Finland has a long history of being a small state living next to a huge and increasingly assertive neighbour, Russia. Trying to maintain constructive bilateral relations while being part of the West is tricky in the current security context. From the Baltic region to the Black Sea and beyond, Russia is using both carrots and sticks, often unofficially and indirectly, to exert influence and to signal the potential for more negative policies. Two Finnish experts share some of the lessons Finland has learned in recent years.

The roots of Russia’s hybrid methods go back to the Soviet era, although the label is more recent. “Active measures”, as hybrid was called back then – such as spreading disinformation and setting up front organisations in the West – was an integral part of Soviet foreign policy. Today, some of Russia’s tactics are surprisingly similar but the current information environment makes their use both more efficient and complex.

As Finland has learned, hostile influence does not always involve pressure tools and “sticks” but also kind words and “carrots”. Whether attempts to influence and control the target state are reflexive or coercive depends on the context – but the aims and effects could be similar. Russia’s official rhetoric, for instance, offers positive messages of good neighbourly relations, yet on the sidelines Finland receives reminders that this is not self-evident and that, to maintain good relations, it should behave “responsibly” (that is, in a way that would not endanger Russia’s interests).

Below we look at some cases of Russian “dual messaging” in practice, as well as at Finland’s policy responses.

Influencing politics and public opinion

The Russian border zone is controlled by the Federal Security Service (FSB), which acts under the direct command of the state leadership.
© Thomas Nilsen

In the winter of 2015–2016, Russia suddenly began to let third country citizens access the Russian–Finnish border to seek asylum in Finland. This breached a decades-old common border practice, without actually breaking any official agreements. A total of 1,713 asylum seekers arrived in Finland from Russia during the winter months.

The Russian border zone is controlled by the Federal Security Service (FSB), a domestic security and counter-intelligence agency, which acts under the direct command of the state leadership. The issue became a political bone of contention in bilateral relations and was ‘resolved’ by signing a temporary agreement that restricts border crossings at two border crossing points.

The relatively small number of asylum seekers indicates that Russia’s aim was not to destabilise Finland but perhaps to test the reaction and operational readiness of the Finnish authorities. Furthermore, the aim was to signal that good working relations between authorities cannot be taken for granted and that the consequences of losing Russia’s trust could be significant for Finland. A straightforward example of this message was a comment by a Russian official to his Finnish counterpart during the negotiations that Russia has 11 million foreigners living in its territory.

Influencing public opinion in Finland and in many other countries is difficult for Russia, not least for historical reasons. Exerting influence may be easier when carried out indirectly and aimed at smaller target groups.

One of the specific Russian narratives tailored to the situational context in Finland seeks to portray the country as sidelined within the European Union. This narrative may have some resonance with a marginal – and mostly elderly – group of Finns who perceive Finland as a periphery of Europe, a nation geographically distant and culturally distinct from the mainland Europe. Another narrative strives to present the Russian-speaking population in Finland as a united group that is being discriminated against or even threatened. However, the risks related to the Russian minority in Finland are relatively small: most Russians living in Finland moved to the country after the fall of the Soviet Union and their reasons for immigration are heterogeneous.

Nevertheless, despite the modest success of Russian information operations, Finnish authorities need to shoot down false accusations and disinformation in a coordinated manner. The general awareness of risks related to aggressive influence operations needs to be increased by communicating these risks to the public as openly and directly as possible. An attentive and alert society is the best way to safeguard against such risks. The Finnish government has taken this question seriously and, for instance, formed a cross-governmental task group ensuring shared situational analysis of information operations taking place in the country.

Raising public awareness of groups and individuals disseminating falsehoods and misinformation about a target country and a specific conflict situation, and Russia’s role in it, is a prerequisite for a sound EU policy towards Russia.

Strategic use of energy resources

Russia has long been rather successful at capitalizing on its strategic resources. So far, the West has mostly been the target of geoeconomic “carrot” strategies (for instance, Russia offering energy at a discount price for political reasons), instead of direct “stick” methods (such as direct energy supply cuts or threats thereof) that have been tried and tested in the post-Soviet space. However, current practices, no matter how well established, are no guarantee that things will remain the same in the future.

Fennovoima, a joint Finnish-Russian venture for the construction of Pyhäjoki nuclear power plant almost fell through when it became apparent that one of the proposed partners was a Russian dummy company, which would have given Russia a controlling stake. In the end, the Finnish state majority-owned energy company, Fortum, reluctantly stepped in as project partner to secure a deal.

As things are, Russia’s geoeconomic “carrot” policies might lead to divisions in the EU ranks and energy dependency on Russia could be problematic for smaller states in particular.

A good example in the case of Finland are the events of summer 2015 concerning the deal for the construction of the Pyhäjoki nuclear power plant – a joint Finnish-Russian venture Fennovoima with substantial Russian financing and the state nuclear corporation Rosatom as the supplier. In June, Fennovoima submitted an application for the construction of a nuclear power plant with 56 per cent of Finnish ownership, 35 per cent of Rosatom ownership, and 9 per cent of Croatian ownership. The Finnish government required that that 60 per cent of the ownership had to be in national/EU hands. The project was promised a loan of up to EUR 5 billion from Russia.

