In total, more than 774 miles of fences are being built or planned by Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, according to a tally of announcements and construction updates by EU countries since the start of the war.
The prospect of a physical border dividing the European continent brings to mind the Iron Curtain, the 4,300-mile-long set of barriers, including the Berlin Wall, which divided the communist East and the capitalist West during the cold War.
The new fence could be seen as a “curtain of barbed wire”, said Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Each of the five EU countries has expressed concern that foreign governments – identified by some as Russia and Belarus – are allowing immigrants to cross their borders illegally, or may do so in the future.
Many fencing plans have been exposed after Belarus retaliated against EU sanctions in 2021 by inviting immigrants to enter by air, then pushing them to illegally cross into neighboring countries.
Construction efforts have accelerated since the Russian invasion over fears that Russia, too, will seek to use illegal border crossings to destabilize the EU, which has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees.
“According to the assessment of the Finnish border guards, the change in the security environment has made it necessary to construct a barrier along part of the eastern border,” said Ismo Kurki, project manager for the eastern border fence, in an interview on Wednesday. Closing was first announced in September.
Finland shares an 832-mile border with Russia, the largest of any EU country, but the government said it was “not a reasonable option” to build fences across the entire stretch.
Finnish border officials have said they hope that by the time the $404million barrier is completed in 2026, it will cover 15% of the border with Russia – concentrated mostly in the southeastern areas around existing crossing points.
The barrier aims to prevent large numbers of migrants from trying to cross the border illegally from Russia in a short period of time, including in situations where crossings might be encouraged by foreign authorities, Finnish officials said.
In September, Finland announced restrictions on the entry of Russian nationals into the country after the Kremlin announced a “partial military mobilization”, although Kurki said current traffic levels at Finnish-Russian border crossings were weak.
“A physical barrier is essential in generalized immigration situations, where it serves to slow down and guide the movements of any crowd that forms,” the Finnish border guard said on its website. “Even if people bypass the fence, it still fulfills its task of slowing down illegal entries and helping the authorities to manage the situation.”
In addition to the fence, authorities are installing an adjacent road for patrol vehicles and a camera surveillance system.
At the center of Europe’s migrant crisis, stories of how Belarus leads the way and punishes expelled ‘pawns’
In 2021, Poland and the three Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – issued a joint statement accusing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of deliberately sending migrants across the EU’s eastern border as part of a “hybrid warfare” in retaliation for the bloc’s punitive sanctions targeting his regime.
At the time, more than a dozen migrants told the Washington Post that Belarusian border guards helped them cross the border fence and enter Poland. They described Belarusian forces pulling down or cutting barbed wire and shuttling migrants all along the 250-mile border – now heavily guarded and fortified by Poland – to find the best places to cross.
In 2021, Latvia announced it was building a 315-mile fence along the Belarusian border. Lithuania has also started construction of its own 310-mile fence with Belarus, and Estonia has accelerated plans to build a 71-mile fence along its Russian border – originally announced three years earlier.
In November, Poland announced plans to build eight-foot-high barbed wire fences along its border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to prevent future illegal crossings. Last week Polish Deputy Prime Minister Mariusz Blaszczak shared pictures of some of the fortifications that had been installed.
“In 1989 the Berlin Wall was taken down and that paved the way for an aspiration that Europe could view its borders as frictionless,” said Dodds, a professor of geopolitics. Now, 30 years later, he said, hard borders are reappearing – this time against a belligerent Russia and its ally Belarus.
“Barbed wire fences, drones and surveillance cameras are put to work,” he said. “Europe is getting stronger.”
Loveday Morris contributed to this report.