Russia may renegotiate the lease of the border Saimaa Canal with Finland in the event of its accession to NATO. Such a decision is not excluded in the State Duma of the Russian Federation.
The Saimaa Canal is considered the most important transport artery in Finland. The navigable channel between Lake Saimaa in Finland and Vyborg Bay in Russia was opened in 1856 and reconstructed in 1963-1968. The total length of the channel with a sea fairway is 57.3 kilometers, of which Finland owns 23.3 kilometers and Russia – 34 kilometers. Finland leases 19.6 kilometers of the Russian part of the canal and the adjacent territory. The lease term is until 2063.
The Russian Embassy in Helsinki reported that Moscow is “closely monitoring and analyzing the ongoing discussion in Finland about possible accession to NATO”. If Finland joins the alliance, the Russian Federation “will need to take measures necessary to ensure Russian interests,” because Finland’s accession to NATO will worsen relations with Moscow and entail a revision of previously concluded agreements, as stated in the Russian State Duma.
“As Russia’s relations with any country deteriorate, agreements concluded during the period of benevolent relations and that had meanings in this regard may be revised,” said Dmitry Novikov, the First Deputy Chairman of the International Committee of the State Duma.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has already stated that the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO will lead to negative consequences for peace in Northern Europe and the security architecture of the continent.
As reminded, in November 2021, Russia decided to stop exporting untreated wood through the Saimaa Canal. Then, the Russian Embassy in Helsinki said that the decision was made long before the discussion of possible NATO membership intensified in Finland. Nevertheless, according to Russian customs statistics, the transportation of unprocessed timber through the Saimaa Canal in recent years accounted for no more than 10 per cent of the total volume of their exports from Russia to Finland.
The President of the Russian Association of Baltic Studies, Nikolay Mezhevich, believes that the regime of the Saimaa Canal will be revised.
“I think it will be a matter of the fundamental closure of the Saimaa Lakes and access for this inland body of water to the Baltic Sea and the World Ocean. Our relations with the Finns from the 1950s to the present have been special. And Finns were allowed what others were never allowed. And now, of course, these agreements, often informal, will be subject to revision,” the expert said.
For example, according to Article 6 of the Saimaa Canal Lease Agreement, military ships sailing under the flag of Finland or third countries, as well as ships carrying military personnel and military equipment, are not allowed to pass through the Russian part of the Saimaa Canal. The passage of state vessels of third countries not engaged in commercial or other commercial shipping without permission from Russia is also prohibited.
However, Mezhevich noted that Finland, having become part of NATO, can theoretically send “its missile boats through the channel in the absence of any position on the part of Russia”. Although, in fact, Finns are unlikely to take this step, the expert believes.
A political scientist and professor of political history at the University of Turku, Timo Soikkanen, also admits that if Finland joins NATO, Russia will revise the provisions of the treaty.
“Most importantly, after joining NATO, the very level of relations between our countries will change, it will no longer be the same as it was under Kekkonen [the eighth President of Finland],” the expert noted.
He believes that the economic consequences of the termination of the lease agreement of the Saimaa Canal will not be so significant. In turn, the cultural and historical significance of this waterway is much more important, in his opinion, so it’s them that go under threat of being deteriorated.