VAINIKKALA, Finland – At the station in this small village, where the rail link between Finland’s capital Helsinki and Russia’s northern metropolis, St. Petersburg, crosses the border, all was quiet.
The high-speed train service, known as the Allegro, which for years passed here four times a day carrying hundreds of passengers back and forth, had been suspended. In the train-side restaurant, border guards rather than international travelers made up what was left of the rush hour.
“It’s a nightmare,” Ville Laihia, the owner’s son, said from behind the counter. “We spent 20 years building this business and now we are fighting to survive.”
Laihia’s setbacks are a sign of something the residents here have been feeling for weeks, if not months: Finland’s relations with Russia are entering a deep freeze.
In a historic sign of how things were getting worse after Russia invaded Ukraine, Finland’s leaders said on Thursday that their country should join NATO, breaking for good with a longstanding form of military neutrality designed to find a balance between East and West.
Russia responded the same day with a promise of “military-technical” reprisals against Finland. On a Kremlin-backed television network, a top host spoke of the fall of a “new iron curtain”.
Near Vainikkala, which sits on a southern stretch of Finland’s 1,340 kilometer border with Russia, signs of spreading frost were apparent earlier this week.
In the new Zsar Outlet Village, built to serve travelers from Russia, Europop played in empty streets. There wasn’t a single customer in the nearby Finlandia cafe.
The well-paved highway between the border and the Finnish capital Helsinki was also quiet. The gaps between the cars often lasted several minutes east of the road.
At Helsinki Central Station, at the other end of the Vainikkala rail link, the regular departure point for Allegro trains, Platform Nine, was empty.
The four high-speed machines – which are painted in the colors of the Finnish and Russian flags – are now in a depot in Helsinki where Finnish engineers maintain them.
Topi Simola, who runs Finnish rail company VR – the Finnish partner in the Finnish-Russian joint venture that operated Allegro – said public pressure to shut down the service began to mount rapidly after Ukraine invaded Ukraine. Russia at the end of February.
After the service helped Finnish expatriates to leave Russia after the invasion, it was closed. The last Allegro arrived in the Finnish capital on March 28.
“Of course, we condemn Russian aggression and the war in Ukraine, so we don’t want to do business with Russia, so we shut down the service,” Simola said.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
When the Allegro trains were inaugurated in December 2010 by Russian leader Vladimir Putin and then Finnish President Tarja Halonen, there was much pomp, ceremony and hope for the future.
“The high-speed rail traffic that begins today will improve meeting opportunities for different types of people,” Halonen said, adding that she hopes her compatriots will now be able to “discover their neighbor in a new way. “.
For years the service was considered a big success, with more than 4 million passengers using Allegro between December 2010 and March 2022, a period that includes a nearly two-year suspension due to the pandemic.
Two services ran daily in each direction between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg, with each train carrying up to around 360 people. Double trains carrying over 700 people ran to coincide with holidays such as New Year’s Day.
VR chief Simola said the service was particularly popular with business travelers and tourists who appreciated the short journey time and the ability to avoid the more climate-friendly option of flying.
“It’s a great service if you think about it. Being able to go from Helsinki to St. Petersburg in 3.5 hours from city center to city center,” he said.
When everything changed
At the end of February, as Russian tanks entered Ukraine, the mood changed. Simola said it was clear that public opinion was turning against cooperation with Russia in general and that shutting down the service was the right thing to do.
At the same time, Finnish leaders were planning a radical change in defense policy with their decision to back a NATO bid.
During a visit by British leader Boris Johnson on Wednesday, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said it was Russian aggression that forced Finland’s hand. “You caused this,” he said. “Look in the mirror.”
Outside Helsinki train station, 19-year-old Felix Halabi was raising money for a charity supporting Finnish army veterans.
Dressed in an army uniform, Halabi, who said he had completed 139 days of military service in 357 days, said it was probably fair for Finland to join NATO.
“I’m not completely sure, but I think it’s probably a good idea because Putin is so unpredictable,” he said. “We might need some help.”
Finland fought two brutal wars against the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1944 and lost much of its eastern territories in the process.
Just outside Vainikkala, traces of this conflict are well preserved. Trenches and machine gun positions are dug into the woods along what is known as the Salpa line of fortifications, which stretches north to the Baltic Sea.
It is this militarized history that Finnish and Russian leaders sought to leave behind when they decided to strengthen trade ties in this border area after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Today, it is war, not business, that is once again the center of attention.
Finland and a number of NATO allies, including the US and UK, began the Arrow 22 military training exercise last week, which saw lines of tanks moving forming across an open landscape in western Finland.
After watching some of the action, UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace vowed his country would defend Finland and Sweden, which are also expected to submit a NATO bid, ‘if they ever come under attack’ .
Behind his restaurant counter at Vainikkala station, Laihia said he still hoped the political tension with Russia would ease and passengers instead of border guards could once again gather at his tables.
“But it all depends on Mr. Putin there,” he said, pointing to the border.