Putin's Playbook: Disinformation and Dependency in Finland
After gaining independence from Russia in 1917, Finland inherited a 1,340km long barely demarcated border, and was faced with an overwhelming military disadvantage. Ever since, their geopolitical posture has been to maintain balance, which they did throughout the 20th century. This balance was upset by Finnish accession to the European Union in 1995, necessitated by the financial consequences of the Soviet Union’s collapse. And while they have sought balance by staying out of NATO and serving as a mediator in bodies like the Arctic Council, in reality Helsinki no longer remains neutral. Nonetheless, it is important for both states to maintain strong relations. Russia requires Finnish help and mediation in bodies like the Arctic Council, which are key for their ambitious arctic strategy. Finland needs Russia because of their heavy reliance on imports of Russian natural gas and petroleum, which generate 70% of their energy.
Play #1: Propaganda & Disinformation
Russian disinformation in Finland has taken many forms, and has ramped up significantly over the last decade. These efforts are primarily aimed at influencing Finn’s views of bodies like NATO and the EU, and at sowing distrust between ethnic Russians in Finland and their government.
Ethnic Russians make up 1.3% of Finland's population, and unlike similar populations in Russia’s territorial neighbours, do not identify closely with Russia. A campaign about the mistreatment of ethnic Russian children in Finland was designed to change that. In 2012 a series of blogs and news reports emerged alleging that the Finnish government practised “Juvenile Terror”. They claimed that a Russian family in Finland had been incarcerated in prisons specifically designed to destroy ethnically Russian families, and subjected to deprivation and torture. Investigations revealed that the news sources reporting these wildly untrue claims were all based in Russia, with suspected links to the Russian intelligence services.
"Russian propaganda has claimed that the Finnish government has imprisoned, deprived, and tortured the children of ethnic Russians living in Finland"
The Russian capture of Crimea was another catalyst for the increase in disinformation campaigns for many of Russia’s neighbours including Finland. A short-lived radio station called Love FM began broadcasting in Finland, highlighting historic ties between Crimea and Russia, alleging that Ukrainian soldiers were committing widespread human rights violations, and claiming that Russian military presence generally led to greater peace and lesser terrorism in places like Syria. While there was initially no information about its origins or funding, it was eventually discovered that the station was run by Finns in the Ukrainian region of Donetsk who were connected to DONi news, a Russian propaganda outlet based in the conflict zones of Eastern Ukraine.
Play #2: Government Infiltration
In 2016, a Finnish Security Intelligence Service report outlined that Russian intelligence agents operating in the country were their greatest threat. The agents aim to recruit young politicians who may have access to information critical to Moscow, such as NATO cooperation, Arctic Council decisions, EU sanctions sentiments, and energy policy. In addition to information gathering, Russian operatives are also tasked with monitoring Russian families living in Finland, and helping to create propaganda about Russophobia and discrimination.
The same year, Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja announced that they suspected Russia was behind the four year spying campaign against government IT networks aimed at gaining access to Finnish and EU data. Because of their EU membership and close relations with states in Western Europe, Finland is increasingly becoming a target of Russian linked cyberattacks, which has included gaining access to Finnish MPs' emails, and compromising the security of Finnish Parliament.
Play #3: Orchestrating Crisis
Between 2015 and 2016, Finland faced an Arctic Circle migration crisis which saw the influx of hundreds of asylum seekers through their northern region with Russia. Having emerged from areas of the Murmansk Oblast which have little of note aside from Russian military bases, Moscow has been widely suspected of orchestrating the crisis. Many asylum seekers had documentation indicating they had spent significant time in Russia beforehand, and accounts suggest Russian organised crime groups and secret services were involved in moving them towards the Lapland border.
To deal with this crisis, Helsinki was forced to engage in direct dialogue with Moscow, going against their modus operandi of favouring multilateral EU relations over bilateral talks. Moscow choreographed a situation which forced the Finns to come to the negotiating table, likely for the purposes of dealing with other Russian concerns that had remained unresolved. These actions also place ongoing pressure on Helsinki to maintain a good relationship, serving as a warning about undertaking actions Moscow doesn’t approve of like military cooperation with NATO.
Putin’s Finland strategy is aimed at three key goals. First, to keep Finland in line and out of NATO through actions like instigating the Arctic Circle Migration Crisis, which show Moscow’s strength and force Finland to negotiate with them directly. Second, to turn the ethnically Russian population in Finland against their government through disinformation, such as the allegations of the Finnish government practising “Juvenile Terror”. Third, he seeks to gain access to information about his opponents in Europe through compromising Finnish IT systems and recruiting people within the Finnish government. Faced with the barrage of these attacks against its institutions, government, and populace, Helsinki has had to respond in multiple ways to counter the Russian threat.
To work against Russian disinformation following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Finnish government began integrating media literacy and disinformation classes into their school curriculum, teaching students to question claims and interrogate the origins of information. The classes demonstrate how statistics can be manipulated, and how propaganda is designed to rapidly spread and incite tensions. In 2015, the Prime Minister's Office recruited specialists, experts, and public servants to monitor disinformation at a government level. They have also worked with NATO to massively step up their cyber defenses.
How effective is Putin's Finland Playbook?
Unlike Russia’s efforts in some regions of Eastern Ukraine and parts of Baltic states, they have struggled to gain a foothold in Finland. High rates of literacy and confidence in the government have been a strong bulwark against the efficacy of disinformation, and while cyberattacks certainly were a threat to the Finnish government, they responded by working even more closely with NATO, which is not at all in Moscow’s interests.
That said, it has caused some internal problems in Finland. Questions about dual-citizens serving in government and military have come to the forefront, and nationalist movements like the Nordic Resistance Movement and Soldiers of Odin have become more popular and powerful.
"While war and occupation are not the danger they once were to Finland, the threat of military action from their Eastern neighbour can never be ruled out"
While war and occupation are not the danger they once were to Finland, the threat of military action from their Eastern neighbour can never be ruled out. Russia remains a predominantly European problem, and so long as there is tension between Western Europe and Russia, Finland will be stuck in the middle and continue to be a target for infiltration and political influence. The ongoing importance of tourism, economic ties and energy security mean that Helsinki must remain close to Moscow, and so their push and pull relationship is unlikely to change.
With the United States’ shifting its gaze toward Asia, the EU must keep a watchful eye on Moscow’s expanding ambitions. Finland’s problems today are likely to be Europe’s tomorrow, and effective defense against cyberwarfare and disinformation cannot be built overnight. The frontlines of disinformation, infiltration, and orchestrated crises continue to creep West, bringing with it Europe's next political trials.
Written by Perri Grace
Edited by Owen Swift