HELSINKI/VAALIMAA, Finland — Finland said on Thursday it would close its border to Russian tourists at midnight, shutting off the last remaining direct land route to the European Union for them as thousands of Russians seek to avoid conscription into the war in Ukraine.
The government said the move would lead to a significant drop in cross-border traffic after almost 17,000 Russians crossed the border into Finland during the weekend.
“The entry of Russian citizens in tourist purposes into Finland endangers Finland’s international relations,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told a news conference, explaining that the decision had followed talks with Ukraine and neighbors.
Haavisto said entry for family visits, as well as for work and studies, would still be permitted.
The decision means the Finnish government, wary of being a transit nation into western Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone, joined the other EU member countries sharing land borders with Russia which had already barred Russian tourists.
[Russian men turn to Norwegian Arctic crossing as border closure rumors swirl]
The EU bans were part of a series of sanctions and other steps taken against Russia by the West since Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Baltic states and Poland argued that Russian tourists posed a national security threat. Estonia expressed frustration that Finland had not joined them. Ukraine has said Russians should stay at home and seek to stop the war.
The EU has banned all flights from Russia, leaving only rail and road transport links available, and this month it agreed to limit issuing free-travel Schengen zone visas.
Young Russian men who spoke to Reuters after crossing into Finland last week said they left out of fear of being drafted.
The almost 17,000 Russians who crossed the border into Finland during the weekend, represent an 80 percent rise from a week earlier, Finnish authorities said on Monday.
On Thursday, there was a steady stream of cars coming through at the Vaalimaa border crossing, according to a Reuters witness, although traffic had calmed somewhat after the weekend.
“We have indications that the Russian authorities have changed their policy,” head of the border controls Tuomas Laosmaa said, adding the number of young Russian men coming through had dropped on Wednesday.
“According to information provided by border crossers, there are military authorities at crossing points (on the Russian side),” Laosmaa told Reuters, adding it was unclear if officials were conducting voluntary recruitment or mandatory call-ups.
The presence of Russian military officers appeared to have led to a change in who comes to the Finnish border, Laosmaa said.
“The passenger profile has clearly changed. There are fewer young men than before,” he said.
One Russian man who had just crossed, software architect Andrei Antonov, said he had seen an improvised building on the other side with military colors and signs saying “call-up center or contract service, something like that.”
Travel agent Maria Muratova confirmed there was an enlistment office on the Russian side. “But I didn’t see anyone being brought in so far. They are launching it on the way back, it will be there on the way back,” she said, referring to Russians returning to Russia from the Finnish side.
Reuters was not able to confirm the reports and there was no immediate comment from Russian authorities.
While the number of arrivals from Russia remains below pre-pandemic levels, many Finns have expressed worries over the recent rise.
“It’s very unfortunate that we’re in a situation that Russia has caused, but in this situation I don’t feel it okay that they are coming through Finland for tourism,” said Erkki Helaniemi, a finance specialist who spoke to Reuters in the capital Helsinki.
Norway, an EU outsider but a member of the Schengen zone, still kept open its Arctic border with Russia where arrivals have recently risen to number a few hundred people a day, Norwegian officials said.
Last week’s announcement of Russia’s first public mobilisation since World War Two, to shore up its faltering Ukraine war, triggered a rush for the border, the arrest of protesters and unease in the wider population.