Russian radar station closes Suursaari to tourism
By Jussi Konttinen
First there were reports that Suursaari will be the location for a large radar and air traffic control centre, and now Russia has erected a white radome on Haukkavuori, one of the highest points of the Suursaari island, 142 metres above sea level.
The radome can be easily seen from aircraft flying on the Finnish side of the eastern border.
It is also visible from the islands off Kotka. In fact, birdwatchers in Kotka noticed the radome already last spring.
The enclosure protecting the radar is some 20 to 30 metres in diameter.
According to retired Lieutenant-General Matti Ahola, the radar in question is used for air surveillance and air-traffic control.
As far as Finland is concerned, the construction of the radar is a good thing, says Ahola.
”A total of 11 violations of Finnish airspace by Russian planes were reported in 2004 and 2005. Thanks to the new radar, their flight control over the Gulf of Finland will improve”, Matti Ahola notes.
Former Chief of Defence Admiral Juhani Kaskeala was informed by his hosts of the construction of the radar during his visit to Moscow in the summer of 2007.
Ahola estimates that with the new radar it is possible to see as far as the entrance to the Gulf of Finland, while those Russian radar devices that are located on the mainland are likely to see only as far as Porvoo.
In addition to flight control, the radar can be used to monitor flights in neighbouring countries. Thanks to its location and higher elevation, Suursaari is an excellent place to monitor all traffic in the Gulf of Finland.
Ahola believes that Russia is especially interested in NATO fighters performing air surveillance above the Baltic States.
For several years now, Estonia has been preparing the transfer of its fighters from Lithuania to the Ämari Air Base west of Tallinn.
Already prior to the construction of the radome, Suursaari had long been a centre for electronic intelligence.
There is a marine surveillance station at the northern end of the island, while the surrounding sea area is used for testing and training operations by the Russian Navy and naval shipyards.
Recently the Russian Navy has been examining the route of the upcoming Nord Stream gas pipeline in the area surrounding Suursaari. The Russian Navy will be in charge of mine clearance operations in Russian waters.
Following the construction of the radome, Suursaari, an island of great natural beauty, has been closed once more to tourists.
Since August 2007, tourists - Finnish and Russian alike - have no longer been able to visit the island.
”Our sales for 2008 were already off to a good start, when suddenly all permits were cancelled”, says Managing Director Satu Mäntyvaara from Kymenmatkat, a Finnish travel agency that used to organise trips to Suursaari during the brief window of opportunity when the place could be visited.
The Russian partner of Kymenmatkat was Gogland-Tur, a St. Petersburg-based travel agency which owned a hotel on the island.
Gogland-Tur was a part of the Russian firm Kineks, a subsidiary of the oil giant Surgutneftegas.
According to the information provided by Satu Mäntyvaara, the oil company has now leased its hotel to the Russian army.
Suursaari is a forested island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland. In Russian the island is known as Gogland, and it was previously called Högland by the Swedes.
In the 1920s and '30s, when it was still a part of Finland, the place was a popular holiday destination, known as "the Pearl of the Gulf", with spa activities, accommodation in private houses, and a "casino", though this last was apparently more of a dancing restaurant than a gambling den.
The impending crisis in the autumn of 1939 led to evacuation of the local population from Suursaari and other nearby islands, all of which had been earmarked by Moscow in their pre-war demands.
It was evacuated in 1939 and ceded to the Soviet Union after the war, and little is left of the old settlements.
Aside from stories about radar stations, the last occasion when Suursaari made the news was in early 2008, in connection with grandiose schemes to build a spherical hotel.
This has been replaced, quite clearly, with a sphere of a rather different kind.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 29.1.2010
Previously in HS International Edition:
Nord Stream mine clearance operation delayed in Gulf of Finland (20.11.2009)
New rules bring confusion to Russian visa application process (21.6.2007)
Defence Forces commander sees airspace violations as serious issue (25.5.2005)
Plans drawn up for ferry connection from Kotka to Estonia (21.4.2005)
Suursaari opens slowly for tourists (30.5.2006)
FACTFILE: An island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland (30.5.2006)
Setback for large-scale tourism plans for former Finnish island of Suursaari (30.4.2004)
BACKGROUND: Suursaari was once a Finnish paradise island (21.5.2002)
Suursaari spherical hotel dreams look to be just that (29.1.2008)
JUSSI KONTTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat