In the shadow of Sweden re-militarising Gotland, the focus of the Finnish discussion rapidly turned to two things: Why is the Finnish government cutting defence spending in the budget proposal presented this week, and what to do with our own blank spot, the Åland islands?
The Åland islands have been demilitarised since the (First) Crimean War of the mid-19th century. The Russian Empire, to which the Grand-Duchy of Finland belonged back then, had built an impressive coastal fortress at Bomarsund, which an Anglo-French force captured in 1854. The whole siege cost both sides less than a 100 dead each, and would probably have been all but forgotten if not for two aspects: The first ever Victoria Cross was awarded for gallantry shown during the battle, and the fact that the peace Treaty of Paris (not to be confused with the 1947 edition) that ended the conflict declared the islands demilitarised (though not the surrounding waters).
It should be noted that the legal status is far from clear-cut. The islands have been dealt with in a number of treaties, including the above-mentioned Paris Treaty of 1856, but also by the League of Nation decision of 1921 (expanding the demilitarisation to include surrounding waters), and the treaties with the Soviet Union following the Winter and Continuation Wars. Col. (ret.) Anders Gardberg has written a study on the islands, including the legal aspects, found here. The questions it deals with are largely unchanged over time, keeping the 20 year old paper highly relevant. Of note is that the 1921 Convention allows for Finland to, if “‘exceptional circumstances demand’ send into the zone and keep there temporarily such armed forces that are ‘strictly necessary for the maintenance of order'” (as quoted in Gardberg’s paper). A piece of interesting trivia is that unlike what is often stated, the inhabitants of the islands can actually be called up for conscript duty, but only in the Pilot- and Lighthouse authority. This in turn was quickly disbanded and turned into the Finnish Maritime Administration following Finnish independence, making this something of a moot point…
If we however leave the legal fine print aside, and accept the fact that there is currently nothing that points towards the Finnish politicians mustering the willpower to let the needs of the defense of this strategic area prevail over the political inertia of status quo and significant local (and Russian) opposition to an even partial re-militarisation, the question appears how much of a problem this really is?
There is little doubt that today there exists plans for the Navy to conduct a updated version of the WWII-era Operation Regatta, wherein a naval convoy at the outbreak of hostilities quickly shipped the necessary forces to the Åland Islands.
The problem, as is generally the case with the Finnish Defence Forces, is that the number of standing marine units (not counting the ships) ready to intervene at a short notice is negligible. In practice, this means that for Operation Regatta 2.0 to succeed, the crises needs to have escalated over time to the extent that a mobilisation of reservists have been initiated, and the first act of hostilities need to be something else than a ro-ro vessel heading out of St Petersburg suddenly altering its course and unloading a reinforced mechanised battalion in Mariehamn. The absolute nightmare is a coordinated surprise assault by sea and air, allowing rapid transfer of a brigade (or possibly even a reinforce one) to occupy the Åland mainland, something which could easily come out of one of the Russian snap exercises. This would be extremely hard to dislodge, and would effectively cut off Finland from the rest of world, with regards to both military room to manoeuvre and the flow of vital goods such as food and fuel for the society as a whole. This would either require Finland to give in to any demands placed by the Kremlin, let the Finnish society literally starve, or defeat the Russian force on the battlefield.
The later need not necessarily be by a frontal assault. The major difference between Gotland and Åland is that the former is a largely continuous landmass, while the latter is made up by 6,700 named (and a further 13,000 unnamed) islands and skerries. The archipelago is a battlefield unlike any other. It is virtually impossible to control all islands, leading to the forces being grouped on the ones deemed strategically important from where they can then extend zones of control over the lesser ones. Naturally, this calls for a very delicate balance between overextending and leaving gaps in the defence. As any kind of retreat or bringing in of reinforcements during an ongoing fight is extremely hazardous, operations are usually characterised by swift and determined assaults where the attacker tries to throw the defender into the sea by asserting man- and firepower superiority. If the first attack fails, the only option left is usually to try and withdraw under fire. The Hanko campaign of 1941 is probably the best historical case study to shine light on the dilemmas.
The issue for any Russian troops sitting on Åland is that they are too few to hold all major entryways at any given point. This would be the case even if this was the single main offensive operation in the Baltic Sea region, which would in turn mean that the occupiers would include the 336. Marine Brigade and the 76. Air Assault Division in Pskov (note that this is an understrength divsion). Any Russian occupation would still leave potential weak spots which would allow Finnish coastal jaegers and special forces to set up their own position in close vicinity to the Russian positions.
Finnish marine forces in action
In case the conflict started according to the Crimea-blueprint, where the Russians have deployed forces to protect their (shipping) interests in the area but the different forces aren’t actually shooting at each other, the Finnish troops could theoretically play to the strengths provided by their supply lines being short and well-protected, and create a counter-siege where the occupiers are cut off from the Russian supply bases in the St Petersburg area and the Kaliningrad exclave. This would force the Russians to either escalate the conflict into a real shooting war (one in which they have lost the element of surprise and would clearly be the attacker) or back down. If the shooting war is already a fact, the ability to use long-range anti-shipping missiles from the mainland’s archipelago and light infantry units to operate in the Åland archipelago in hit-and-run attacks and as spotters would create a race to the bottom, where both Finland and the occupying force are under siege, and the question is which one breaks faster.
However, even if the possibility of bouncing back from a strategic surprise is there, this is dependent upon the Finnish government exhibiting the required determination to realise the strategic importance of the islands and put up a fight to defend these. Sadly, this is the single part of the whole Åland question which I feel is questionable.