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VAINIKKALA, Finland — At the train station in this small town, where the rail link between Finland’s capital, Helsinki, and Russia’s northern metropolis, St. Petersburg, crosses the border, all was silent.
The high-speed train service, known as the Allegro, which for years passed through here four times a day carrying hundreds of passengers in both directions, had been suspended. At the roadside restaurant, border guards rather than international travelers made up what was left of 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 struggling to survive.”
Laihia’s tribulations are a sign of something the locals have been feeling for weeks, if not months: Finland’s relations with Russia are freezing deep.
In a historic sign of how bad things have gotten in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland’s leaders said on Thursday that their country should join NATO, breaking for good with a long-held form of military neutrality designed to strike a balance between east and west.
Russia responded the same day with the promise of “military-technical” retaliation against Finland. On a Kremlin-backed television network, a high-profile presenter I speak the fall of a “new iron curtain”.
Near Vainikkala, which lies on a southern stretch of Finland’s 1,340-kilometre border with Russia, signs of expanding frost became apparent earlier this week.
In the new Zsar Outlet Village, built to serve travelers from Russia, Europop played to empty streets. There was not a single customer at the nearby Café Finlandia.
The well-paved road between the border and the Finnish capital, Helsinki, was also quiet. The gaps between cars often lasted several minutes on the eastern sections of the highway.
At Helsinki Central Station, the other end of the rail link from Vainikkala, 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 warehouse in Helsinki where they are maintained by Finnish engineers.
Topi Simola, who runs Finland’s railway company VR, the Finnish partner in the Finnish-Russian joint venture that operated Allegro, said public pressure to shut down the service began to grow rapidly after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. .
Once 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 the 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 this way.
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 starting today will improve opportunities for different types of people to meet,” Halonen said, adding that he hoped his compatriots could now “discover their fellow man in a new way.”
For years, the service was considered a huge 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 in each direction between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg each day and each train could carry up to 360 people. Double trains with more than 700 people circulated to coincide with holidays such as New Year’s Day.
VR boss Simola said the service was particularly popular with business travelers and tourists who valued the short travel time and the ability to avoid the less 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, when Russian tanks entered Ukraine, the mood changed. Simola said it was clear that public sentiment was turning against cooperation with Russia in general and that closing the service was the right thing to do.
At the same time, Finland’s leaders were planning a dramatic change in defense policy with their decision to back a NATO application.
On Wednesday, during a visit by UK leader Boris Johnson, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said it was Russian aggression that had forced Finland’s hand. “You caused this,” he said. “Look at yourself in the mirror.”
Outside the Helsinki train station, 19-year-old Felix Halabi was raising money for a charity that supports veterans of the Finnish army.
Dressed in an army uniform, Halabi, who said he was in 139 days of a 357-day period of military service, said it was probably right for Finland to join NATO.
“I’m not totally sure, but I think it’s probably a good idea because Putin is very unpredictable,” he said. We may need help.
Finland fought two brutal wars against the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1944 and lost a large part of its eastern territories in the process.
On the outskirts of Vainikkala, the marks of that conflict are well preserved. Trenches and machine gun positions are dug into the forest along what is known as the Salpa Line of fortifications, which stretches north from the Baltic Sea.
It was this militarized history that Finnish and Russian leaders sought to put behind them when they took steps to strengthen trade links in this border area after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Now it is war, not business, that is back in the spotlight.
Last week, Finland and several NATO allies, including the US and the UK, began the Arrow 22 military training exercise, in which lines of tanks were seen. moving in formation in an open landscape in western Finland.
After seeing some of the action, UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace vowed his country would defend Finland and Sweden, which are also expected to apply to NATO, “if they were ever attacked.”
Behind his counter at the train station restaurant in Vainikkala, Laihia said he still hopes the political tension with Russia will ease and passengers instead of border guards will be able to gather at their tables again.
“But all of that depends on Mr. Putin,” he said, gesturing toward the border.