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The ‘barbed-wire curtain’ dividing Europe from Russia and Belarus, visualized

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/15/2023 Júlia Ledur

Finnish authorities started building a 124-mile-long border fence with Russia earlier this month. The barrier, which will be 10 feet tall and covered with barbed wire, is set to be completed in 2026.

A fence marking the boundary between Finland and Russia near the Pelkola border crossing is seen in November. © Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP/Getty Images A fence marking the boundary between Finland and Russia near the Pelkola border crossing is seen in November.

Finland is the latest country to join a major effort by European nations to physically isolate Russia and Belarus through the use of border fences. Six other European countries neighboring Russia or Belarus have erected fences at their borders in recent years, with many also drawing up plans to extend those barriers in the coming years. The fences are intended to increase border security and prevent illegal migrant crossings.

Even though the Finnish barriers will not be impassable, authorities say they will still serve their purpose “by slowing down illegal entry and helping the authorities to manage the situation.”

Poland builds a border wall, even as it welcomes Ukrainian refugees © Provided by The Washington Post

According to a report by the European Parliament, the completed fences stretch for more than 600 miles in total. A European physical barrier this long has not been seen since the Iron Curtain, a 4,300-mile-long collection of barriers including the Berlin Wall that divided Western Europe from Soviet Europe during the Cold War.

Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, told The Washington Post that the new fencing could be seen as a “barbed-wire curtain.”

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The migration crisis in 2015 led many European countries to make plans to fortify their borders. Concerns have persisted in recent years. In 2021, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of sending migrants across the E.U.’s eastern border in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the bloc. That year, all four countries either built new fences on their borders with Russia or Belarus or fortified existing ones.

Finnish authorities also say illegal crossings are one of the main reasons for the new fencing. “A physical barrier fence is essential in situations of widespread immigration, where it serves to slow down and guide the movements of any crowds that form,” the Finnish border guard says in a statement on its website.

Fence construction in the region accelerated in 2021 amid political tensions that preceded the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many of the fence fortification plans were announced that year, after Belarusian forces helped migrants to cross illegally into European countries, in retaliation against E.U. sanctions.

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Although Finland’s fence will cover only a small portion of its border with Russia, it will be the third-longest barrier built by these countries on the border with Russia or Belarus. The border with the most fencing is between Lithuania and Belarus, where 75 percent of the territory is divided.

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If construction happens as expected, Europe’s “barbed-wire curtain” will span almost 1,000 miles by 2026, making it roughly a third longer than the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Some countries plan to reinforce security along the fences with cameras, tripwires, motion detectors and guards.

Sources: European Parliament; government authorities.

Editing by Samuel Granados and Reem Akkad. Copy editing by Vanessa Larson and Martha Murdock.


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