NATO membership has its own perks and challenges. So, when Sweden and Finland on last Wednesday formally applied for getting NATO membership, they must have fancied NATO coming to their rescue when Russia invades their borders. But it seems they couldn’t care less for the challenges they unknowingly invited by flirting with NATO. So, Putin has now made his first move to remind Finland of the same.
Russian news agency TASS recently reported that Finland may very well end up breaking an international peace treaty in its bid to join NATO. Russian envoy to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, on Monday appeared to be suggesting that Finland’s move to embrace NATO will spark a territory dispute between Moscow and Helsinki.
The Russian envoy said, “Regarding Finland’s bid to join NATO, I immediately have a question about two aspects: It’s the status of the Aland Islands that have a demilitarized status under an international treaty, and a question about the fate of the Saimaa Canal, which was built back in the days of the Russian empire and links the inland waterways of Finland, the lakes with the Gulf of Finland of the Baltic Sea.”
The Russian envoy also reminded Finland about how Helsinki actually lacks sovereign rights over the territories surrounding the Saimaa Canal, and it was Russia that had leased the territory to the Finnish government under the peace treaty. Chizhov said, “In accordance with a Russian-Finnish intergovernmental agreement, Russia essentially leased small strips of land along the Saimaa Canal to the neighboring state.” “Maintenance of the canal, its repairs throughout its entire length – it’s the responsibility of the Finnish side. What will happen next about this – we’ll need to see.”
Until the Second World War, the Saimaa Canal and adjacent territories were controlled and governed by Finland. But in 1944, the USSR captured the southern half of the canal, with then the second largest city of the country — Viipuri or Vyborg. After the invasion, the traffic in the canal, and thus trade through the channel, came to an abrupt end.
So, in 1963, a peace treaty between Finland and USSR was signed. Under the treaty, Finland obtained a 50-year lease on the Soviet part of the canal. The Kremlin viewed this treaty as a guarantee to Finland’s neutrality in the ongoing cold war between USSR and USA. Make no mistake, the Saimaa Canal holds great importance for the Finnish economy. This narrow 43 km long artery connects the biggest Saimaa Lake in the country’s southeast with the Baltic Sea and links the industrial centers of the Saimaa region with the European market. Russia and Finland agreed on a lease for 50 years in 1963, and in 2013, they prolonged the treaty by 2063. Now, Russia could scrap this treaty altogether and sent the Finnish economy into a state of tizzy.
Dmitry Novikov, the first deputy chairperson of the International State Duma Committee, told the Russian Izvestia newspaper, “As Russia’s relations with any country deteriorate, treaties concluded during a period of better relations and that made sense at the time may be revised. That would be quite natural [to revise the lease of the Saimaa Canal].”
Then, there is also the case of the disputed Aland islands. Finland claims sovereignty of these islands but the islanders feel proud of their autonomous status. So, as Finland now looks forward to joining NATO, Russia could very well fuel secessionism in these islands and support their demands for achieving independence from Helsinki.
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Simply put, the region has now been turned into a powder keg by NATO and especially the US. Before Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO bids, no one could have expected Russia to rake such petty territory disputes up. But now, we have Russia breathing fire down Finland’s neck, and no prizes for guessing what NATO’s response would be—to become a mute spectator and leave Finland to fend for itself.
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