Finland and Åland Islands

Russia is closely following the development of the situation around Finland’s entry into NATO and the potential change in the status of the Åland Islands. This was reported to Izvestiya at the Russian Embassy in Helsinki.

Finland’s position remains the same – joining the alliance will not affect the demilitarized status of the strategic archipelago, this was assured at the Foreign Ministry of the Scandinavian country.

Although earlier members of the Finnish Parliament did not rule out that Helsinki could place military equipment on the islands “to protect against possible invasions”. Experts interviewed believe that the Scandinavian Republic may reconsider the status of the islands “if there are significant changes in the region”.

How likely is the adjustment of the agreements if Finland joins NATO, and what this may lead to?

Archipelago without weapons

At the end of December last year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that Sweden and Finland would join the alliance before the end of 2023. The possible accession of two Scandinavian countries to the bloc at once raised questions regarding the demilitarized status of the Åland Islands – whether NATO would deploy military personnel there.

After all, the archipelago is of strategic importance for the entire Baltic region. It is located at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia of the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland, has an autonomous status within the latter.

In May 2022, immediately after Finland and Sweden officially applied to join NATO, at that time, Russian Permanent Representative to the EU Vladimir Chizhov said that the entry of these countries into the alliance raises the question of the fate of the Åland Islands.

The demilitarized status of the archipelago is established by a number of existing international legal documents, in particular the Geneva Convention of 1921 and the Moscow Agreement of 1940, and is also confirmed by the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, Izvestiya was specified at the Russian Embassy in Helsinki.

At the same time, they noted: “In 2022, the Finnish side officially announced that Finland’s upcoming entry into NATO does not contradict the country’s international obligations and will not lead to a change in the demilitarized status “.

“Representatives of the Åland Islands authorities, for their part, also confirm their commitment to the demilitarized status of the islands,” the diplomatic mission stressed. – Russia is closely following the development of the situation, the reaction to certain changes will be determined by the specific content of the situation.

In response to a request, the Finnish Foreign Ministry confirmed that the country’s position on the Aland Islands, indicated in the government’s report, has not changed.

The document, in particular, states that “joining [to the alliance] will not affect the status of the Åland Islands, based on international treaties, and this status is not an obstacle to joining”.

“Finland respects the demilitarization of the Åland Islands and is ready to take the necessary measures to protect their neutrality. Therefore, there is no conflict between the North Atlantic Treaty and the treaties relating to the Åland Islands,” the Finnish government report says.

Revision under special conditions

No change in the status of the Alands is expected in the near future. However, if significant changes occur in the region that require Finland to protect the islands, the agreement on their demilitarization may be revised , Henry Vanhanen, a researcher at the Finnish Foreign Policy Institute (FIIA), said.

Nevertheless, the neutrality of the Åland Islands is based on international treaties, so the expert does not expect major changes – at least in the near future, he added.

Finland’s constitutional obligation to ensure the security and defense of these regions will not change. How this will work when the country joins NATO remains to be seen, and it also depends on Russia’s behavior.

Finland is of course pursuing a policy that takes into account the overall stability of the Baltic Sea region, and if significant changes occur, there may be reason for a review. But now I don’t see such a possibility,” the expert explained.

The same position was previously expressed by representatives of the authorities of the autonomous region. The head of the government of the province of Aland (the Finnish name for the region is Avenanmaa), Veronica Thornroos, noted in June last year that the demilitarization of the region is based on international agreements, but stressed that Helsinki has the right to deploy troops there if necessary.

Historian, associate professor at the University of Helsinki Jyrki Paaskoski also believes that the status of the islands after the country’s entry into NATO will remain the same.

“But behind the scenes, Finland is considering all options and very carefully analyzes the future,” the expert said in an interview.

Status at gunpoint

For the first time, the islands received the status of a territory without weapons following the results of the Åland War in the 1850s, which ended with the Paris Peace Treaty. This status was secured by the Geneva Agreement of 1921.

The third treaty, confirming the demilitarized status of the Aland Islands, was signed in 1940 – according to it, the USSR received the right of military observation in the area. Since then, the Russian consulate has been operating in the capital of the autonomy, Mariehamn.

However, some politicians in Finland publicly express doubts that the islands will retain their demilitarized status after joining the alliance.

In particular, in April 2022, the speaker of the Finnish Parliament, Matti Vanhanen, during a public event, said that the presence of permanent Finnish troops on the Åland Islands would help protect the territory from possible invasions. His words were quoted by the newspaper Etelä-Suomen Sanomat (ESS).

However, the politician later told the Yle newspaper that his words “were not accurately reflected” and that the government of the Åland Islands should decide for itself whether they want to discuss this issue.

“I emphasized that the demilitarized status of the Åland Islands is based on international agreements. In this context, I stated that it would be easier – in terms of defense – to deploy troops in the Åland Islands, but such a proposal is not expected. The inhabitants of the Åland Islands must decide whether they want to start the process of changing this status,” Vanhanen clarified his words.

Public opinion in the Scandinavian country is inclined to believe that the demilitarization treaty should be revised. According to a Yle TV poll from June 2022, 58% of Finns allowed a military presence in Åland due to the current situation.

The channel clarifies: only 16% of respondents opposed the militarization of the archipelago, the remaining 28% of respondents could not decide.

The Åland Islands from 1809 to 1918 were part of the Russian Empire, its westernmost outpost. In the XVIII century, for 10 years, the Åland Congress was held on the islands, which led to the conclusion of the Nystadt Peace between Russia and Sweden, which put an end to the Northern War of 1700-1721. The capital of the archipelago, the city of Mariehamn, acquired a charter from Emperor Alexander II.

By the way, Mariehamn got its name in honor of the wife of the Russian autocrat Maria Alexandrovna.