A convoy of ships follows an ice breaker on the Arctic's Northern Sea Route. Photo: iStock
A convoy of ships follows an icebreaker on the Northern Sea Route. The Finnish Military Intelligence Review notes that Moscow takes security and capability enhancement in the Arctic seriously. Photo: iStock

The Finnish Defense Forces (FDF) have come out with their first-ever Military Intelligence Review. It is a comprehensive document with due regard to the global security picture and legal caveats in the Finnish security apparatus. 

The presumable goal of the document, however, is to highlight priorities, set or conform to lexicon and engage in subliminal strategic signaling. 

The review designates Finland’s military operating environment or area of concern naturally as Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea region, where “freedom of navigation, security of supply and commerce” are paramount to Finland’s prosperity.

The bear looms large

As Finland’s largest neighbor and a potent military power, Russia occupies an important place in its strategic assessments. With a direct reference to Russia, the review expresses concerns about the ability and likelihood of states achieving their goals through military means in the Baltic Sea region. 

The concern is in all probability a reference to Russia’s force posture and political rhetoric against the Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A conflict between Russia and NATO in the region would have ramifications on Finland’s security and prosperity because of geographical proximity to terrain and waters where hostilities might break out.

Bilaterally, the contemporary relationship between Finland and Russia is that of strategic restraint and avoiding direct antagonism, with some major exceptions. One such exception is the Finnish Security Intelligence Service, or SUPO (which is in charge of counterintelligence for Finland’s homeland security), calling Russia the paramount threat in its December 2019 report.  

In 2018, there were raids by Finnish forces on Sakkiluoto, a southwestern Finnish island that according to reports has “nine piers and one helipad.” These facilities could plausibly be used for supporting gray-zone activities in and around Finland. Some believe such places could potentially serve as bases for shadowy agents of the Russian state who could use the facilities on these islands for asymmetric actions. 

The review also mentions the centrality of “information systems” to nations and how gray-zone tactics or the proverbial “war by other means” can be used to undermine a society’s “critical functions, sites and individuals,” resulting in conflicts. 

This concern is in line with the obsession and paranoia on both sides over what Russian strategic discourse features as gibridnaya voyana and the West calls “active measures” and “hybrid war.” This is also consistent with the review’s assertion that the intelligence and counterintelligence activities of foreign countries in and around Finland are back to the same high level as the Cold War. 

Eyes on Russian Northern Military District

The controversial symbol of Russo-Finnish cooperation, the Pyhäjoki nuclear power plant, also faces an uncertain future, with cost overruns and doubts over ecological and geopolitical amenability. It is important to note that the designated agency in charge of developing the Northern Sea Route, ROSATOM (the Russian state nuclear energy company), is a major partner in this project too.  

The Northern Sea Route’s increasing feasibility and the race for exploiting natural resources in the Arctic are also identified in the review as influential factors for Finland’s security environment. It highlights the recent designation of the Russian Northern Fleet as a full-fledged military district headquartered in Murmansk as an indicator that Moscow takes security and capability enhancement in the Arctic seriously.

As major multilateral security cooperation agreements like the Open Skies Treaty and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty fall apart, Russia’s and Finland’s commitment to mutual inspection visits under the 2011 Vienna document is a ray of hope. 

It is interesting to note the criticism and reactions coming out of Russian polity on the Finnish Military Intelligence Review. A member of the Russian Duma’s Committee on International Affairs, Elena Panina, refers to Finland as “one of the last neutral states in Europe striving to maintain normal relations with the Russian Federation” and accuses the US of trying to draw Finland into an anti-Russia alliance such as NATO.

In conclusion, if the document is any indicator, Finland is likely to be cautious and pragmatic in its relationship with Russia in the coming months and years.

Aditya Pareek

Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.