EITHERna sunny spring morning, few places can feel as peaceful as Lappeenranta, a small Finnish border city set on one of Europe’s biggest lakes. Yet the scenic views are disappointing – for the city’s 70,000 inhabitants, the mood has suddenly soured.
“I have always felt very safe growing up here, but since the war that has somewhat changed,” said Noora Ikonen, a local barista. “I catch myself feeling anxious.”
The war she refers to is being fought nearly 1,000 miles away in Ukraine. But Finland shares an 830-mile land border with Russia and Lappeenranta is only 19 miles from the frontier – closer to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s home city of St Petersburg than to the Finnish capital, Helsinki.
“Naturally, locals here are concerned and worried. We were all shocked when Russia invaded the Ukraine. We were used to working and living alongside Russians, ”the city’s longtime mayor, Kimmo Jarva, said on Wednesday from his office overlooking the frozen bay on the Saimaa lake.
After the Soviet Union’s fall, Lappeenranta epitomized Finland’s pragmatic relationship with Russia, which centered around developing business relations with Moscow while successive Finnish leaders maintained dialogue with Putin.
Jarva estimated that 1.5 million Russians visited the city every year pre-pandemic, bringing in millions of euros in revenue, with some shops specifically catering to them. Lappeenranta also established its own office in St Petersburg and marketed itself to tourists in the west as a “gateway” to Russia.
“We were always open to working with Russians. But everything changed after the war,” Jarva said.
Very few cars now embark on the highway leading to the Finnish-Russian border as the two countries have practically banned all private and commercial traffic from entering each other’s territories.
“This city has now chosen a different path. There will be no way back,” Jarva said.
That path might soon lead to Finland, and neighboring Sweden, joining the Nato military alliance, in what would be a historic policy shift for the two northern European states. The decision is considered critical, especially as Ukraine’s possible future membership of Nato was used as a key reason by Moscow for the invasion.
On Wednesday, Finland’s parliament started discussing a government report outlining the implications and risks of Nato membership, marking the symbolic beginning of the official debate on a potential application to join the defensive block.
Officials have already indicated that they do not expect a lengthy debate, with the Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, saying last week that her country would decide whether to apply “quite fast, in weeks not months”.
Ikonen, the barista, said that she fully backed joining Nato, and her sentiment is echoed by others on the city’s streets.
Just five years ago, Ikonen’s support would have placed her among the minority in Finland, with polls showing that only 21% of the population backed joining the alliance, a figure that did not fluctuate much for decades.
However, the invasion of Ukraine has led to a tectonic shift in public opinion towards the bloc that could result in Nato forces being stationed on Russia’s extensive north-western border.
“Finland decided it wanted to join Nato on 24 February at 5am when Russian forces went into Ukraine,” former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb said.
In polls taken after the invasion, roughly 60% of Finns said they would favor applying to join Nato, a figure Stubb expects to only grow in the coming weeks.
“If Russia is ready to slaughter their Slavic brothers in Ukraine, why would it not do the same thing with Finland? Many Finns woke up and said: ‘Enough! Now it is time to join Nato,’” Stubb added.
Himself a longtime Nato advocate, Stubb argued it was only natural that Finns had changed their stance in response to Russia’s actions.
Finns are very rational, pragmatic people. They adjust their opinion as the circumstances change. Now people have realized Russia is an unpredictable and isolated aggressor.”
The speed with which views have changed has, however, surprised even those watching Finnish politics closely.
“No one I know can think of anything remotely similar in Finnish history where public opinion has changed so quickly, so radically,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a security expert at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
“We thought it would be the political elites that would push for Nato, but it is the opposite. The Finns themselves have chosen this path,” he said.
Experts argue that Finland’s current sentiments are rooted in its own war with Moscow, which has echoes of the invasion of Ukraine. In 1939-40, the grueling Winter War resulted in Finland conceding a large part of its territory to the Soviet Union, including the city of Vyborg, only a 30-minute train ride from Lappeenranta.
“The solidarity with Ukraine is huge. We are seeing a lot of comparison between Ukraine and the Winter War in the media, in public debates,” said Arkady Moshes of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
According to Moshes, many Finns “instinctively turn to stories” of the Winter War when they see Ukraine fighting a bigger, more powerful neighbor on their own.
“Finns aren’t very open about their emotions, but what is happening in Ukraine has brought up sentiments that seemed to have been kept inside for decades,” Moses said.
A recent poll showed that 84% of Finns now believe that Russia poses a significant military threat.
“My generation didn’t experience any wars, but my parents and grandparents were forced to flee to the west of the country during the war with the Soviets,” said Heli Pukki, the owner of an art shop in Lappeenranta.
“But we were brought up with their experiences, we carried them in our hearts.”
Pukki said she did not feel any hate toward Russians and would always “happily welcome” them in her shop, but the war in Ukraine changed something overnight.
“This is the first time in my life that I started thinking about my safety, about my peaceful life here. We always knew that we had this big country on our border, but now it feels like something is really boiling there, the country not moving in the right direction. No one knows what will happen next,” she said.
Russia has warned Finland and Sweden against joining Nato, saying the move would destabilize Europe.
Last week, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev issued the country’s strongest threat yet, warning that Russia would have to strengthen its land, naval and air forces in the Baltic Sea if Finland and Sweden join Nato. Medvedev also raised the nuclear threat by warning that there could be no more talk of a “nuclear-free” Baltic – where Russia has its Kaliningrad exclave between Poland and Lithuania.
But while locals expressed some concern about possible Russian reactions to the country’s plans to join Nato, Finnish experts and officials have urged calm, saying their country is prepared for any aggression.
“The nuclear threat is nothing new,” said Stubb, pointing to reports that Russia is already keeping nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad.
“We expect more Russian cyber-attacks and airspace violations. But we have been preparing for this for a long time,” he said.
Stubb and other analysts dismissed the possibility that Russia would be able to threaten Finland militarily in the near future.
“Russia can’t fight on two fronts, and they would be facing one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world. As always, we remain calm, cool and collected. We know what we are doing,” the former prime minister said.
Finland has maintained strong defense spending over the last 30 years while the rest of Europe has largely made cuts. The Nordic state is also one of the few European countries to have retained military conscription, and almost a third of its adult population are reservists.
Lappeenranta’s elder, Jarva, similarly said he did not expect any military threats coming out of Moscow, adding the border has “never been quieter”.
Nevertheless, he said his city had thoroughly checked all its bomb shelters shortly after the start of Russia’s invasion.
“This is what we always do, we stay prepared. The war just makes us a bit more motivated to do so.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism