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Canal across Finnish-Russian border to re-open, unaffected by sanctions

Just over a week ago, it remained unclear whether the Saimaa Canal would open, due to possible EU sanctions on Russia.

The Calypso, a tugboat fitted with a detachable icebreaking bow, at work on the canal in March 2021. Image: Mikko Savolainen / Yle

The Saimaa Canal officially re-opens on Monday, although resumption of traffic will depend on ice and weather conditions.

Canal authorities announced on Friday that the annual traffic season on the cross-border waterway will start on 28 March. However, icebreaking on the canal has not yet started.

According to Juuso Kummala, director of infrastructure access and information at the Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency (FTIA), icebreaking firms see coming to the Saimaa Canal as risky.

"They are afraid that the icebreaking vessels arriving from the sea could be trapped in Saimaa. A ship could be trapped if, for example, the canal were closed for some reason," Kummala told Yle, adding that the agency is discussing risk management with ship operators.

A specific date for resuming traffic will be announced later, based on ice and weather conditions.

Re-opening doubts due to sanctions

Just over a week ago, it was unclear whether the Saimaa canal would open at all, due to possible EU sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

Almost half of the canal is located in an area leased from Russia.

"Finland complies with the EU's sanctions policy, but the sanctions do not apply to traffic on the Saimaa Canal, and therefore the canal can be opened normally," said the Saimaa Canal Delegate, Minna Kivimäki. She was appointed last year by the government to the position, which oversees implementation of the canal lease agreement between Finland and Russia.

The canal is usually re-opens in late March or early April, depending on weather conditions. Thanks to icebreakers, the operating season lasts 9-10 months, with a natural open water season of about seven months.

The canal is open to boats and ships 24/7 during this period. Vessels up to 82.5 m long and 12.6 m wide can ply the route without special permission.

Key route for industry

Completed in 1856, the 43-kilometre canal connects the vast Saimaa lake system to the Gulf of Finland near Vyborg. Nearly half of it is located in an area leased from Russia.

The canal is an important route for many forest and wood processing companies in Eastern Finland that ship their products overseas.

Authorities have decided to carry out a 95-million-euro reconstruction project for the canal, which will extend the locks and raise the water level of the entire waterway. Late last year, the Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency decided to postpone the venture though, due to technical and administrative problems with the construction bidding process.

The canal was on the agenda during face-to-face talks between the Finnish and Russian presidents last October.