The first attempt to achieve the required 60 per cent EU ownership quota in the project failed when it became apparent that the Croatian venture, Migrit Solarna Energija, was a Russian dummy company. Despite this clumsy tactic that did not sit well with the Finnish political culture, the deal was closed at the last minute under great political pressure when the Finnish state majority-owned energy company, Fortum, announced that it would become a project partner, albeit reluctantly.

Although Fortum duly “rescued” the project for the Finnish government, the company was unable to achieve its own objectives: a share in the Karelian hydro-electric power system that it had eyed for years. Perhaps ironically, the main reason for Fortum’s failure is that nowadays Russia sees energy assets as its most valuable “strategic resource” that should be kept in national hands. Contrary to this aim though, Russia has let China State Energy Engineering Corporation participate in the development of two small hydropower stations in Karelia. This may be indicative that good political relations with China do not come without economic concessions. Nevertheless, what Fortum got in return was a political “safety cushion” for major investments it had made in the 2000s in the electricity and heat business in Russia’s Ural region.

This case demonstrates how it is impossible in practical terms for European actors to decouple political and business considerations in deals involving Russia. From Russia’s geoeconomic perspective, energy and politics are different sides of the same coin.

To cope with problems stemming from Russia’s geoeconomic ‘actorness’, policymakers need to be more aware of Russia’s inner logic in Finland and elsewhere in Europe. This is especially important since political decisions concerning commercial Russian ventures, such as Fennovoima and North Stream, are often justified by arguing that these should be viewed in purely commercial terms. This, however, is not for Finland or other states to decide – and Russia does not hide its geoeconomic logic of action in its external and internal energy policies.

Increased military activity in the Baltic Sea region

Another significant source of concern is Russia’s increased military activity in the Baltic Sea region, coupled with relatively frequent airspace and territorial water violations and, for example, a faux attack on a US military ship in international waters. Russian military aircraft often fly ‘dark’ between St. Petersburg and the Kaliningrad region, namely without transponders or a flight plan. As the general security situation has worsened and tensions have risen, there is a risk that collisions or provocations might lead to a rapid and uncontrolled escalation.

In a high-tension environment, it is important to keep open channels for political dialogue and to seek ways to re-activate existing confidence-building measures. The work undertaken by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Baltic Sea project team to enhance flight safety over the Baltic Sea is important in this regard.

Russia’s increased military activity in the Baltic Sea region is coupled with relatively frequent airspace and territorial water violations.
(Pictured: Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov)

Negotiations with Russia at the highest political level may facilitate this process further. However, it is important to advance this goal in sync with European partners, so that there is as little room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation on any side.

In the current circumstances, it is sensible policy for Finland to deepen military cooperation and practice defence with its Western partners at all levels, including through joint exercises with NATO partners. It is important to update national legislation concerning both the giving and receiving of military assistance, removing any technical obstacles. This will clarify Finland’s status as a reliable partner.

Finland’s policy responses

Finland seeks to maintain and develop both bilateral and multilateral relations, and in this way, to maintain room for manoeuvre in its foreign and security policy. This can be seen as Finland’s historical dilemma: neighbouring Russia but now a part of the West leaves little room for manoeuvre and requires constant management.

Finland’s active policy of promoting stability is designed with this task in mind. It can be described as a two-track policy, whereby EU membership and intensified military cooperation with Western partners provide a basis for the maintenance and development of relations with Russia.

In its most recent foreign and security policy white paper published in June 2016, the Finnish government argues that Finland’s neighbourhood is changing rapidly and in an unpredictable way. Moreover, the white paper states, quite realistically, that: ”The security policy environment of Finland, a member of the western community, has transformed. A more tense security situation in Europe and the Baltic Sea region will directly impact Finland. The use or threat of military force against Finland cannot be excluded.”

Russia is more prepared than before to use military power to secure its political, economic and security interests – this applies both to Russia’s military capabilities and its readiness to use them. Beyond military power, Russia is increasingly using a multitude of other means to pressure others, both in wartime and peacetime.

Considering the comprehensiveness of Russia’s actions, it is of the utmost importance for Finland to invest in two things above all else: in strengthening its own society and in international cooperation.

Finnish troops exercise alongside troops from NATO member states and other partner countries during BALTOPS 2015. This annual military exercise in the Baltic Sea and the surrounding regions is sponsored by United States Naval Forces Europe since 1971.
© U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa / U.S. 6th Fleet

This means increasing society’s crisis tolerance and resilience, ensuring the readiness and ability to act of the political and administrative leadership of the country, updating legislation, and investing in defence and intelligence. The Finnish tradition of comprehensive “societal security” offers an excellent basis for national cooperation on hybrid influence between various actors: government, local governments, civil society, and business actors.

The national track is important but not enough. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of international cooperation for Finland. This is manifest in Finland’s decision to promote the establishment of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki. The Centre is needed to engage in strategic level dialogue, research, training and consultations. It will also conduct practical training aiming to improve readiness and resilience of societies.

By itself Finland is vulnerable – but together with the Nordic countries, the European Union and its other Western partners, Finland is better protected. So it is in Finland’s interests to promote a united and realistic common EU policy towards Russia. At the same time, it is necessary to maintain and develop bilateral relations with Russia in those areas where it is possible, while bearing in mind the risks posed by Russia’s changing behaviour. These two approaches for Finnish foreign policy are not mutually exclusive but rather mutually complementary.