Estonian Navy: Russian activity on Suursaari island no big surprise

Russian president Vladimir Putin, with defense minister Sergei Shoigu (third from left) on a 2019 visit to Suursaari.
Russian president Vladimir Putin, with defense minister Sergei Shoigu (third from left) on a 2019 visit to Suursaari. Source: Reuters / Scanpix

The increasing Russian military presence on Suuraari, a small island in the Gulf of Finland, comes as no surprise to Estonian Navy (Merevägi) commander Commodore Jüri Saska.

Talking to ERR's radio news Thursday, Saska said Suursaari is: "A very good geographical location … for the installation of various measuring and surveillance devices – radar, and other sensors."

"They [the Russians] have also conducted exercises there in recent years, which is also no secret, both using helicopters and missile systems. This has all been common knowledge, and observable," Cdr. Saska went on.

Once of Saska's predecessors, Igor Schvede, concurred, saying the island: "Provides a good overview of what is happening at sea, and partly also an opportunity to monitor what is happening on the land, especially in terms of radio intelligence."

The recent fight over Snake Island, a Ukrainian island in the Black Sea, has proven the importance of such features, which can also be used for more peaceful purposes such as weather monitoring, as is the case on Vaindloo, a much smaller island belonging to Estonia which is located quite close to Suursaari.

Suursaari also hosts lighthouses.

Farther afield, China has not only expanded its military presence on such islands, but even constructed artificial ones, to expand its maritime influence, exploiting loopholes in international law along the way, Saska said.

While the 21 sq km island would be very difficult to defend, its main military role as noted is for surveillance, while Schvede noted, the reverse is also the case, and Estonia, NATO, and NATO member-in-waiting Finland has a good overview of Suursaari and what goes on there, while the alliance has been directing more of its intention towards Russia than it already had been doing, in the wake of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine which stared just over a year ago.

As for practical ways in which Russia's military has used the installation, Finland's public broadcaster Yle notes that GPS navigation systems have been jammed by equipment located on Suursaari – though Saska said that it is not certain that this interference, which has happened several times in recent years, definitely originated on the island.

"A the same time, all kinds of other anomalies have also occurred, such as the emergence of a cellphone network in the middle of the Baltic Sea and so on and so forth," Saska told AK.

Commodore Jüri Saska, commander of the Estonian Navy Source: Open Spirit 2021.

He was also keen not to overstate the importance of Suursaari and Russia's activities there.

He said: "At the end of the day, it's just a rock in the middle of the sea, whose possession useful and challenging. In the sense of how do you hold and maintain it in a real-life situation, it is very comparable with Snake Island."

Suursaari (Finnish; Estonian: Suursaar) is also known as Hogland (Swedish), whence the Russian name, Gogland, derives.

It lies 180km west of St Petersburg and just 35km off the Finnish coast, but is organizationally part of the Kingiseppsky District, Leningrad Oblast.

Location of Suursaari/Gogland in the Gulf of Finland. Source: Google Maps

Some tourism takes place in relation to the island, but due to its sensitive nature this is limited.

While it was long inhabited by ethnic Finns, it became a part of the Russian Empire during Peter the Great's reign, and was scene of naval engagements during the Russo-Swedish war of the the late 18th century, and the Crimean War of the mid-19th.

In the latter case, four British Royal Navy vessels attacked and neutralized Russian shore batteries.

Since it was a part of the Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian Empire, Suursaari became a part of independent Finland from 1917, but, like several nearby islands, was occupied by the Soviet Union in the Winter War of 1939-1940, when the civilian population was evacuated. After being re-taken by Finland during the Continuation War, it became a post-war Soviet territory again.

Vladimir Putin made an official visit to the island in 2019 (pictured).


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: ERR Radio news, Yle

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