by Sakari Linden

Russia has tightened its grip from its North Western region of Republic of Karelia in 2015. After being a remote area of negligible strategic importance, Karelia’s growth in importance has been noticed by geopolitical observers in both Russia and the West. Final conclusions drawn about the means to be conducted in the region determine Karelia’s status as either opportunity or threat for Russian Federation. Even more importantly, it reveals a great deal of the amount of self-confidence and strength of Russia. Does future Russia tend to rely more on hard discipline in avoiding all potentially risky influence from abroad? Or does it aim to benefit from soft power dimension provided by Karelia’s unique cultural features creating cross-border links between east and west?

Nikolai Patrushev, Head of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, aligned stance of his country to a social situation in the Republic of Karelia with a speech held on 19 March in Petrozavodsk. According to Patrushev, there had been “an activation of nationalist and revanchist social-political organizations in Finland” in recent months. Patrushev fears that the Finnish nationalist associations are acting under the guise of human rights organisations and begin to have “serious ideological influence” on the population of the region. He had noted already on 17 December 2014 that Karelia is Russia’s most important outpost in the Northwest.

Later, potentially as a further explanatory step to Patrushev’s statement, Russia’s Ministry of Interior Affairs started investigations about accusations claiming that a Petrozavodsk based NGO, Nuori Karjala (Young Karelia, Молодая Карелия), which aims to preserve and promote Karelian, Vepsian and Finnish indigenous cultures and languages in the region, has acted in a manner characteristic to a foreign agent. According to Russian law, a foreign agent is an organisation, which receive funding from abroad and act politically. Nuori Karjala is accused on the grounds that it organised a visit of the youth organisation of the Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset Nuoret) to the Republic of Karelia in cooperation with the regional parliament of Karelia. The Finns is a populist, Eurosceptic and Nato critical party, which currently makes part of the coalition government of Finland, in which they hold Foreign and Defence Minister positions. Moreover, Nuori Karjala is accused because it received a grant from the United Nations in 2013.

Nuori Karjala is Russia’s first NGO representing indigenous peoples that threatens to be added to a list as a foreign agent. This would result in the closure of the organisation, has stated Alexey Tsykarev, member of board in Nuori Karjala and vice-chair of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Notwithstanding all the details provided, development leading to this should be seen through the lens of remarkably risen geopolitical significance of Karelia.

Secretly in the spotlight

Karelia has been a battleground between the East and the West for centuries. Karelia became a disputed borderland after the Peace of Nöteborg in 1323, which divided Karelia between Sweden and Novgorod. Religiously Evangelical Lutheran West Karelia was annexed as a part of the Russian Empire in the 18th century. This part of Karelia, often called as “Old Finland”, became a part of the Autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812. Meanwhile, Orthodox East Karelia was all the time an integral part of Russia. Later, Soviet Union conquered Karelian Isthmus, historical fortress town of Vyborg and Ladoga Karelia from independent Finland during the Second World War.

Karelia became a bleeding wound for both parts during the Second World War. Almost 430 000 Karelian Finns, i.e. 12 per cent of the country’s total population, lost their homes due to area losses, which accounted for about one tenth of the country’s surface area. On the other side of the border, Finland occupied Eastern Karelia as part of the German offensive against the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944. The occupation temporarily fulfilled an old dream about establishment of the Great Finland, a state uniting the areas populated by Baltic Finnic peoples, from Finland via Karelia and Ingermanland to Estonia. Russia’s suspicion in the Republic of Karelia stem from the fear that the old idea of the Great Finland could be used in the modern framework of colour revolutions in order to threaten territorial integrity of Russia.

The start of the new cold war suddenly signified Karelia’s rise to a new prominence. The most immediate reason for this was Stratfor’s Decade Forecast: 2015-2025, published in February 2015, which predicts that Russia will start to collapse during the time span of next ten years, and “in the northwest, the Karelian region will seek to rejoin Finland”.

Stratfor is not the first actor to give Karelia a major importance in the geopolitical game of modern times. The main ideologist of New Eurasianism, Alexander Dugin, proposed in his book The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia, published in 1997, that “the unstable state of Finland, which historically enters into the geopolitical space of Russia” would be “combined together with the Karelian Autonomous Republic of the Russian Federation into a single ethno-territorial formation with maximal cultural autonomy, but with strategic integration into the Eurasian bloc”. According to Dugin, “the northern regions of Finland should be excised and donated to Murmansk oblast”.

Lack of knowledge about present day realities of the Republic of Karelia can be found from both Stratfor and Dugin’s views. Although Finno-Ugric peoples have historically populated the region, there has been a dramatic fall in the amount of Karelian and Vepsian speakers. Karelians made up 37 per cent of the region’s population in 1926, whereas in 2010, according to the Census of Russia, their share was only 7,4 per cent. Karelian speaking population is nowadays heavily concentrated to the countryside and especially to the national districts of Olonets, Kalevala and Pryazha. In reality, they lack political significance, which could affect the region’s international status.

