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On a Frozen Border, Finland Puzzles Over a ‘Russian Game’


Poking up through the snow drifts on the Finnish-Russian border lies a symbol of Moscow’s biggest provocation yet toward NATO’s newest member: a sprawling heap of broken bicycles.

The battered bikes are sold for hundreds of dollars on the Russian side to asylum seekers from as far away as Syria and Somalia. They are then encouraged — sometimes forced, according to Finnish guards — to cross the border. Finns say it is a hybrid warfare campaign against their country, using some of the world’s most desperate people, just as it is staking out a new position in a shifting world order.

“Some of the bikes didn’t even have pedals — sometimes they’d link arms, to help each other keep moving,” said Ville Kuusisto, a Finnish sergeant general at the crossing near the Russian town of Vyborg.

As Finns vote on Sunday for a new president, who will be responsible for foreign policy and act as commander in chief, Finland has become fixated on its 830-mile border, the longest with Russia of any NATO country. How Finns handle the challenges there is critical not only for them, but also for their new allies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The presidential election, now in its second and final round, is the first since Finland officially joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last year after decades of nonalignment, looking to bolster its own security after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia warned Finland of “countermeasures” for its accession, which the Finns suspect they are now seeing in the form of infrastructure sabotage and cyberattacks. But it is the arrival of some 1,300 “human weapons,” as Finnish politicians have described them, in the past few months that has stirred the most public attention and anxiety.

European officials have repeatedly raised alarm over migrants being encouraged to cross into their borders by Russia and its allies, with many concerned that the aim is to destabilize European governments and stoke discord in a bloc sharply divided over how to handle immigration.

In December, Finland closed all of its crossings with Russia. Now, it is preparing a law, that Finnish media has said may include provisions to allow Finland to force people back over the border — a practice known as “pushbacks,” which are illegal under European and international law. Finnish officials have so far declined to comment on such measures.

Both presidential candidates headed to the final round on Sunday — Pekka Haavisto, of the left-leaning Greens, and the centrist conservative Alexander Stubb — have staked out a hard line not only against Moscow, but also the asylum seekers.

“People see through this Russian game quite clearly,” Mr. Haavisto said in an interview. Asked how he felt about the calls for potential pushbacks, he said humanitarian laws banning pushbacks may need to be changed to recognize what he described as a new form of hybrid warfare.

Mr. Stubb said force on the border was necessary because “the only thing Putin and Russia understand is power, usually raw power,” referring to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Whoever wins on Sunday will take the lead in shaping Finland’s new role in NATO. But the migration issue is now likely to absorb much of their attention, something security experts say could be an intended distraction.

“This border problem is not the most urgent issue right now, but it’s now an issue that will consume the bandwidth of the future president and the Finnish government,” said Matti Pesu, a security analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

The crossings into Finland are the latest iteration of the deadly border politics that have played out since 2021, when Belarus, a veritable satrapy of Moscow, offered entry to thousands of migrants, allowing them to cross to Poland. Many ended up trapped between the two countries, beaten by border guards, who forced them back and forth over the border.

This is not the first time an influx has reached the country — there were surges in 2015 and 2016, when over a million people made their way to Europe, mostly fleeing war in Syria and ending up in Germany. But since then, the border has gone mostly quiet.

Finnish officials say that, counter to a past understanding between the two countries, Russia is now letting people without Finnish visas through its checkpoints.

Finnish border guards said that when they called their counterparts last year to complain, the Russians insisted they were simply following procedures and could not deny people the right to cross.

Moayed Salami, 36, a Syrian who reached the crossing in November, said his experience showed Russia was clearly using the asylum seekers as pawns — but willing ones.

He and seven other applicants interviewed, all of whom arrived before Finland closed its border, described being escorted through three layers of Russian checkpoints, where their passports were taken and their entry visas to Russia were canceled. He and some others said the Russian authorities then followed them until the very last stretch before the border.

“What I keep telling the Finnish media, when they say we are being exploited by Russia, is that it does not matter,” Mr. Salami said. “How could it? We needed a way out. If we had to flee via Mars, we would do it.”

Maria Zacharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, has said the accusation that Russia was deliberately facilitating the migrants was not only false, but “another example of the West’s double standards or lack of standards at all.”

Before Sunday’s election, the crossings have forced a debate in Finland about what the risks of these arrivals really are for the NATO member.

Finland’s security and intelligence services have publicly said Russia could try to recruit some migrants as spies, but they have shared no evidence to back this hypothesis.

Others say the risk is of Finland undermining its image of itself as a nation that shares liberal values and acts in accordance with international conventions regarding asylum.

“It’s Russia trying to turn us against our own values,” said Iro Sarkaa, a fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “We claim to be a liberal democracy, with a rules-based international order, and then we are not even respecting those treaties ourselves?”

On Wednesday, Finland’s popular departing president Sauli Niniisto argued that humanitarian law was being used as a “Trojan horse” for those trying to cross.

Europe’s commissioner on human rights, as well as Finland’s own ombudsman on human rights, have warned that Finland risks violating humanitarian protections if it does not also offer places for people to make asylum claims.

“These players probably look at this issue from the one side,” said Mari Rantanen, the interior minister. “But as a government, we have to see the whole picture. We have to take care of our national security, too, because nobody else will.”

Finland uses drones and plans to build several stretches of 13-foot-high fences along 125 miles of the southern border, with the aim of getting migrants to cross at specific points that can be monitored. With the help of Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, they have bolstered technical surveillance, including heat sensors and cameras.

For now, Finland’s closures have blocked most new arrivals. But Marko Saareks, the deputy chief of division at the Finnish Border Guard, said that hundreds, if not thousands, of asylum seekers who are stuck in Russian border towns may still try to trek through the woods, especially come spring.

Already, more than 30 people have made life-threatening winter treks, including Rakan Esmail and Abdullah al-Ali, who are from the Syrian town of Kobani.

Two weeks ago, they said, smugglers drove them deep into the forest in freezing night temperatures, then robbed them at gunpoint of the last $6,000 they had borrowed for their journey.

“They just shouted at us, ‘Go die!’ and drove off,” Mr. Esmail, 20, recalled.

They almost did. With only their pajamas beneath their pants and jackets for extra warmth, they trudged through snow banks up to their thighs until they made it to the Finnish side and knocked on the door of a small wooden cabin. Using Google Translate, they said, they begged its lone, aged inhabitant to call them an ambulance and the border patrol.

Their brush with an icy death scared them, but was no deterrent.

Told that asylum seekers like him were being described as human weapons, Mr. Esmail was shocked. “We’re not weapons,” he said, shaking his head. “We’re just human.”

Johanna Lemola contributed reporting from Helsinki and Nuijamaa, and Emma Bubola from London.

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