In late 2015 and early 2016, Finland experienced a wave of asylum-seeking migrants crossing the Russian border, most of them from third countries. Finnish officials have seen the hand of Moscow, which has repeatedly directed migrants to European countries in an apparent attempt to destabilize their politics.
« The impression that someone is organizing and regulating things on the Russian side is probably true, » Finnish foreign minister Timo Soini told the country’s state broadcaster at the time. « It’s pretty obvious that a business like this is a managed endeavor. »
The Finns were taken aback. « In my wildest dreams I never imagined that, for example, Bangladeshis would arrive on bicycles at a border crossing in the upper north when the sun doesn’t rise at all and it’s minus 20-25 degrees Celsius, » said Pitkäniitty . she said, or minus 4 to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit.
Despite this experience, Pitkäniitty said he and his colleagues maintain warm and professional relationships with their Russian counterparts across the border. The two sides communicate regularly, he said.
“When we talk to Russians we try to avoid politics,” Pitkäniitty said. “It makes no sense to argue. You simply end up in a dispute that doesn’t allow for resolution.
For years, he said, acceptable topics of conversation with Russians included fishing, hunting and sports. « Now we have to exclude sports, because they no longer participate in international sports, » said Pitkäniitty. « So it’s about fishing and hunting that you can safely talk about with Russian officers. »
At the same time, « I know they won’t hesitate to shoot me in the back if ordered to do so, » he added. « Just like I would do the same to them. »
John Ismai contributed reporting from Washington, DC