Finnish Defense Minister Niinistö has estimated that the 1856 demilitarization of Åland had a detrimental effect on Finland's ability to defend the archipelago, something that several security experts agreed upon. At the time, Finland was ruled by the Russian Tsar and the archipelago was demilitarized as a concession to Russia's Crimean War foes; the island's 1830's-era defenses had been destroyed by British and French warships in 1854.
Researcher Jukka Tarkka, a PhD in political science, was by his own admission delighted with the fact that Niinistö "does not seem to be afraid."
Tarkka's assessment was echoed by Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
"Niinistö made some good remarks about Åland. No country would be willing to approve of a defense obligation with similar limitations when it comes to preparations," he tweeted on Sunday.
Both Salonius-Pasternak and Tarkka have regularly commented on the position of the Åland Islands. According to Tarkka, Åland, which is located in the Baltic Sea halfway between Sweden and Finland, would be a priority for any nearby military power in the event of a conflict in the Baltic Sea Region. Salonius-Pasternak reportedly advocated changes in Åland's demilitarized status because of "recent changes in Finland's security environment."
"If it were in Russia's interest to establish a Russian presence on Åland with long-range high-precision weapons, there is obviously a big risk that it would be done," Swedish defense committee chairman Allan Widman told the Swedish tabloid newspaper Expressen. "Åland, Gotland and Bornholm [a Danish island] all are of strategic interest for those who wish to control the supply of military equipment to the Baltics. In this way, I understand the Finnish Defense Minister's worries," Widman said.
With a population of roughly 30,000, Åland is the only region of Finland where Swedish is the official local language. Following the break-up of the Russian Empire, sovereignty over Åland was retained by Finland, despite the residents' almost unanimous desire to be incorporated into Sweden. By law, Åland is politically neutral and entirely demilitarized; its residents are exempt from conscription to the Finnish Defense Forces and enjoy a broad autonomy.
So far, Niinistö's views on Åland's demilitarization have met with no support from local politicians. Åland MP Mats Löfström called Niinistö's statements "counterproductive," Yle reported.