The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Finland begins building 10-foot-high razor-wire wall along Russian border

The construction of a border fence in Imatra, Finland. (Finnish Border Guard)
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Finnish authorities are chopping down trees along the country’s snowy Russian border, making way for a 124-mile-long fence, 10 feet high and topped with barbed wire, that the government has started installing because it says it “cannot rely” on Moscow to maintain border security.

The construction is part of a colossal effort by Finland and four other nations to fence off the European Union from Russia and its ally Belarus that has accelerated since the invasion of Ukraine a year ago.

The prospect of a physical border dividing the European continent is evocative of the Iron Curtain, the 4,300-mile-long collection of barriers, including the Berlin Wall, that divided the communist East and capitalist West during the Cold War.

The new fencing could be seen as a “barbed-wire curtain,” said Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — all E.U. countries — have each cited concerns that foreign governments, identified by some as Russia and Belarus, are permitting immigrants to illegally cross their borders, or could do so in the future.

Many of the fencing plans were unveiled after Belarus retaliated against E.U. sanctions in 2021 by inviting immigrants to fly in and then pushing them to cross illegally into neighboring countries.

The construction efforts have accelerated since Russia’s invasion over fears that Russia, too, could seek to use illegal border crossings to destabilize the E.U., which has welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees.

“In the assessment of the Finnish Border Guard, the changed security environment has made it necessary to construct a barrier fence along part of the eastern border,” Ismo Kurki, project manager for the eastern border barrier fence, said in an interview Wednesday. The fencing was first announced in September.

Finland shares an 832-mile border with Russia, the largest of any E.U. country, but the government has said that it was “not a sensible option” to build fencing along the entire expanse.

Finnish border officials said they hoped that by the time the $404 million barrier is completed in 2026, it will span 15 percent of the border with Russia — concentrated primarily in southeast areas around existing crossing points.

The barrier is intended to prevent large numbers of migrants from trying to cross the border illegally from Russia in a short space of time, including in situations where crossings might be encouraged by foreign authorities, Finnish officials said.

In September, Finland announced restrictions on Russian nationals entering the country after the Kremlin announced a “partial military mobilization,” although Kurki said current traffic levels at Finnish-Russian border crossings are low.

“A physical barrier fence is essential in situations of widespread immigration, where it serves to slow down and guide the movements of any crowds that form,” Finland’s Border Guard said on its website. “Even if people skirt the fence, it still fulfills its task by slowing down illegal entry and helping the authorities to manage the situation.”

In addition to the fence, authorities are installing an adjacent road for patrol vehicles and a camera surveillance system.

At center of Europe’s migrant crisis, tales of how Belarus clears the way — and punishes ‘pawns’ sent back

In 2021, Poland and the three Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — issued a joint statement accusing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of deliberately sending migrants across the E.U.’s eastern border as part of a “hybrid war” in retaliation against the bloc’s punitive sanctions targeting his regime.

At the time, more than a dozen migrants told The Washington Post that Belarusian border guards had helped them through the border fence and into Poland. They described Belarusian forces pulling down or cutting through barbed wire and shuttling migrants all along the 250-mile border — now heavily guarded and fortified by Poland — to find the best places to cross.

In 2021, Latvia announced it was building a fence along the Belarusian border. Lithuania began construction of its own fence with Belarus, and Estonia accelerated plans to build fencing along its Russian border — an effort originally announced three years earlier.

In November, Poland announced plans to build eight-foot-high razor-wire fencing along its border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to prevent illegal crossings. Last week, Polish Deputy Prime Minister Mariusz Blaszczak shared images of some of the fortifications that had been installed.

“In 1989, the Berlin Wall was dismantled and this paved the way for an aspiration that Europe could think of its borders as friction-free,” said Dodds, the geopolitics professor. Now, three decades later, he said, hard borders are reemerging — this time against a bellicose Russia and its ally Belarus.

“Barbed-wire fencing, drones and surveillance cameras are being put to work,” he said. “Europe is fortifying.”

Loveday Morris contributed to this report.