Russian hybrid operations and information warfare have dominated the headlines of late. Billed as a new threat to Western democratic societies, Russian hybrid operations run the gamut from fake Facebook accounts targeting unsuspecting U.S. voters with fake news to economic information used for foreign policy gain. The term itself may indeed be new but the concept is as old as warfare and diplomacy, and Russia’s neighbors have had to live with it for a long time. Few countries can match Finland’s long experience of dealing with Soviet and Russian hybrid warfare—before, during, and after the Cold War—and few countries have had as much success in standing up to it. The secret of Finland’s success can be found in the resilience of Finnish society, which is derived from its unique history and record of combining firmness with flexibility in dealing with its much larger, difficult, and unpredictable neighbor.
The concept of resilience has gained considerable popularity along with the increased attention to hybrid warfare and its many variations. Resilience to cyber attacks, to information operations, or to fake news has been frequently mentioned as the answer to the challenge of hybrid warfare that nations on both sides of the Atlantic confront. They need to embrace resilience to protect themselves from these threats. Indeed, building resilience is essential to a nation’s ability to defend itself in multiple domains. Defenses against cyber intrusions are essential to making a nation’s critical infrastructure resilient. At the same time, publicly identifying those who generate and deliberately spread fake news and correcting the record can help the public’s awareness of bad actors.
However, building up a nation’s resilience to information operations and influence campaigns by hostile actors is a far more difficult task that cannot be accomplished solely with these short-term steps. Resilience is the key concept in responding to disinformation and hybrid operations in all forms. Resilience cannot be developed easily or quickly in a society that does not have it. Here, the population’s level of education plays a crucial role.
In the current environment, with its countless sources of information and opportunities to misinform, misguide, and misdirect the public, the attacker will always have a number of important advantages. The defender, meanwhile, runs the risk of playing whack-a-mole, not knowing from where the next fake news item will come. To deal with this challenge, nations have to commit to the long-term task of building societal resilience and helping their citizens become educated, sophisticated, and discerning consumers of information.
A high level of trust, both private and public, characterizes Scandinavian societies and is underpinned by a centuries-old tradition of self-government. A small linguistic community is also protected by the effective wall of its language. The Russian news agency Sputnik launched a Finnish-language news service in April 2015 and tried to recruit a large number of journalists, with scant success. Sputnik gave up in March 2016, and it also folded its operations in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Google Translate is not enough to make an impact on a stable and sophisticated Scandinavian society.
Finland’s Recent History of Resilience
Building resilience is a task that nations approach in different ways. For some countries, resilience develops organically as a by-product of history and national experience. For others, it takes a deliberate, long-term effort woven into the education system and national conversation.
Finland’s resilience derives from its national experience and history. Living in the shadow of the Soviet Union and carefully calibrating a productive relationship with the difficult neighbor while firmly guarding its independence and its national identity has never been easy. It would not have been possible without a resilient society aware of the country’s predicament as well as a society proud of its identity and place in the world. Throughout the Cold War, Finland’s European identity was never in question. Finland did not miss a single European integration milestone, and joining the European Union in 1995 was viewed by many Finns as a homecoming.
Finland could never have reached this state of affairs if the Finnish army had not been able to protect its civilian population by effectively stopping the Red Army at crucial junctures in 1940 and 1944. Although Finland lost almost fifteen percent of its territory, the country retained its independence. This marked Finland as a unique case among Russia’s neighbors. It was the only country that stood up and held its own against the vastly bigger neighbor. Unlike Germany, Finland lost a just war because the Soviet Union attacked it in 1939. In 1941, Finland joined Beelzebub but did so without adopting Beelzebub’s ideology. And because it was never occupied, no Finnish woman or young girl ever had to encounter a Red Army soldier. All of this underlines the uninterrupted continuity of Finnish society.
The war experience boosted Finland’s resilience and prepared it for the hybrid warfare that has characterized the Cold War and post–Cold War eras.
