The non-military issue of Åland

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.

There is exactly two countries able to do prolonged military fighting in the archipelago of Åland without running into a logistical nightmare. Of these, one of them is Sweden, and I trust they won’t do anything stupid. Here the Finnish-speaking Coastal Brigade advances during an exercise, a unit that certainly would be able to provide interesting capabilities to any fight over the islands. Source: Merivoimat FB

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.

An S-300 TEL with four missiles going to Syria back in 2015. If you plan on using these to defend your invasion of Åland, I hope you choose when to fire them carefully, because four shots won’t last long and those already meant you sacrificed quite a few potential soldiers that otherwise could have fit inside that transport. Source: Russian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

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).

If called upon, I have little doubt that the Finnish reservists would fight to liberate Åland the same as they would any other region. But the fact remain that the current media discussion is painting a picture of Åland standing out as the only region whose inhabitants are ungrateful for the FDF wanting to be able to do so with as few losses as possible, and that is in addition to the islanders already being the only ones not directly taking part in the military defence of the country. Source: Merivoimat FB

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.

15 thoughts on “The non-military issue of Åland

  1. I would assume the attitude of the Ålanders comes from their cultural and linguistic ties to Sweden. A much more pacifistic, idealistic and (in my opinion) naive people.
    The Ålanders get their news, narrative and political views primarily from the western neighbor that broadcasts more content in their language and most of them don’t know any Finnish to even get a more balanced perspective on matters.

    I notice the same trend among us Swedish speakers on the mainland. Many are much more connected to the Swedish perspective of events than they are the Finnish one. It’s not nearly as extreme as in the case of the Ålanders since mainlanders usually know Finnish and get some influence from that direction as well.

    1. No I think it is an active choice from the Ålanders. They are not dumber than the average Finn. They know what is going on in the world. And can they not speak English too? They have the Internet, don’t they?

      I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago. It was Sveriges Fontänhus Rikskonferens. The Ålanders were represented there despite them being in the Finnish sphere of influence. It was of their own choice. Still I hope the Ålanders are super realistic and that they know who is going to defend them on the ground. But you Finns don’t have any submarines for instance.

      1. It’s not about being dumb. It’s about nature and nurture, what you’re brought up to believe and what those surrounding you think and believe.
        Swedes and Finns are similar in most things but in security matters we have been thinking quite differently and the Ålanders have been more like Swedes than Finns on these matters as their connection is closer to Sweden than it is to Finland.

        Knowing English does not mean you go out of your way follow English language Finnish news. If you know Swedish but not Finnish and live right between the 2 countries, you will watch Swedish news and have a much closer connection to that country in mind and spirit.

      2. With that way of reasoning, albeit there is some truth to it, but I and many others in Sweden would have been closer connected to our own country’s politics in mind and spirit. But I have been fighting for a stronger defense for the whole of my 56 year life, and so have many other Swedes been doing. We are not so few, but not in the majority population.

      3. Yes, and there are also individuals who are as pacifistic as any Swede here in Finland, but they’re also in a minority as we’ve grown up learning that we’re under a real and constant threat, even if it has been dormant in recent decades.
        Finns have always known one thing, Russia eventually rises again and comes back. Sooner or later there is another battle that has to be fought. Peace is not eternal.

        No generalization applies to an entire population. Generalizations only deal with which way the scale is leaning.

  2. Andreas

    Quite a good article, but I would like to weigh in with a few points.

    1. Finland is a conservative mono-culture country, we can see it from as diverse areas as the de-facto monopoly of groceries (yes there are basically only two actors in Finland) to the strong adversity towards Swedish or Sami languages. Finland as a state and also many civil servants actively works against the Swedish culture in Finland in general and the Åland autonomy specifically. This can be seen in any try from Åland to develop its autonomy in basically any way or in large administrative changes on the mainland where Åland needs are consequently ignored, either as too expensive or unnecessary. This is even clearer if comparing towards e.g. the autonomies of Greenland or the Faroe Islands which are allowed to develop on their own pace.

    If this is based on fear that Finnish culture would diminish if the Åland could develop, or the frequently used (and de-bunked) “misconception” that Åland would be a economically draining part of Finland, when the fact is the opposite I don’t know, but it is there.

    This does not create a general trust that initiatives from mainland would be beneficial for Åland.

    2. How do you know what people here think, except what one politician have said. People are talking about Hemvärn, about civil service, like in the cost guard or similar. People want to contribute in general. Also the people who voluntarily do military service from Åland, they are not in any way perceived negatively in our society, rather the opposite. Many also have grand parents who served in the war.

    I think also generally military service would be acceptable if the Swedish language is taken into consideration. The archipelago knowledge and boating skills would contribute.

    3. We have not been part of deciding that Åland should be demilitarised, but it has for a century been ingrained in our culture, that is not easy to change over night. Åland has nothing to do with foreign policy or the treaties governing this, is it official Åland alone who should be vocal about this, why not then the president or the PM?

    4. Also fear is there , naturally, what is safest to trust the FDF to preemptively being able to avert any invasion attempt, or having a military installation as a neighbor in the age of cruise missiles?

    All in all, instead of Finland starting a dialogue and plan with Åland jointly, also in public o about this big topic, immediately there is a blaming and shaming.

    In a civilized society there is trust, also for minority cultures to grow, Åland is ready to do it’s part in my opinion and not so naive as it may sound, but there is a need for communication and trust.

    1. Svekomania

      People of Åland have a very bad attitude towards their own Finnish speaking minority and also to all other Finns, racistic so to speak. Sweden would not offer you as much independence and money as Finland do now – and you know it.

