Helsinki — The 100 or so reporters who rushed to northern Finland heard nothing, saw very little in the Arctic twilight, and filed a lot. The only really happy ones were the hotel owners who received extra business. The crash of the stray Soviet SS-N-3 missile in a sparsely populated area of Finland on Dec. 28 was news only to the media. Governments simply were not interested.
On the eve of the meeting in Geneva between United States Secretary of State George Shultz and his Soviet counterpart, Andrei Gromyko, everyone was willing to dismiss the unarmed cruise missile as an error of no real importance.
The 1954-vintage missile, which violated Norwegian air space before crashing near Lake Inari in Finland, was not the first stray in the Ivalo area 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Border guards routinely return stray reindeers across the borders to their rightful owners, be they NATO, Norwegian, neutral Finnish, or Russian ones.
During the first four days after the incident, no one in the Finnish government knew about it. When the news came, no one wanted to know. The missile was a UFO as far as Finnish government officials were concerned.
When Norway and Finland finally asked for explanations from Moscow, the answer -- and an apology -- came within hours. The Norwegians and Soviets were in rare agreement that the incident was unimportant. This suited especially Finnish authorities who, with their 1,000-mile border and 1948 agreement of friendship and cooperation with the Russians, do not want to air possible differences in public.
Surprisingly, Sweden, with its history of uninvited Soviet submarines, did not disagree. Foreign Minister Lennart Bodstr"om hurried to wish that the incident not be high on the agenda of this week's meeting between Swedish and Finnish leaders.
A Finnish official confirmed that Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and Finnish President Mauno Koivisto will discuss the latter's proposal of a ban on long-distance cruise missiles. The official also confirmed that at the time Dr. Koivisto launched his proposal in the annual new-year speech, he had no idea what had happened just three days before in Finnish Lapland.
A previous serious incident took place last fall when a Soviet fighter followed a passenger airliner into Swedish air space during naval excercises. The fighter penetrated Swedish air space for five minutes but turned back before Swedish interceptors reached the area.
Before that, the most spectacular case occurred two years ago when a Soviet submarine rested for days on ground outside Swedish naval base in Karlskrona. The Soviets did not deny the intrusion, but objected to the reports that the sub had torpedos with nuclear warheads.
Since then there have been numerous reports of Soviet submarines in Swedish territorial waters, but no hard evidence. The Swedish government's White Paper last year referred to tracks in the sea bed near its Musk"o naval base, and declared that there had been Soviet minisubs on spying missions. These subs were saidto be able to crawl along the sea bed like caterpillars.
The Finnish government -- willing to avoid confrontation with the Soviets -- refrained from comment but let it be known that all these incidents were the result of international tension. Thus the guilt was evenly distributed and the picture matched the wishes of neutral Finnland.
Denmark and Norway both have right-wing governments. Finland and Sweden are run by Social Democratic prime ministers. Sweden's Prime Minister Palme and Kalevi Sorsa of Finland have both tabled their respective European disarmament plans. The two gentlemen are seen to compete more with each other than with the opponents of disarmament. Scandinavian disarmament proposals have so far usually taken the form of nuclear-free zones.
The Swedes would like to see such a nuclear-free zone reaching from north to south, separating the two military blocks in northern Europe. The Finns have proposed a nuclear-free zone for all of northern Europe. Soviets have supported this idea as long as their huge military base in the Kola Peninsula is not included. NATO has been cool to both of these ideas.
The fact that none of these differences surfaced during the Soviet cruise incident in Lapland shows that even a possible thaw in US-Soviet relations has patched up the small differences among Scandinavian nations.