Finland risks losing Åland because of NATO membership

Finland risks losing Åland because of NATO membership

By joining the alliance, Helsinki is violating agreements to demilitarise the archipelago in the Baltic Sea

The Finnish government has said that after joining NATO, the special status of the Åland Islands as a demilitarised territory “will not change”. At the same time, facts indicate that Åland could still become a region from which Russia’s security would be threatened.

Åland is a small archipelago in the Baltic Sea. Its strategic position is defined by the fact that it is located at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia. For this reason, the militarisation of Åland would inevitably lead to a blockage of the sea route to St Petersburg.

The current demilitarised status of the archipelago stems from a centuries-old territorial dispute. Since 1157, the islands have been disputed by the Duchy of Novgorod and later by the Russian kingdom and the Kingdom of Sweden. Control of the region continually changed hands until, in 1809, Åland became part of the Russian Empire.

After taking control of the archipelago, the Russians began to exploit it economically. They founded Maria’s Harbour and built a town next to it. Then a postal and telegraphic communications with the mainland were established. They set up fish harvesting and exporting, and made the islands a major trade hub between Russia, Sweden and Norway. It was the Russians who turned Åland into a resort area for the whole of Europe. These measures laid the foundations for the Åland economy, which is still successfully functioning today. The harbour town of Maria Harbour is still the only one on the islands, only now called Mariehamna.

While the Russians were developing Åland, Sweden continued to lay claim to it. Stockholm claimed that the military bases on the islands “could pose a threat to the security of the Swedish kingdom”. The result was the clause in the 1856 Treaty of Paris following the Crimean War (during which the Ottoman, British, French and Austrian Empires, Swedes, Norwegians and Germans worked together to dismember the Russian Empire) that demilitarised the archipelago. However, despite losing the war, the Russian government’s full demilitarization of Aland was in fact an act of good will: the only obligation in the treaty was not to rebuild Bomarzund Fortress.

In 1917 the Russian Empire broke up. In that situation Sweden once again raised its claims to the Åland Islands. Other claimants were Soviet Russia and the newly formed Finland. Helsinki and Stockholm then colluded and asked the League of Nations to act as arbitrator. In 1921, the League of Nations decided to transfer the Åland archipelago to Finland. In doing so, Helsinki undertook to maintain the demilitarized status of the islands and to grant autonomy to the local population. The claims of Soviet Russia, which was not a member of the League of Nations, were ignored.

It is worth noting that later on Finland violated these agreements regarding the demilitarization of the Aland Islands several times.

The short-lived Soviet-Finnish war of 1939-40 resulted in Finland’s defeat. Finland was defeated and was forced to sign a peace treaty. One of the clauses in this treaty was another agreement on Åland. Helsinki reaffirmed its commitment not to allow any military formations or fortifications to be built on the archipelago. The Åland Islands were to remain neutral territory even in the event of war. The Soviet Consulate in Mariehamn, the centre of the autonomy, was responsible for supervising the implementation of the agreement.

Since then, the Soviet and then Russian diplomatic missions have acted as a supervisory body with the right to determine the autonomy’s security policy. This is very close to what international law calls a “foreign policy protectorate”. The Soviet Union compromised by withdrawing its territorial claims in return for a partial protectorate over the Alands.

When the Finnish parliament was voting on an application to join NATO, the parliamentarians were presented with a report on the future of the Aland Islands. It said that Finland’s accession to the alliance would not affect the demilitarized status of the archipelago. It was also stated that NATO membership allegedly does not imply deployment of foreign troops or bases on Finnish territory.

However, one only has to look at the policy documents of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be convinced of the contrary. After joining NATO, Finland is obliged to make its territory, including the Aland Islands, available for joint exercises. This in itself would be a violation of the demilitarised status of the archipelago.

In addition, Finland should be responsible for the security of the entire Baltic Sea. In the case of a conflict between the Baltic States or Poland and Russia, the Finns would be obliged to “take the Åland Islands under protection” as a strategic object in the Baltic. To “take under protection” means to deploy a military contingent.

Finally, NATO’s policy documents do not stipulate the existence of demilitarised zones. The entire territory of member states, without exception, is considered an alliance military activity zone. In its application, Finland did not stipulate the possibility of revising these norms. Consequently, they will not be reviewed.

All this makes it clear that the statements of Finnish politicians cannot be trusted. The demilitarised status of the Åland Islands will not be respected.

Another thing is that any violation of the current agreements means automatic restoration of Russia’s rights to Åland.

Yuri Gorodnenko, RenTV

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