      Putin will come, sooner or later – and it is up to you if you want your own “Bucha” or not. Or do you really think you can trust Putin?

      Though if Finnish speaking soldiers ends up defending “your” island from Russia’s aggression – everybody knows already that people of Åland will have zero respect to those defenders, even if they die when defending you. But that is the way it is and has always been.

    2. As a Swedish-speaking Finn who didn’t learn Finnish until in school, I most certainly do not recognise that Finland as a state or civil servants would work against my language or culture (as a side-note, my personal experience is that regional cultural differences in Finland are in many locations at least as strong as language ones). E.g. my military service did take place in Swedish, so I don’t get that argument (I had in fact an NCO from Åland in another platoon on the company during my time).

      I also noted in the text that my insight into opinion on the ground in Åland is limited, and that this is based on the picture painted by the local politicians speaking to media.

    3. Kent

      4. Russia barely bombs military installations. What you should be afraid of is living next to a school or hospital.

    4. EMK

      Funny.

      1. You obviously don’t know a thing about the mainland and its culture(s). People here at the mainland may have their prejudices, but you’re pretty arrogant in your assumption that you have none.

      I have never ever met a single person, who thinks that Swedish speaking culture(s), on the mainland or Åland, somehow threats Finnish culture(s) or diminishes it. But I know many people who think the opposite is the case, yours truly included.

      2. Well then, if people there are willing to contribute, your politicians certainly do not share that willingness. Maybe the popular support for contributing ain’t that large after all? If if would be, surely your politicians would have more flexible attitude towards it, right?

      3. World changes. By resorting to history and culture you’re making excuses to justify your willful blindness. Russia does not care about your history or culture. If they decide it’s in their interest to invade Åland, they don’t change their plans just because you want to pose as a harmless sheep. Quite the opposite. Your naivete makes it just a little bit easier for them.

      4. What makes you think Russia will bomb and shell military facilities only? Haven’t you read news lately? Schools, hospitals, malls, day-care centers, residential areas, parks and play-grounds have been hit all over Ukraine. Why do you think you’d be an exception? Because you do not mean harm to anyone?

      In your conclusion you even suggest that Finland is not civilized society because you haven’t got everything you want. You shame and blame while calling for trust and communication.

      I am not claiming people (especially politicians and civil servants) on the mainland haven’t done any mistakes or behaved arrogantly / dismissive. They could do better, for sure. But maybe, just maybe, you could also take a look in to mirror and ponder if your attitudes and prejudices also might have something to do with it.

  3. Peter Sundblom

    As an Ålander, who did volountary service in Uud.Pr, i understand the feelings stirred up from the comments of our politicians. And the unwillingness from local media to bring this up. Very unfortunate.
    Of course, one draws to likeminded people, no one i know have a naive mindset about the situation. Nor do they oppose troops on the island, like right now. And i would say from comments on large soc.med. groups, the ones opposing are a minority. Though we have the clumsy politicians we voted in right now, even they know better, but are totally out of tune.

    A lot of people are right now working on support from mainland to get MPK courses to Åland, and a reservist Ass. is in the making. Unfortunately, MPK is stopped by ministry of defence to hold any courses here. Why i dont know.
    We´ll see about the Res. Ass. a lot of people here hopes for that. Also ppl that don´t have a military education. The defence will is strong among Ålanders, but right now we have problems doing anything about it.

    A sidenote; Ål have the most guns/capita in FI, and if something goes southways, i have hard to belive that the russians would be unopposed. For real.

    Kind regards P

  4. Snake

    Well if any comfort: Population attitude is not equal to political attitude..
    Something that needs clarification is that the local politicians do not decide anything when it comes to the affairs of Finnish national security. Unfortunatly they do express their opinion..

  5. Syltty

    When Swe ans Fin in Nato, this does not seem as urgent as before. Is there any prospects for a success in Nato controlled Baltic sea? When Fin is in firmly at Nato, that possibility that we would just be too scared to do anything, is zero.

  6. SomeSwede

    Is it not more likely that Russia would simply attack Finland along the border, considering that such a military attack would essentially stop any potential entry into NATO, since a nation applying to NATO must be at peace, and this military attack would not have to be a full scale invasion, but merely a limited occupation of a relatively small area of land, and would still serve to fulfill Russian strategic goals, in a similar way the Russians could attack the Swedish island of Gotland, and essentially stop Swedish entry to NATO.

    And if such an attack were to take place, and NATO would still allow the application to proceed, how many parliaments of those 30 current members would be willing to vote in favor of what could be seen as a declaration of war on Russia?

    What has been bandied about in the media as some kind of war guarantee by the UK is nothing of the sort, the “declaration of solidarity” literally states that it is not binding under international law, and for war guarantees to be made, the parliament (or congress in case of the US) has to vote on the matter for it to become law, and as such binding.

    So as far as I understand the situation, were Russia to attack Sweden and Finland, no other nation would militarily intercede on our behalf, but we would at best receive the same sort of support as Ukraine, and even that is doubtful due to the possibility that most of the supplies that could have been sent have already gone to Ukraine.

    I personally see no reason why Russia would avoid militarily intervening.

  7. Syltty

    ” I personally see no reason why Russia would avoid militarily intervening.”

    Ofcourse they avoid it, b/c they can’t win. Their army is already overstretched in Ukraine and stsrting a war with Finland & Sweden would be very risky. Both countries are in EU, so military aid floodgates would be instantly opened and sanctions would be all-in. Also this could spark western intervention ”Putin has to be stopped”

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