The Åland Regime After Crimea

Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian air force F-18, Gripen and F-16 during joint exercises June 2015. Photo: Finnish Air Force
Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian air force F-18, Gripen and F-16 during joint exercises June 2015. Photo: Finnish Air Force

The annexation of Crimea was a definite wakeup call telling us that Russia has turned down the European Security Order and assumed a policy of open confrontation in its relations with the EU and the US. The political environment of Finland had changed. Russia’s unwillingness to respect international agreements and its provocative military posturing in the Baltic Sea area give us cause to update our evaluation of “the Åland regime”.

Is it under threat now? Is there a demand for measures to consolidate it?

This regime is based on the demilitarization and neutralization  of the Åland Islands, an autonomous region of Finland. It is governed by the 1921 Convention relating to the Non-fortification and neutralization of the Åland Islands adopted by the League of Nations. In the 1940 Treaty between Finland and the USSR concerning the Åland Islands, Finland has pledged not to fortify the islands and not to put them at the disposal of the armed forces of foreign states. Russia has succeeded the USSR as a party to this treaty but is not formally tied to the 1921 Convention and its guarantees endorsing the neutrality.

In accordance with the 1921 Convention Finland has assumed the responsibility to defend the neutrality of the zone should it “be imperilled by a sudden attack either against the Åland Islands or across them against the Finnish mainland”. It was also foreseen that Finland could ask the High Contracting Parties  for help in defending the status of the islands against being violated. This matter, however, was to be referred to the Council of the League of Nations which does not exist any longer.

The nature of warfare and military technology has changed substantially since 1921. Hybrid warfare integrating non-military elements eventually supported by military actions of high speed and precision in an escalating conflict characterise the threats of today. How and at what stage could and should Finland repulse “a sudden attack” by pre-emptive measures in these circumstances?

Edward Lucas (The Coming Storm – Baltic Sea Security Report, CEPA June 2015) points out the strategic importance of Gotland, Bornholm and the Åland Islands with regard to NATO’s possibilities to reinforce the three Baltic republics in case of a military conflict with Russia. He also makes a strong plea for a de facto coordination and combining of the defence capabilities of the NBP9 countries (Nordic, Baltic and Poland) to create a forceful deterrent. The evolving Finnish-Swedish model for unified military cooperation could serve that purpose too.

Given the solidarity clause and the framework for Permanent Structured Cooperation enshrined in the Treaty on the European Union (TEU Art. 42.6-7), I have the following suggestion: it might be investigated whether these provisions could offer a solution in making it possible to substitute the disbanded Council of the League of Nations in case Finland decides to call for active defence of the neutrality of the Åland Islands by the parties to the 1921 Convention.These are all EU members.

There is no minimum number of Member States required to set up Permanent Structured Cooperation as opposed to Enhanced Cooperation (Art. 20). The decision shall be taken by the European Council and is one of the few areas in the Common Security and Defence Policy where decisions are not made unanimously but by qualified majority voting.

Combining the armed forces of EU member states as well as other measures reinforcing the guarantees for the neutrality of the Åland Islands would require political will and determination. A prerequisite for such an understanding would be a common perception of the crisis and the threat among the EU member states in the Baltic Sea area.

In his opening speech at the National Defence Course 10.11.2014 the President of Finland Sauli Niinistö referred to a Russian proverb saying: “kazak beryot chto plokho lezhit” ‘A kosack will grab whatever is not firmly fixed to the ground’. He also said that every one of us in Finland is responsible for our common security and urged us “to take care of issues and actively cherish the things we view as important”.

Two weeks later the legislative assembly of the Åland Islands debated a policy paper on their demilitarization and neutralization. The perceptions of the crisis expressed in that debate diverged dramatically from the one represented by the President. The least to be expected from the inhabitants of Åland, if they want to promote their case, is to show an open mind to enhanced cooperation with the civil authorities in mainland Finland.

There is an obvious demand for an assessment of the Åland regime in the next Report on Foreign and Security Policy to be passed by the Parliament of Finland. There is also a demand for serious dialogue and confidence building between the national Finnish authorities and the regional ones in Åland. A common perception within Finland of the challenges is a conditio sine qua non for receiving any positive contributions from the neighbours in the Baltic Sea area. And yet, it might be more appealing for the signatory and adherent parties of the 1921 Convention to invest in the Åland regime, if Finland and Sweden were their allies in NATO – but that is another matter.

 1 A legal regime which prohibits military operations in a defined geographical area in armed conflicts.

 2 In addition to Finland, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Latvia, Poland and Sweden are adherent/ signatory parties – Russia is not.

Article originally published in BRE

4 Comments

  • Taavi Tossavainen says:

    A very good and an informative article on the situation of Ålånd. What I’m saying next might seem provocative, but I feel like someone has to say it out loud…

    In a sense, the elites and policymakers of Åland are smart. They realize that Russia is a threat, but Finland is even a bigger threat to their existence as a “special” swedish-speaking community. And for a good reason, it’s geopolitics from an Ålandish perspective after all. You could also chalk it up to some irrational fears about the future of swedish-speakers of Finland, but not all of it.

    So what should Finland do? In my opinion a much more realistic (and much less idealistic) approach to Åland basically. Find new technological innovations to solve the problem of demilitarization, such as – for example – 3-D printing and AI technology to effectively bypass the treaty and “instantly” create an armed opposition to any attempts at taking the islands by military force.

    Another pragmatic approach to solve the Åland issue would be to use all the indirect power at the disposal of Finland to weaken and undermine the autonomy of Åland, at least de facto. This would start by making it economically impossible for Åland to ever become independent, followed by various indirect maneuvers to make sure Åland as a whole is as economically dependent on Finland as possible. From there on, various information ops would be needed to ensure that ordinary Ålanders start wondering if staying apart from Finland is really such a good idea. Ofcourse unlike russian disinformation ops, finnish information ops would have to be based on actually observable facts.

    If Åland can be integrated into Finland by the will of the islanders themselves, none of the old international treaties will matter. Integration to Finland will be a “fait accompli” to the international community, sans Russia (which doesn’t give a damn about international treaties anyway)

    Simply put, the demilitarization and autonomy of Åland are inseparable from each other. Åland cannot de facto have one without the other. Thus Finland would need two things to make the Åland situation better for itself and the other baltic sea countries: Cold pragmatism even at the cost of moral and idealistic sense of superiority and ofcourse a good sense of strategy on how to exactly defuse this geopolitical timebomb once and for all.

  • Lemagrag says:

    There’s a small error in the image description text, it should read: “Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian air force F-18, Gripen and a F-16 during joint exercises June 2015. Photo: Finnish Air Force”

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