The demilitarisation of the Åland Islands is (again) a hot topic. There are a number of misconceptions regarding the demilitarisation itself and the potential military threat. Let me therefore be very clear: yes, there is some geostrategic value to the islands, but despite this, the question of how to defend the demilitarised islands is first and foremost one of ethics, moral duty, and politics. From a (purely) military point of view, the issue is in fact rather manageable for the time being.
Acknowledging that this runs counter to much of the discussion so far, it need to be stated that several of the individual parts in the traditional picture painted are indeed correct – included the fact that whoever controls the islands controls much of the northern Baltic Sea and can isolate Finland, that a surprise operation through an air transport or two loaded with paratroopers suddenly veering away from the St Petersburg – Kaliningrad run is difficult to stop, as well as the fact that retaking an archipelago is generally much harder than defending it. However, that overlook the basic issue that the three factors above does not combine as the world looks today or for the foreseeable future.
Åland is made up by 6,700 named (and a further 13,000 unnamed) islands. You obviously would not need to put people on all of them to control the whole archipelago, but there is a significant number of locations you will need to physically man to actually secure the Åland Islands in the way needed to exert sea control (or just create a level of sea denial) over the norther Baltic Sea and the sea lanes into Finnish ports or Stockholm. To properly defend an archipelago, it is also key to be able to quickly shift defenders from one location to another to meet enemy offensives, meaning an invader on Åland would need to bring either helicopters or small fast craft – preferably both. A good example is the Finnish experience in the face of Soviet raids and tactical offensives coming out of the strategically defensive Hanko (Gangut) naval base in the summer of 1941, where the attacker choosing the field of battle – which being an island was geographically limited – meant that the attacker could more or less always rely on numerical superiority and a successful defence usually rested on the ability to quickly reinforce the battlefield under fire.
So what would happen if a Russian force suddenly decided to steer away from what looked like an ordinary supply run and enter Finnish airspace or territorial waters? There is indeed a chance that they would be able to reach Mariehamn before the FDF has opened fire, in particular in the case of a scenario like a civilian airliner suddenly squawking an emergency and altering course. However, even here the thinking flourishing on social media and in newspapers is somewhat misguided as it usually overlooks the role of both intelligence and QRA/readiness-work. Would an invasion come as a complete surprise? Possibly, but we also know that the FDF is continually adjusting readiness levels in response to Russian movements. If a large Russian convoy was sailing in the Baltic Sea there would be a measured response in Finnish naval readiness, likely including vessels with anti-ship missiles lurking the shadows of the southwestern archipelago.
And here’s the catch which often get overlooked: the larger the first wave the less likely a strategic surprise is. Sure, history has seen some spectacular failures of readiness and as Ukraine has demonstrated knowing when to mobilise reserves is a surprisingly difficult decision, but let’s go back to the point made above.
Actually occupying Åland in a meaningful way in which you are able to do something militarily useful with it will require a significant amount of forces, far more than any emergency-squawking airliner will bring in. And in a difficult balancing act as soon as you start loading your air transports or landing craft with the fast craft needed to be able to shift around reinforcements, the long-range weapon systems to provide air defences and anti-shipping capabilities, and the logistics train to ensure that the troops and systems are able to function you are also looking at a serious decline in the number of troops even a Russian all-out amphibious or airlift effort could bring in.
And then we are looking at what would happen after the invasion. Finland could quickly start to make life rather miserable for the occupiers by cutting of their lines of supply and striking locations that aren’t properly defended in an island-hopping campaign inching ever closer to the main islands while all the time forcing Russia to spend ammunition and resources they can’t replace. With Sweden in NATO securing the west and southwestern approaches the Russian situation would look even grimmer, and the Russians trying to bring in enough heavy firepower to keep the Finnish (and Swedish) navies and air forces at bay would mean even fewer forces to reinforce the outer islands being targeted by the Finnish (and Swedish) marines.
In short, a Russian invasion of Åland would quickly turn into a wetter and colder version of Điện Biên Phủ
That is from a purely military point of view. A Russian invasion of Åland within the next decade or so would almost certainly be little more than a nuisance that would be over within a month or two. Compared to several other possible scenarios, Åland is not among the most serious ones.
However, going for the purely military scenario might not be politically or ethically doable. There is a sizeable number of people living in Åland. These are Finnish citizens, peacefully going about with their lives. To leave them under Russian occupation even for a limited time is a difficult moral choice, as that would mean leaving them to suffer through the scenes witnessed throughout Central and Eastern Europe in the late 40’s and Ukraine during the ongoing war. Besides the looting, raping, and killings, it’s evident that once supplies would start running low the last meal and drops of fuel on the island would not go to the civilian population but rather to the invaders.
As such, while not necessarily called for from a strictly military point of view, from a humanitarian point of view ensuring that own forces deny the enemy an easy entry certainly can be seen as the proper course of action. Here we run into the question of demilitarisation, but it also needs to be acknowledged that the legal situation is far more complex than often claimed, with the different treaties (1856, 1921, 1940, 1947, 1991) containing different wordings and restrictions, which might or might not be relevant today depending on who you ask. Crucial is that Finland is responsible for the defence, and under that Finland is able to take a number of steps to ensure the mission can be performed. So far Finland has decided not to e.g. declare that an enhanced forward presence on the islands are warranted. Would Finland legally be able to do so? The harsh answer is that it really doesn’t matter. If a sovereign country opts to state that something is their interpretation of the legal documents they’ve signed it is really difficult for any country thinking otherwise to do anything about it, especially if that country happens to be an international pariah involved in a war of aggression, and something along the lines of temporary rotations of a readiness unit into the island is close enough to the literal wording of the treaties that Finland could get away with it (especially considering that the parties involved in addition to Russia largely consist of our closest partners).
The big issue here is the islanders themselves. I will hazard a guess that I am among the majority of Finns in that while the handful of islanders I’ve met have seen like decent enough people, the current behaviour of their political leadership and certain other highly vocal persons are making it look like the islands are inhabited by a bunch of spoiled brats who demand that the mainlanders will come and save them in case of war, but won’t take any part in aiding in that operation or even allowing the FDF to make any preparations to be able to do so. While I and countless of others are prepared to pull on the uniform and risk our lives to defend the homes of our families and those of our fellow citizens, it certainly feels nicer to do so when there is an understanding that these fellow citizens aren’t actively working against us being able to do so as safely and efficiently as possible – my personal goal is after all to be able to return home unhurt to my family after the war. If some ungrateful fellow isn’t going to take part in the defence, I can live with that – there is a bunch of non-military tasks needed to keep society running after all. But if that ungrateful fellow says I can’t prepare properly, leaving me with less of a chance to successfully get home safe and sound, I will admit that my interest in risking life and limb is somewhat diminished. This strange situation where the political leadership of Åland really should be the ones begging FDF to maintain a presence there to avoid unnecessary suffering among their fellow islanders and instead they make themselves look like naive jerks is in honesty somewhat confusing.