Finnish town gets ready for Russian attack

·4-min read
Reservists training in Taipalsaari, south-eastern Finland. The country is on the cusp of joining Nato - Lauri Heino/Lehtikuva
Reservists training in Taipalsaari, south-eastern Finland. The country is on the cusp of joining Nato - Lauri Heino/Lehtikuva

In the run-up to her wedding day, Lotta Häkämies struggled to get to sleep.

But the 40-year-old was not suffering from run-of-the mill nerves.

Her wedding was set to be held in the Finnish border town of Imatra, just five kilometres from the Russian border.

One night, she was jolted out of bed by the sound of fighter jets.

“We went outside,” she told The Telegraph at her wedding reception, as coffee and cake was being served. “I couldn’t see anything and thought, perhaps I’m getting paranoid.”

But the next morning local news reported Russia had violated Finland’s airspace.

“I opened my phone and saw there had been Russian helicopters over the border and the Finnish Air Force drove them away with their Hornets [fighter jets]. Would a Nato country allow this to happen? I don’t think so.”

Like a growing majority of Finns, Ms Häkämies supports her country joining the US-led military alliance. It would mean more peace of mind, a guarantor of international support if Moscow was to send its tanks over the 1,300km border the two countries share.

‘Finns are not afraid’

Imatra, like many towns on the border, is similarly battle-ready: it is riddled with bomb shelters and hidden outposts filled with survival supplies, a legacy of the 1939 Soviet invasion.

Phrases such as “one Finn is worth 10 Russians” are common on the streets of Imatra, with one person telling The Telegraph: “We beat the Soviets in the Winter War, and we’d do it again.”

Russian troops marching through Finland during the Winter War in 1939 - Hulton Deutsch/Corbis Historical
Russian troops marching through Finland during the Winter War in 1939 - Hulton Deutsch/Corbis Historical

Conscription is mandatory for men in Finland and many locals promise to take up arms if required.

“We are not worried. If anything happens we know what to do,” says the president of the Infamous MC Imatra, a local biker outfit.

“If they want to come here, they can try. Finns are not afraid.”

The Infamous MC Imatra crew say they are ready for anything
The Infamous MC Imatra crew say they are ready for anything

Pekka Toveri, a former chief of intelligence for Finland’s defence forces, told The Telegraph that these preparations stretched all the way across society: “In Finland we have made agreements with a number of companies, so in times of crisis, they can turn their civil production to something that we happen to need.

“A company which makes plastic toys can start making plastic mines for example. We can produce military ammunition by ourselves.”

Tensions heightened in Imatra

Still, the war has heightened tensions in Imatra, a town of 26,000 people where 1,000 hold Russian citizenship and most in the community have friends or relatives on both sides of the border.

The Russian ‘Z’ - a symbol of support for the invasion - was recently burned into a dock behind city hall. One 28-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, broke into a flurry of obscenities on seeing the graffiti. She said she knew Russians living in Finland who supported the war and had been forced to cut ties with friends posting Russian propaganda online.

Graffiti showing Russian 'Z' next to city hall
Graffiti showing Russian 'Z' next to city hall

The town used to be heavily reliant on tourists from Russia, with multi-million development projects spanning the border in the works. Many even have summer cottages in the area, but since EU sanctions in March, the roubles have stopped flowing in. Just two months ago, hundreds of trucks would roll through this crossing every week, but now the crossing is silent.

“We had lots of plans, like a direct train line from St Petersburg. There was a lot of Russian tourism in Imatra but that’s all now gone,” says Mayor Matias Hilden, 35.

Back at Ms Häkämies’ wedding, glasses of champagne were being handed out and preparations for war discussed.

Lotta Häkämies, 40, and Janne Virtanen, 41, on their wedding day in Imatra
Lotta Häkämies, 40, and Janne Virtanen, 41, on their wedding day in Imatra

“I have enough food, supplements, and iodine tablets to last a few weeks,” said guest Johanna Häkämies, 38. “I know I have enough gas to get my children to the car and go somewhere. I don’t know where. Maybe Sweden or Norway.”

“My grandma was a war child. During the Winter War [with Russia] she lived in Sweden with adoptive parents. It comes from there. A memory that passes through the generations.”

As for whether such a war would actually happen, many Finns believe it is unlikely.

Bride Ms Häkämies said her country’s new heightened alliance with the West should keep them safe. “Putin knows we will get help from Nato countries. He wouldn’t be that mad.”

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