Arne O. Holm says In the Shadow of War: After 4,000 Kilometers Along the Russian Border, I Suddenly Awoke in NATO

The High North Tour 2022 Mobile Office Van at the Saimaa Canal.
The Saimaa Canal between Russia and Finland may once again be closed if Finland joins NATO. (Photo: Arne O. Holm)  

(Commentary) Nuijamaa, Finland: On Wednesday this week, I hit my pillow just a few kilometers away from the Russian border. Quite exactly 4,000 kilometers had led me along the border from Kirkenes to Nuijamaa in southern Finland. The forest was, as always, closing in around me – but much had changed when I woke up in NATO on Thursday morning.

The Finns have written history at a historic pace. Since I crossed the border from Norway to Finland in Neiden, some kilometers from Kirkenes, about a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Finnish people had mentally shrugged off its neutral military uniform and marched towards NATO.

Nuijamaa, Finland.
Her i Nuijamaa ligger en av Finlands mange grensestasjoner mot Russland. (Google Maps).
Here in Nuijamaa lies one of Finland's many border stations towards Russia. (Illustration: Google Maps)

Polls drew graphs that more and more resembled a tsunami as I drove south along the border. I have hardly met a Finn who doubted that the answer to Russian bomb showers over Ukraine was NATO membership.

Some required procedures remain before NATO formally adopts Finland as a member state and with that, NATO’s longest border against Russia. However, these procedures have been cut not only to the bone, but all the way in to the marrow, in order to be able to conduct a breakneck pace Finnish landing in the western defense alliance.

Last weekend, I met the Russian journalists Irina Borogana and Andrey Soldatov. They are investigative journalists who from their exile in the UK follow Russian intelligence closely. Their claim, which they also repeated to the Finnish broadcaster YLE, is that Russia simply was not prepared for its attack on Ukraine to trigger Finnish NATO membership.

They say this was a shock to Russian intelligence services.

If so, that is yet another proof that the Russian generals are not only despotic in their characaters, but also out of control and highly dysfunctional.

A shock to Russian intelligence

Taking a drive on the other side of the border from an increasingly isolated Russia would have been enough for the generals to discover the rationality that characterizes Finnish foreign and security policy.

During my journey I have sometimes asked myself the question about whether it is really true that the Finns are the happies people in the world. It does not always look that way. Yet there is little reason to doubt the rationality that lies behind the decision taken in a country that not only borders on Russia, but has also been at war with Russia and had to give up land to the same regime.

Now, Russia is once again stealing neighboring countries and no one can safely predict the Russian reactions to a Finnish – and soon also Swedish – ‘yes’ to NATO. In western media, a picture is painted of an increasingly desperate and isolated Russian president without ability to make rational decisions. Therein also lies the danger. Few thought he would attack Ukraine.

He barely knew it himself before the war was a fact, just as little as he was able to predict the political ramifications.

Nuijamaa grensestasjon.
This picture was taken in Nuijamaa, on the border between Russia and Finland, just as Finland was deciding to apply for NATO membership. The two cars leaving Russia to enter NATO were thoroughly searched. (Photo: Arne O. Holm)
It does not always look as if the Finns are the world’s happiest people

Only a few kilometers away from the border where I find myself lies the medieval town of Vyborg, at the inner end of the Gulf of Finland. I sit at the banks of the Saimaa Canal, a small, narrow canal built as early as in 1856, when Vyborg was a Finnish town. Then both geography and the borders changed. During the war, the canal was closed and Vyborg eventually became Russian. In the late 1960s, the canal, which runs from the huge Lake Saimaa to Vyborg and into the Gulf of Finland, was re-opened.

Now, there is once again war in Europe. The Saimaa Canal was closed when the war broke out in February, and later re-opened. According to Russian newspapers, Finnish NATO membership will lead to the canal’s once again being closed.

I går var Saimaakanalen den reneste idyllen. (Foto: Arne O. Holm)
The Saimaa Canal was purely picturesque yesterday. (Photo: Arne O. Holm)

However, on the day that Finland decided to apply for NATO membership, the canal was quietly meandering its way through the Finnish forests.

Only bird twitter, the cuckoos from a cuckoo, break the silence. The cuckoo, as we all know, lets other birds incubate and hatch its eggs and foster its chicks.

Much like Finland, if you will, has laid parts of its own security in the NATO nest.

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This commentary was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.