Åland | The Unarmed Finnish Islands that Russia is Watching

Åland | The Unarmed Finnish Islands that Russia is Watching

hi there i’m going to tell you a story about the ocean geopolitics and the wars that were fought over the islands of peace [Music] it’s also a story about the next baltic war which is a war i hope never becomes a reality this world of ours is mostly neatly divided by borders and the states and areas inside those borders are mostly guarded by some form of armed forces but there are exceptions of course demilitarized zones are areas where no form of armed forces are allowed to operate based on international agreements one such area is found here in finland for the past century the islands of orland have been a demilitarized and politically autonomous part of finland this isn’t because there’s anything special about the islands themselves you’ll find no oil nor natural gas there like most island folk around the world all landers make a living off of trade sea traffic tourism and fishing but there is one thing that makes holland special and that is location the main island of holland lies at the exact equidistant point between the important harbor city of turku in finland and stockholm the capital city of sweden this makes holland a geopolitically significant piece of real estate whoever has a military force on the islands holds a knife to the throat of every other country in the region together with sweden’s gotland and denmark’s bourne hall orland forms a chain of strategic locations that can control all of the marine sea traffic in the baltic sea all and also acts as a stop gap for the gulf of bothnia meaning that whoever controls all land controls or sea traffic to much of the swedish and finnish coastlines international agreements guarantee not just orland’s demilitarization but also its neutrality meaning that it is intended to be kept out of any military conflict in the area it is here where olan gets its nickname the islands of peace all landers themselves are fiercely protective of their special status whenever the subject is brought up and so far finland has been happy to keep its words and act as the guardian of this neutrality but how did we get here the story starts in the age of sail when finland was nothing more than the easternmost part of the kingdom of sweden which was locked in perpetual rivalry with imperial russia to the east near the dawn of the 19th century russia invaded sweden’s eastern reaches in the finnish war the region was annexed into russia as the grand duchy of finland along with the islands of holland sweden failed to get the provision in the peace agreement stipulating that the islands not be fortified russia was poised to control the baltic sea [Music] bowmerson fortress a piece of which you can see behind me here used to be the westernmost vanguard of the great and powerful russian empire or so it was intended the fortress was planned to house thousands of soldiers but it was never finished it was destroyed by a combined british and french assault force which destroyed it almost to a brick this happened during what we in finland call the holland war which was in fact the northern naval theater of the greater crimean war it might sound odd that the crimean war was waged in the baltic sea after all the distance between orland and the crimean peninsula is nearly 2 000 kilometers spanning the length of continental europe the allied naval force of britain and france sought to sever the northern supply routes of russia besides holland the war was fought along the coast of finland its people ravaged by cannon fire russia was defeated but finnish civilians paid the price [Music] yes [Music] in the paris peace deal of 1856 the war’s victors stipulated that russia would never again build fortifications on the islands and so it remained until the first world war after the war holland was for a while contested territory sweden wanted the islands for themselves and the swedish speaking allenders agreed the issue eventually made it to the table of the newly formed league of nations predecessor to the u.n they decided that orlan should be made into a demilitarized and autonomous part of the new state of finland the agreement was signed by 10 countries but one very pertinent country was missing from the table soviet russia newly emerged from the ashes of the russian empire the country that would soon serve as the foundation of the soviet union less than two decades later the soviet union invaded finland in the winter war and later finland invaded the soviet union during world war ii during wartime holland was fortified and the ocean passages mined finland lost both of its wars and had to accept the terms set by the soviets some of which involved orlando the status of all land was as a demilitarized region was agreed on by finland and the soviet union but the soviets set a special little caveat they would have the right to maintain a consulate in the region for the purpose of monitoring the demilitarization of the islands the consulate remains there to this day though the country that created it is long gone [Music] is [Music] oh [Music] [Applause] [Music] [Applause] [Music] i’m standing here in mariah olan’s city center and behind me almost hiding behind those trees and the iron fence you can see the consulate of russia it has a little enough reason to actually be here there aren’t that many russian travelers in these parts of the country and even the few that are here can handle their matters in the consulate in turku know the real reason it is here is to monitor the demilitarized status of the holland archipelago and thus project russia’s power here to these islands think about how unusual that is few sovereign nations would allow a foreign power to monitor their own area in such a military political way yet here russia remains as a holdover from the second world war during our visit the consulate was apparently closed for the summer but it doesn’t much look like a welcoming place to curious visitors even when it’s open the small compound is surrounded by a discouraging fence and several security cameras keep a watchful eye over the compound much like russia keeps its watchful eyes on the islands of holland but while times have changed orlan’s location has not control of these islands would be as important in a future baltic war as it was in the past once finland finds itself in a difficult position it has a duty to protect the islands or at least their neutrality but it is forbidden from preparing for such a conflict during peace time finland legally can’t hold military exercises on the orland islands though they can fly over the islands the finnish air force’s planes can’t land there unless they’re in dire emergency and the number and size of military ships around the islands is restricted holland is by law defenseless during peace time which makes it difficult for finland to mount a defense in the event of a sudden war the islands could be claimed by even a small armed force without firing a single shot as long as they get there first this brings us back to crimea in 2014 russia’s unmarked soldiers took over crimea so quickly that hardly anyone had time to react they found themselves against impossible odds if they tried to defend crimea they’d have to invade an area controlled by russia obviously they didn’t and the peninsula remains in russian hands to this day now crimea actually had a ukrainian military presence but it wasn’t enough to stop russia i can’t help but wonder how this would play out on orlando the demilitarized nature of the islands means that an invading force always has the advantage on paper finland may be ready to defend all and at all costs but how would it go if keeping that promise meant that finland would have to mount a naval invasion of an island occupied by russia would the finnish armed forces built around waging a defensive war even be able to carry out such an operation and what if russia had taken over the islands without any actual violence would finland be ready to fire the first shot and how long would it take for finland to reach a decision on the matter with every passing day in such a crisis a counter-attack would become more difficult as the enemy becomes more entrenched and what would sweden do the closest orland island is a little over 20 kilometers from the swedish coastline would sweden be willing to go to war against russia to protect finnish islands gentle pacifist sweden that hasn’t had a war against another state in over 200 years who’s to say finland and sweden aren’t members of nato so in such a baltic war they would in theory stand alone though in any baltic war nato would likely be involved in some way as the nato members estonia lithuania and latvia would surely be involved [Music] a problem for holland is that in recent years the border separating war and peace have become blurrier than ever especially when it comes to russia our eastern neighbor wages an information war on all fronts and runs campaigns of cyber warfare espionage and even assassination across europe even in times of ostensible peace if this kind of shadow war grows stronger will finland be able to react in time to mount the defense of all and before actual bullets are fired i don’t know fortunately for finland and holland poland doesn’t have a large russian-speaking minority whose interest russia could defend all and also isn’t connected to mainland russia so a similar ploy to what happened in crimea is unlikely to work there can only hope that finland will be able to react in time before a threat becomes a crisis historically poland’s demilitarization and neutral status have always vanished in the event of an actual war it seems to me unlikely that things would go any differently in a new baltic war let us hope that these theories remain untested [Music] you
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Åland | The Unarmed Finnish Islands that Russia is Watching

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