: The Thief Next Door: Russia's rich history of annexing neighbouring countries

18:44 Jun. 7, 2016

The Thief Next Door: Russia's rich history of annexing neighbouring countries

Finland, Typical fishing warehouses with wooden coloured walls, at the time of the midnight sun, on Eckero, one of the islands of Aland, an archipeago in Finland (Getty Images)

Decades later Moscow's invasion still an open wound in Finland 

Finland... the thought of Vladimir Putin doesn't quite come to mind at the first mention of it. But, a small Finnish autonomy, the Aland islands is living under the vast shadow of the Kremlin.

The trip begins at a central bus station. Although it may sound warm and exotic the actual climate here is damp and cold. Aland - nearly seven thousand rocky islands, a region that encompasses an archipelago at the entrance of the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea.

Just like Ukraine's Crimea, Aland is an autonomous region and although nowadays it is the only Swedish-speaking region in Finland...

Aland islands were under the rule of the Russian Empire. And seemingly, Russia's interest in the Finnish autonomy has not faded yet.

Read also Finland scrambles to intercept Russian military aircraft

So what's it like for the Finns to live right beside a neighbour that stole a part of their land? From a Ukrainian standpoint that sounds way-too-familiar.

The Kremlin grip on the neighbouring ex-Soviet states is evident, but it's not that easy to spot in Finland, at least not with a naked eye.

The phenomena of cross-border shopping. It is a part of the Finland/Russia frontier too. The Russian language can be heard everywhere here. Special buses bring shoppers here several times a day.

Read also ERR: Russian TV journalists kept from crossing Estonian border

Russians buy everything from coffee to household supplies. "We don't have anything tasty, everything in Russia is bad. Everything is a knock-off, a fake, we don't know what's what, there's saturated fat in everything".

The retailers have learned to deal with the influx of buyers from Russia. Nearly all of the groceries here are close to their expiration date. Fins would never buy it but Russians do. "I like seafood. Octopus especially. Not that we don't have it, it's just more expensive. And, we don't have octopus, but my kids love it and husband too, and all sorts of different calamari."

Even the sales woman is Russian here, from Vyborg, a town that used to be Finland. Now in modern-day Russia she couldn't find a job so came to Finland.

A: Nobody took Crimea away - they voted!
Q: So tell me you're from Vyborg, it used to be Finland. Do you think people would want it to be Finland again?
A: Now, the Finns will not want it back

Read also E.U. does not recognize Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol - Mogerini

The border between the two countries seems to be getting closer and closer. There are more busses full of Russians, gas stations with women who look very Russian offering cheap cigarettes in exchange for cheap Made-in-China underwear. 

Vaalimaa is a cross-border point between Finland and the Russian Federation. It is one of the largest customs service centres in Finland. At one point, before Crimea and Donbas - Russians would come here by the thousands, but now their purchasing power decreased drastically. And... the lot here is empty.

Jani Liikola, Captain, Vaalimaa border crossing check point: "The biggest difference here is the traffic and the number of cars. It dropped at least 30 percent if you compare it to 2013-2015. Before in Vaalimaa we saw more than 3 and a half million passengers per year, that number has dropped to 2.5 million."

Finland strongly supported sanctions against Putin's regime, despite closing several plants that were working solely for the Russian market, the Finns stand firm in their position.

The vehicles that do pass through this checkpoint, are scanned vigorously. After all, Finland is known for its ability to defend its borders.

The road that leads to the very border line is smooth and extremely neat, surrounded by farmer's fields with stacks of neatly rolled hay. There's not a spot that isn't used. The other side, though... it's hard to see what lays behind the crossing.

Denis Pertsev, Ukrainian Association of Finland: "Russia is extremely afraid to see people leave, it started during the second world war, and here we have about five kilometres of no-mans-land, weeds and grass, and 25 kilometres of strict limitations."

From here, remnants of the Soviet past are visible. The typical marble ceiling. The road signs - old, worn-down, soviet. This is where the Leningrad oblast starts, even though the city of Leningrad no longer exists.

The Finnish border guards don't talk much about their political attitudes. Everything here is left out of sight - though plenty of security cameras are around recording every move. "Karelia? Well, I can tell you one thing, I can't talk about political issues, it was a long time ago." 

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Karelia (Getty Images) 

Ordinary citizens though say they share Ukrainians' pain. Russia stole a part of their land once, so they know what it's like.

The Finnish government that has been known to stay neutral dramatically shifted its international position in recent months. The country is starting to invest more in its military, increasing training exercises and actually contemplating the thought of joining NATO... which of course is ruffling Russia's feathers.

Read also NATO troops land in Finland for the first time ever

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