Sweden announces it should “work toward” an application for NATO membership

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A sports hall inside the Merihaka bunker.
A sports hall inside the Merihaka bunker. (Chris Liakos/CNN)

As Finland edges closer to joining NATO, Russia has warned that it “will be forced to take retaliatory steps” in order to “stop the threats to its national security.”

But it seems Finland has been preparing for a potential conflict with its neighbor to the east for decades.

Since the 1960s, the Finnish government has built more than 50,000 bunkers across the country, which are enough to shelter 80% of the country’s 5.5 million people.

A CNN team visited two of the 5,500 or so shelters in Helsinki, the capital.

The Itäkeskus Swimming Hall, in the city’s northeast, can be converted into a shelter in less than a day by draining its Olympic-sized swimming pool of water.

Itäkeskus Swimming Hall.
Itäkeskus Swimming Hall. (Chris Liakos/CNN)

Meanwhile, about 20 meters (60 feet) below a parking garage, the Merihaka bunker is cut into the bedrock of the city. An emergency shelter with capacity for 6,000 people can be set up within 72 hours in case of crisis.

Parts of the space are already in use, to help offset the costs — children play hockey inside sports halls and enjoy play areas, while members of the public use the cafes.

“We are a half-star hotel,” Tomi Rask, who works for the Helsinki City Rescue Department, tells CNN.

However, the bunker is not just fit for recreational use.

The 2 billion-year-old bedrock is blast-proof and could absorb the radiation from a nuclear bomb, while the curved tunnels that run through the shelter “take most of the hit,” according to Rask.

Merihaka bunker.
Merihaka bunker. (Frederick Wheeler/CNN)

Rask adds that despite the city’s preparations, he can’t predict how things will turn out “when this many people get put in a small space and it’s tight and you close the doors.”

Everyone has a role in here,” he says.

Finland declared independence from Russia in 1917, refusing to align itself with the Soviet Union or the United States. Even after it joined the European Union in 1995 and gradually aligned its defense policies with the West, it still avoided joining NATO outright due to the geopolitical threat from Russia, with whom it shares an 830-mile border.

But the Mayor of Helsinki, Juhana Vartiainen, said the city had “never had any illusions about the Soviet Union, nor its follower, Russia.”

“I have been more (and) more surprised by the fact that such shelters do not exist in all European countries,” he said.

Take a look inside Helsinki’s extensive bunkers:

CNN’s Luke McGee contributed reporting to this post.

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