaged bikes are sold for hundreds of dollars on the Russian side to asylum seekers from as far away as Syria and Somalia. They are then encouraged – sometimes forced, according to Finnish guards – to cross the border. The Finns say it is a hybrid war campaign against their country, using some of the most desperate people on the planet, just as it aims to take a new stand in a changing world order.

“Some bikes didn’t even have pedals, sometimes they linked arms to help each other keep moving,” said Ville Kuusisto, a Finnish sergeant general passing near the Russian city of Vyborg.

As Finns vote Sunday to elect a new president, who will be responsible for foreign policy and act as commander in chief, Finland has become obsessed with its 830-mile border, the longest with Russia of any country of NATO. How the Finns respond to challenges is crucial not only for them, but also for their new allies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The presidential election, now in its second and final roundis the first since Finland officially joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last year. after decades of non-alignment, seeking to strengthen its own security after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has warned Finland of “countermeasures” towards its membership, which the Finns suspect will now take the form of infrastructure sabotage and cyberattacks. But it is the arrival of some 1,300 “human weapons,” as Finnish politicians have described them, in recent months that has generated the most public attention and anxiety.

European officials have repeatedly raised alarm that migrants are being encouraged to cross their borders by Russia and its allies, with many fearing the aim is to destabilize European governments and stir up discord within a bloc sharply divided on how to manage immigration.

In December, Finland closed all its crossings with Russia. The country is currently preparing a law which, according to Finnish media, could include provisions allowing Finland to force people across the border – a practice known as “pushbacks”, which is illegal under European law and international. Finnish authorities have so far refused to comment on these measures.

The two presidential candidates heading into the final round on Sunday – Pekka Haavisto, of the left-wing Greens party, and centrist conservative Alexander Stubb – have taken a hard line not only against Moscow, but also against asylum seekers .

“People see this Russian game very clearly,” Mr. Haavisto said in an interview. When asked what he thought about calls for possible pushbacks, he said humanitarian laws prohibiting pushbacks may need to be changed to recognize what he described as a new form of hybrid warfare.

Mr. Stubb said the border force was necessary because “the only thing Putin and Russia understand is power, usually raw power,” referring to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

Whoever wins on Sunday will take the lead in shaping Finland’s new role within NATO. But the issue of migration now risks absorbing much of their attention, which security experts say could be an intentional distraction.

“This border issue is not the most pressing problem right now, but it is now a problem that will consume the bandwidth of the future president and the Finnish government,” said security analyst Matti Pesu. at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

The crossings to Finland are the latest iteration of the deadly border policy that has been unfolding since 2021, when Belarus, a veritable satrapy of Moscow, offered entry to thousands of migrants, allowing them to cross the border into Poland. Many found themselves trapped between the two countries, beaten by border guards, who forced them across the border.

This is not the first time an influx has reached the country: there were peaks in 2015 and 2016, when more than a million people fled to Europe, many fleeing the war in Syria and ending up in Germany. But since then, the border has become rather calm.

Finnish officials say that, contrary to an agreement between the two countries, Russia now lets people without Finnish visas pass through its checkpoints.

Finnish border guards said that when they called their counterparts last year to complain, the Russians insisted they were just following procedures and could not deny people the right to cross.

Moayed Salami, 36, a Syrian who reached the crossing point in November, said his experience showed Russia was clearly using asylum seekers as pawns – but willing ones.

He and seven other applicants interviewed, all of whom arrived before the Finnish border closed, described being escorted through three levels of Russian checkpoints, where their passports were confiscated and their visas to enter Russia were canceled. He and others said Russian authorities then followed them to the very last stretch before the border.

“What I keep telling the Finnish media, when they say we are being exploited by Russia, is that it doesn’t matter,” Mr Salami said. ” How is it possible ? We needed a way out. If we had to escape via Mars, we would.

Maria Zacharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the accusation that Russia was deliberately facilitating the arrival of migrants was not only false, but “another example of the West’s double standards, even of the absence of standards at all.

Before Sunday’s elections, the passages forced a debate in Finland on the real risks of these arrivals for this NATO member.

Finland’s security and intelligence services have publicly stated that Russia may attempt to recruit migrants as spies, but they have provided no evidence to support this hypothesis.

Others say the risk is that Finland will undermine its image as a nation sharing liberal values ​​and acting in accordance with international conventions on asylum.

“This is Russia trying to turn us against our own values,” said Iro Sarkaa, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “We claim to be a liberal democracy, with a rules-based international order, and we don’t even respect these treaties ourselves?

On Wednesday, the popular outgoing Finnish president Saul of Ninius argued that humanitarian law was being used as a “Trojan horse” for those attempting to cross the border.

The European Commissioner for Human Rights, along with Finland’s human rights ombudsman, has warned that Finland risks violating humanitarian protections if it does not also offer places where people can apply asylum.

“These actors are probably looking at this issue from one side only,” said Interior Minister Mari Rantanen. “But as a government we need to look at the bigger picture. We must also take care of our national security, because no one else will.”

Finland is using drones and plans to build several sections of 13-foot-high fences along 125 miles of the southern border, aiming to allow migrants to cross at specific points that can be monitored. With the help of Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, they have stepped up technical surveillance, including thermal sensors and cameras.

For now, Finnish lockdowns have blocked most new arrivals. But Marko Saareks, deputy division chief of Finland’s border guard, said hundreds or even thousands of asylum seekers stuck in Russian border towns could still try to cross the woods, especially in spring.

Already, more than 30 people have undertaken life-threatening winter treks, including Rakan Esmail and Abdullah al-Ali, from the Syrian town of Kobani.

Two weeks ago, they say, smugglers drove them deep into the forest in freezing night temperatures, then robbed them, at gunpoint, of the last $6,000 they had borrowed. for their journey.

“They just yelled at us: ‘Go die!’ and I left,” recalls Mr. Esmail, 20.

They almost did it. With only their pajamas under their pants and jackets for warmth, they trudged through thigh-deep snow banks until they arrived at the Finnish side and knocked on the door of a small cabin in wood. Using Google Translate, they said, they pleaded with its lonely, elderly resident to call an ambulance and the Border Patrol.

Their brush with icy death frightened them, but had no deterrent effect.

Hearing that asylum seekers like him were being described as human weapons, Mr Esmail was shocked. “We are not weapons,” he said, shaking his head. “We’re just human.”

Johanna Lemola contributed to reporting from Helsinki and Nuijamaa, and Emma Boubola from London.

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