It is difficult to estimate whether Stratfor’s Decade Forecast was seriously made, given the absence of further arguments to the prediction about Karelia seeking to join Finland. Or was it just a provocation aiming to recreate tensions related to a national question of East Karelia, which flamed out a long time ago? Or was it made to encourage the support of NATO in Finland or to create wishful thinking among those Finns, who wish to regain the territories lost by Finland during the Second World War? The latter have for a very long time had only a trivial role in Finnish political life. It is also important to realize that there are at least three different notions of Karelia: Orthodox East Karelia that has never made part of Finland, the old Finnish territories annexed by the Soviet Union, and provinces of North and South Karelia, which currently are an integral part of Finland. Very few people in Finland consider changes of borders as a realistic or even wise option.

Rather an opportunity?

Alexander Dugin reflected more realism and understanding about the new realities of Russian Karelia in his words during his visit to Finland in May 2014. Instead of proposing any changes of borders, as in his book published in 1997, he raised the possibility that Russian Karelia, Karelian language and culture could be a bridge between Finland and Russia, and more broadly between the West and Eurasia.

Dugin said in his speech he gave in Helsinki that Finno-Ugric peoples are part of a common Eurasian heritage and identity together with Slavic, Turkish and Caucasian peoples. Consequently, connections of the Finns to Karelia, Udmurtia and other Finno-Ugric regions of Russia should be encouraged. Dugin’s statement is remarkable because it is the first expression of support from the part of a remarkable Russian commentator to the Finno-Ugric languages and cultures of Russia.

A deteriorated political situation of the world has cast a shadow even on the cooperation between Finland and Russia. Sometimes it feels like western and Russian orthodox civilizations do not understand each other’s thinking at all. Karelia could potentially be a bridge between Finland and Russia. Karelia, at the same time as a linguistically close and religiously differing territory to Finland, would have an opportunity to illustrate the other side of the border with another way of thinking. Karelia could lower the mental gap between Finland and Russia and create links between different cultural spheres.

The main merit of Alexander Dugin’s speech was to demonstrate that Karelia, where Baltic Finnic languages are spoken, are in both Russia and Finland’s interest. Currently, there is a clear contradiction in Dugin’s message compared to the latest news heard from the Republic of Karelia. It is unclear whether the rhetorics used by Nikolai Patrushev in March 2015 related to Karelia was meant to be a signal inside Karelia or towards Finland. What is clear is that it does not serve the best interest of Russia from the point of view of its soft power abroad. However, there is still hope that Karelian language and culture could be seen in a positive way even more broadly in Russia.

Implications for the new cold war

Finland is situated in a very strategically important position from the point of view of Russia. It shares a long border with Russia with a situation close to the crucial Murmansk naval base and Russia’s second most important city, Saint Petersburg. Moreover, domination of the south coast of Finland would provide the NATO with a potential to block the Gulf of Finland and maritime routes to Saint Petersburg. Therefore, Finland’s non-aligned position is of utmost importance to Russia.

Nowadays Finland is the only EU member state with a long border with Russia that does not belong to the NATO. After having been a militarily non-aligned country for several decades, there has been an increasingly hectic debate about whether Finland should join the NATO. Notwithstanding strong efforts by the mainstream media and political elite to push the public opinion in favour of joining the transatlantic community, only 27 per cent of the Finns supported their country’s membership in the military alliance.

Finland was a crucial mediator between the west and east during the Cold war in the process, which culminated in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) held in 1975 in Helsinki, Finland. Although Finland has lost a great deal of its sovereignty of its foreign policy due to its EU membership, President Sauli Niinistö has taken a rather mediating role between the west and Russia during the Ukraine crisis, relying on its last remains of its old non-aligned tradition. This highlights the potential that Russia can either utilize or lose in Finland.

Currently, Finnish public is scrutinizing the influence of Russia to their wellbeing and especially all efforts across their eastern border to put pressure on their country are under scrutiny. Therefore, one can just imagine the effect of the opening of the Finnish-speaking Sputnik news agency, which immediately reported as its breaking news about Mr Patrushev’s warnings about the growing activity of Finnish nationalists and revanchists in Karelia.

Russia needs every bit of soft power in order to survive in the relentless informational warfare aiming to harm the Eurasian connection between Europe and Russia. As George Friedman, founder and chairman of Stratfor, has pointed out, the primordial interest of the United States is to stop a coalition between Germany and Russia ( Consequently, Russia should not undermine the importance of Karelia as a potential source of its soft power. Karelian as a mutually intelligible language to Finnish, Karelia and Finland’s common Kalevala folklore heritage, which has inspired even J. R. R. Tolkien, as well as Karelia’s potential to function as a window to Russian and Eurasian mindscape for the Finns, are reasons why Russian authorities should think carefully if they are doing irreversible damage in the Russian-Karelian-Finnish cultural relations.

The beginning of the new cold war has raised tensions around the world. This has already reflected to the social situation in the Republic Karelia. Russian establishment’s future reactions to Stratfor‘s predictions related to Karelia will tell about the ability and preparedness of the country to endure amid new geopolitical game. Russia’s support to Karelian language and encouragement of creating contacts between locals and foreigners in the Republic of Karelia would be a signal to the world about a self-confident and strong country.

Sakari Linden is a geopolitical writer, who has participated actively in the cultural cooperation to preserve and promote Karelian language and culture. He holds Master’s degrees in Political Science and International Law.

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