Helsinki is well accustomed to tense relations with Russia. And yet, Finland has shown little interest in joining the Western military alliance of NATO.
The plain brick building in downtown Helsinki is hard to find. Its address is not listed on the institute’s website and there is no sign on the door to show who occupies the upper floors of this building: the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE). Those who manage to find it nonetheless are asked to produce proof of their identity and an appointment before they are granted access.
These security measures are not unjustified, for the Hybrid CoE is a thorn in the flesh of many sinister forces around the world. “Our mission is to educate about hybrid threats and develop counter-measures,” Director Matti Saarelainen explains.
The Hybrid CoE deals with hacker attacks, the targeted use of fake news, meddling with election campaigns and any other undesired non-military interference with the internal affairs of both corporations and nations – thus antagonizing adversaries who are not exactly known for their squeamishness. Its experts investigate the machinations of organized crime syndicates, terror organizations such as IS, and government players, with a particular focus on a country that shares a complicated history with Finland: Russia.
During World War II, Finland was an ally of Germany. During the Cold war, they avoided taking sides and maintained strict neutrality. Yet after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Helsinki was quick to turn towards the West, join the European Union, and introduce the Euro.
However, Finland declined to join the transatlantic military alliance NATO – and still is not a member today. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Helsinki was the location of choice for US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in their recent venue search for a bilateral meeting scheduled for July 16.
The Hybrid CoE, on the other hand, does not really seem to fit into Helsinki, at least at first sight. The Finnish government was very eager to have the center in its capital and is providing about half of its budget. The institute’s mission is to improve the exchange of information between EU and NATO member states. During his speech at the center’s inauguration, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg described its mission as providing a “rapid response to Russia."
In the nearby Baltic states, this sentence would not have come as a surprise. In Finland, however, such statements are unusual. The population, at least, wants to have little to do with NATO.
According to a survey, not even half of the Finnish population is in favor of a closer defense cooperation with the transatlantic alliance. Only 17 percent support a full membership. Finland holds the most negative view of NATO of all European countries except Russia.
Meanwhile, its relationship with Russia is cooling as well. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, tensions have been rising on the Baltic Seaboard. Russian fighter jets keep violating the airspace of neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden.
Add to that minor aggressions in cyberspace. Hybrid CoE has come to notice that, too. “When our institute was founded last year, a cloned website with a Russian extension popped up immediately, propagating totally different contents,” says Director Saarelainen. “They mean to confuse visitors to our side and undermine our credibility.” The site is still up and represented in some social media networks. It looks almost identical to the original Finnish site save a slightly altered name and logo. Yet instead of educating about the dangers of hybrid threats, the Russian domain warns about how the EU and NATO are restricting freedom of opinion in Europe– and about these organizations’ supposed hybrid attacks on Russia. The Hybrid CoE in Helsinki has given up hope that this site might ever be taken down.
It is these microaggressions that cause Hannu Himanen increasing concern. The 67-year-old served as Finnish Ambassador to Moscow for four years – including during the Crimean crisis. He has not exactly developed much trust in Russian players during this time. “I would not call the current situation threatening, but we are in a phase when Russia has become a significantly greater security threat,” he says. “We have to take it seriously.”
After decades in the diplomatic service, Himanen is now retired, but not idle. The former ambassador is one of the masterminds behind an initiative that advocates Finnish membership in NATO despite all resistance. “If we end up getting involved in a conflict with Russia, our options are extremely limited,” he says.
While Finland, unlike other states, still has a mandatory military draft and an arsenal of almost 300,000 reservists, it would be no match for the Russian army in a direct military conflict – especially since the two countries share more than 800 miles of border.
He does not want to rely on the international community to come to Finland’s aid. “Our security situation is ambiguous,” he says. Yes, the Treaty of Lisbon spells out certain obligations for Finland’s European partners, and the US keep affirming that they would protect the country, but there is no real obligation to provide assistance as stipulated in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. “A NATO membership would clarify that and increase stability,” Himanen says.
He assumes that a large majority of the international affairs and security establishment agrees with him. Yet they dodge the topic as much as they can – because the majority of the population would not back them. Advocating for a NATO membership would be political suicide.
When Finland elected a new President this spring, only one of the eight candidates publicly supported NATO membership. He ended up with 1.5 percent of the vote. Incumbent Sauli Niinistö is also staying away from the topic. “The Finns don’t support it, and I am a Finn,” he told the Financial Times. Another reason for such reticence is a concern about a possible Russian backlash if Finland joined NATO. There is no reason to fear his country, the Russian Ambassador said last fall. Yet if Finland were to join the alliance, that would be a different story.
The presence of NATO infrastructures so close to the Russian border would “force us into an appropriate response.” Finnish security circles interpreted this as an almost unveiled threat.
“Keeping Finland out of NATO is Russia’s primary political objective in the region,” says Alpo Rusi. “Which they achieved.” Rusi is an expert on this. In the 1990s, he consulted Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari on foreign policy matters.
Back in the day, on a visit to St. Petersburg, he was greeted by then Vice Mayor Vladimir Putin. Later, Rusi worked for the United Nations and served as Ambassador to Switzerland. “Our block-free existence during the Cold War was a comfortable gray zone,” Rusi says. Many Finns miss those days.
Yet Rusi does not believe that a return to the good old days is an option. “The fact that Russia annexed Crimea by military force was a terrible disappointment,” he says, adding that Finnish politics must respond.
“Our worst foreign policy mistake since the end of World War II was not to join NATO while the window of opportunity was open,” Rusi says. In the event of a conflict, in the Baltic region, for instance, Finland would be left almost defenseless.
“Russia and NATO would fight over who gets to use our airfields – and NATO would likely not prevail, for logistical reasons alone,” he says. In his opinion, it would enhance security if Finland were firmly embedded in the alliance. Good relations to Russia are desirable, but not paramount, he says: “Detente or containment has always been the core of European policy. Detente is good – but it is not the only tool.”
Rusi agrees with Himanen that a major military conflict between Russia and the West is unlikely. But he is convinced that the hybrid threat to his country is rising. “This has happened in our history time and again,” he says. In 1939, prior to the Winter War against the Soviet Union, fake news emanating from Nazi Germany forced the foreign minister to resign. “We have some experience with that,” says Rusi, who has been studying this case for a long time.
He does not expect any improvement: “As long as Putin is in power, nothing will change.” Yet he does see the potential for improved relations in the long term. “We need a genuine system for collective security, which Russia should also join at some point,” he says. It might be a very long time before this happens.
The research trip to Finland was made possible by a Transatlantic Media Fellowship by the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America, Washington, DC.
This article originally appeared in German in Handelsblatt on 30 June 2018. It was translated into English by Kerstin Trimble.