Finnish and Russian historians recently published a treasure trove of Soviet documents from the president’s (also known as the secretary general), or Joseph Stalin’s, archives. There were some sensational revelations. One from 1957 discussed the possible transfer of the Soviet ambassador from Ulaanbaatar to Helsinki. His name was Vyacheslav Molotov. Yet it came to nothing: Nikita Khrushchev probably realized that sending Molotov as an ambassador to the country that had met the Red Army in 1939 with a “cocktail for Molotov” wasn’t such a good idea. Molotov and his tirades epitomized Soviet aggression, unlike Stalin who never pronounced himself publicly against Finland.
The most striking document was a plan to influence the outcome of the 1950 Finnish presidential election. Originally, the Soviet Union seemed to have hatched a plan in 1947 to force Finland to rethink its refusal to sign a friendship treaty. The plan was never put into operation. First the coup in Prague in 1948 and then the start of the Korean War in 1950 forced Stalin to reconsider his strategy toward Finland.
It was a classic pre–social media trolling operation. The plan was devious. According to now published documents, Soviet agents operating in Helsinki would mail fifty to sixty copies of an anti-Soviet leaflet to the leaders of Finnish bourgeois parties. The same leaflet would be sent to pro-Soviet activists making sure that they would report to the Soviet embassy in Helsinki. This would give the Soviet ambassador the rationale for strongly accusing Finland of violating the peace treaty by allowing a “resistance organization” to operate in the country. This group would be accused of trying to divert the course of Finnish political opinion toward the West.
The 1950 Finnish presidential elections were accompanied by a vicious Soviet media campaign against the incumbent, J. K. Paasikivi. This was unprecedented. Professor Kimmo Rentola, an acknowledged authority on Soviet intelligence, notes wryly that the Soviet media’s assault alarmed the Finnish president, but not sufficiently and he was re-elected. So much for Stalin’s methods.
Paasikivi, who in 1950 turned eighty, had in 1947 declined an invitation by Stalin to visit Moscow, referring to his age. Paasikivi knew what Stalin wanted, and he was not ready to commit Finland to a military alliance under a friendship treaty similar to those signed by Hungary and Romania.
It is worth remembering that Finland, unable to accept Marshall Plan aid, paid large war reparations to the Soviet Union and thus became its largest Western trading partner. West Germany overtook Finland only after it started exporting steel pipes for the Soviet gas industry in the 1970s.
The coup d’état in Prague in February 1948 distracted Soviet foreign policy, and Finland was able to negotiate a friendship treaty that differed from Stalin’s original proposal by avoiding any requirement to provide military assistance automatically. It also limited the Finnish defense commitment to countering attacks passing over Finnish territory directed against the Soviet Union. Of course, the treaty cast a permanent shadow over Finland throughout the Cold War. But it was an early example of Finland’s resilience, of its national resolve to stand up to Soviet pressure, of being able to walk a fine line between the Soviet Union and the West—yielding on some issues, but holding firm on those that mattered.
The Soviet shadow was long, and negotiating with Stalin’s heirs was never easy. In a memo advising then U.S. president Richard Nixon before a visit by Finland’s then president Urho Kekkonen in 1970, Henry Kissinger succinctly summarized the Finnish dilemma: “Keeping the Soviets convinced [of Finland’s neutrality] is an unending task.”
When the newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin laid a wreath in Helsinki at the war memorial and the tomb of Marshal Gustaf Mannerheim in 2001, it was recognized as a gesture of reconciliation. In this, Putin was following in the footsteps of former president Boris Yeltsin, who had also paid his respects at the memorial.
No End to History
Finland’s experience during the Cold War and the resilience it built up throughout that difficult period have served it well since then, for living next door to Russia has never been easy.
Unlike Soviet-era propaganda, today’s Russian information operations are often quite sophisticated and seem to convince at least the Russian population. This is an achievement in its own right. But do they influence people in other countries? Yes and no.
In the spring of 2009, an officer in the Consulate General of Finland in St. Petersburg decided to smuggle a small boy and his father over the border to Finland. The father had secured custody of the boy, but Russian officials had been reluctant to issue the boy a permit to leave the country. The consul probably did the right thing but broke just about every diplomatic rule in the book to do it.
