A Visit to Finland Changed My Mind About Ukraine

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Dave Seminara headlined “New Friends Changed My Mind About Ukraine”:

Pekka Veteläinen and Anna Saarela are tough Finns who heat their home with firewood and make a living off Russian bears. They built five bear-viewing cabins in the taiga, roughly half a mile from the border and Russia’s Paanajärvi National Park—land that was part of Finland before World War II. Business is slow this year because of the Ukraine war, they told me, as we watched half a dozen massive brown bears scavenge in the lake. Pekka used to believe Finland should remain neutral. “But our opinion about NATO changed overnight with the invasion,” he said.

My family spent a month this summer traveling in Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Everywhere we went, from the Arctic Circle to the Curonian Spit, pro-Ukraine and anti-Russian sentiment was rampant. In Cēsis, Latvia, our host, Zigmunds Rutkovskis, proudly told us that his daughter was learning every important language, “but not Russian.” At the local tennis club, head pro Valdis Libietis told us the club had taken in a Ukrainian soldier who lost his leg in the war and was now living above the clubhouse. “It’s our duty to help,” he said.

From Helsinki to Vilnius, Ukrainian flags are ubiquitous. In Riga, Latvia’s capital, they’re on every bus and tram car. Since the war, tensions between the country’s ethnic Russian minority and its Latvian majority have bubbled over. Lawmakers passed a law this year whereby the vehicles of drunk drivers are now shipped to Ukraine for use by the military and hospitals. Latvia’s Parliament last year amended the country’s immigration law to require Russian citizens living in the country to pass a Latvian language test.

In Jaunpils, Latvia, where you can stay in a 700-year-old castle at bargain prices, a young woman operating a medieval-games business told us that a pro-Russian singer was booted out of the country’s annual song competition. Since the war, she said, she and many other Latvians have refused to speak Russian. “When we hear it, we just shrug and pretend like we can’t understand them,” she said.

In Vilnius, our guide, Lina, showed us the city’s stunning Old Town and proudly told us that her nation of fewer than three million people raised €5 million ($5.4 million) in three days to buy an advanced military drone for Ukraine. “We understand what the Ukrainians are going through better than anyone,” she said. We saw evidence of Lithuania’s resolve at the Hill of Crosses, a pilgrimage site where believers have left hundreds of thousands of crosses.

The Soviets bulldozed the site in 1961, 1973 and 1975—burning thousands of wooden crosses and confiscating metal ones for scrap. Many people were arrested, but each time the Soviets removed the crosses, more appeared until the Soviets eventually gave up. Perhaps this is a lesson for us today as we deal with Russian aggression: The war in Ukraine must be won on the battlefield, but also through small acts of resistance.

Each country we visited has barred Russian tourists. Tourism is already down in the region because of the war, but the countries believe it’s worth the economic pain to send a message to the Kremlin. Only two others have followed their lead: Poland and the Czech Republic. Meanwhile a host of other countries are actively courting Russian tourists. Iran and Cuba recently signed tourism pacts with Russia. Sri Lanka, Morocco and Thailand plan to launch direct flights there. India, Myanmar and Oman recently held meetings with Russia to discuss tourism.

Meantime Americans can still trade with and visit countries confronting Russian tyranny or those enabling it. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow no longer offers nondiplomatic visas—for reasons unrelated to the war. Since the invasion, however, the U.S. has issued more than 60,000 tourist visas to Russian citizens. Perhaps we should ban Russian tourists who aren’t coming to visit an American citizen or do business here.

Ukraine has become a partisan issue. Before my trip, I was receptive to arguments from nationalists who think we should scale back aid to Ukraine. But not now. It isn’t only Ukraine counting on us to have their backs.

I don’t know the best way to confront Russia. But I do know that now, when I think about Russia and Ukraine, I’m not focused on Burisma, Hunter Biden or Ukrainian oligarchs. I worry more about my new friends living in Vladimir Putin’s shadow.

Dave Seminara is a former diplomat and author of “Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed & the Quest to Reach the Ends of the Earth.”

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