Finnish border ‘pretty empty’ of Russian troops, says Helsinki

Finland is unconcerned by Russia’s threat to bolster troop numbers along the border, the Nordic country’s foreign minister has said, adding that Moscow had left the frontier almost undefended following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Elina Valtonen told the Financial Times that the pledge made by Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu to increase soldiers was “expected” after Finland joined the Nato defence alliance in April.

“We don’t really have any concern in relation to that. It’s pretty much expected. It has to be said that our border is pretty empty during the war that Russia is illegally waging against Ukraine,” Valtonen said in an interview during a visit to Norway.

Finland ended decades of military non-alignment by swiftly signing up to join Nato following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. The country’s membership more than doubles the alliance’s borders with Russia due to Finland’s 1,340km-long eastern frontier.

But Russia’s movement of troops from the border with Finland to Ukraine over the past 18 months undermined its narrative of Nato being a threat through its enlargement, she said.

“If we were a threat, they would certainly not have moved their troops away, even in a situation where they are engaged somewhere else . . . Nato is an alliance for defence, it is not threatening anybody. Nato is not expanding by force, but through the fact that free individuals in democratic countries choose to join,” she added.

Helsinki also brings a modern, capable army and a long tradition of preparedness for any potential friction with its larger neighbour to the east, including well-trained forces, large numbers of reserve troops and vast air raid shelters.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu says Finland’s membership of Nato is ‘a serious destabilising factor’ © Dmitry Astakhov/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Shoigu referred to the doubling of Nato’s border with Russia at a defence ministry meeting on Wednesday. “A serious destabilising factor is the entry of Finland into Nato, and in the future, Sweden . . . On Finnish territory, it is likely that additional military contingents and Nato strike weapons will be deployed, capable of hitting critical targets in the north-west of Russia to a considerable depth,” he said.

Valtonen, who has been foreign minister since June, is part of a new rightwing coalition governing Finland. She is also deputy head of the National Coalition party led by prime minister Petteri Orpo.

The new government has pledged continuity on defence and security matters, including the possibility of a Nato base on Finnish soil, which Valtonen said could be a centre of excellence for the alliance if needed.

But she said Nato membership would affect Finland mostly in terms of its own mindset, rather than in military or political terms. “Now it’s perhaps easier to be even more outspoken and freer in what people think [about Russia]. We are now unconditionally in the west. We don’t have to negotiate, it’s just a fact. It frees up certain things,” she said.

Finland’s new government has faced a long-rumbling racism scandal after local media published messages containing slurs that were sent by three ministers from the nationalist Finns party several years ago.

One of the three ministers has resigned, but two remain in government, including Finns party leader and finance minister Riikka Purra, who repeatedly used an ethnic slur in online discussions in 2008.

“We have no room for racism in our government whatsoever, not on a government programme level, not on a personal level,” said Valtonen. But she added that politicians should be allowed to apologise and change their behaviour, while stressing that the government was preparing an action plan to combat racism and discrimination.

The fallout from the scandal would not harm Finland’s image abroad, she said. However, several foreign diplomats noted a marked shift in international media coverage of Finland compared with under the country’s previous leftwing government led by former prime minister Sanna Marin.

Valtonen said all European countries had to adapt to nationalist parties such as the Finns, adding that neighbouring Sweden’s approach of excluding such groups from national politics “didn’t help” matters. Rather the ability to “moderate radicalism in government” was the approach required, she added.

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