The Russians protested when they found out but acted indirectly, while the FSB border guards were left fuming. In no time, the Russian state ombudsman for children’s rights appeared in Helsinki and accused the Finnish authorities of systematically taking children into custody from Russian mothers in mixed marriages. These accusations were accompanied by an unprecedented media campaign. This was the same ombudsman whose main task a few years later was to stop adoptions to the United States and led the attacks against adoptive U.S. parents. In this sense, the information operation directed against Finland was a precursor to a larger operation directed against the United States known as the Dima Yakovlev case, but it was also revenge for the FSB.
The Finnish authorities responsible for child welfare were stunned. They could not and would not share information concerning individual child custody cases with any outsiders, not even with other Finnish authorities, to say nothing of a Russian official on a crusade. The storm lasted some years and occasionally still flares up. The Finnish authorities have been able to talk calmly about differing views concerning child welfare with the new Russian ombudsman, a mother of seven children. Yet the issue and the trolling campaign have not been forgotten and have left a sour aftertaste. It was a textbook case of an information operation testing the resilience of a society ruled by law, not by man.
Another example is more recent. In the fall of 2015, third-country nationals without proper documents started to cross over the border from Russia to Norway. Since pedestrians are not allowed across the border, these people used bicycles. The Russian daily newspaper Kommersant coined the expression velobegstvo (flight by bike). Over 5,000 people crossed into Norway from Murmansk.
Soon after, the same pattern was repeated in northern Finland. Over 1,000 people without proper documents were allowed by Russian border authorities to cross into Finland. Most of these people were Afghans and others who had lived in Russia for years. They were now advised to leave the country and, with the help of criminal schleppers who helped them migrate, systematically directed toward the Norwegian and Finnish border crossings.
Again, the Finnish and Norwegian authorities were stunned. This was a breach of the border regime and, even worse, a breach of the confidence that had been painstakingly built up over decades. In hindsight, the argument that hurt Moscow was the question put to the FSB border guards: How does the FSB allow criminal elements, the schleppers, to operate on the Russian border? These poor souls with small children in arctic conditions were flown to Murmansk and Kandalaksha from Moscow, and then herded into hotels. Provided with rickety second-hand Soviet-era cars—for a hefty price, of course—they were directed during a polar night through uninhabited forests and past multiple Russian border posts toward the lights of the Finnish border crossing. At no point was Finland defenseless. It could have closed the border but did not do so.
What had happened? One interpretation is that the Russians just could not resist exploiting the refugee crisis in Europe that had unsettled all countries on the trail from Turkey into Scandinavia. It was a textbook hybrid operation to create mischief, but also to send a clear message that Moscow can cause trouble. But why did the Russian authorities direct the FSB to do this on their best-functioning border? Cooperation and a culture of mutual effort had been built over decades on the Finnish-Russian border, especially after the demise of the Soviet Union.
The border incidents exploited the Finnish population’s anxiety over the growing number of refugees. It backfired and has not been forgotten. The April 2016 report on The Effects of Finland’s Possible NATO Membership, commissioned by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted “Russia’s propensity to create a problem, then leverage it and offer to manage it without necessarily solving it.”
Preparing for a New Century
It is no surprise that the Finnish government in September 2017 established the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. It is not an operational center for anti-hybrid warfare but rather a center that promotes countering hybrid threats at the strategic level through research and training among participants from the EU and NATO. The Finnish government has organized courses with Harvard University to train civil servants to recognize a hybrid operation and how to act.
The background of the Finnish initiative is the comprehensive security concept built over decades, which includes military conscription where 70 percent of the male cohort serve six to twelve months. It is also deemed highly appropriate to new types of threats since it emphasizes building awareness and strengthening the resilience of Finnish society.
Building resilient societies is a long-term task. Whether one considers Finland lucky because resilience came naturally to its citizenry as a matter of national survival, or unlucky because it did not have that choice, its example demonstrates that resilience is not something that a nation can acquire in a short period of time. It takes time, resolve, and resources, which are spent not only on national security matters but on basic tasks, such as engaging and educating the citizenry about the country’s place in the world. Building resilience in a society when one realizes that it is missing is too late. Resilience has to be integrated into society’s everyday life long before it is put to a test.
René Nyberg is the former Finnish ambassador to Russia.
This article is part of a two-year project entitled The Return of Global Russia: A Reassessment of the Kremlin’s International Agenda.