Finland braces for Russian meddling in Nato membership debate

Intelligence agency expects increase in cyber and information operations from Moscow

Soldiers from the Finnish defence forces take part in drills in Norway involving Nato and partner countries. AFP

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Finland is bracing itself for Russian agents to meddle in its politics with cyberattacks and information warfare as it considers joining Nato.

Russia’s offensive in Ukraine has revived debate on whether Finland should move under Nato’s umbrella to protect itself from an increasingly hostile neighbour with which it shares a 1,340-kilometre border.

Moscow has threatened Finland and its neighbour Sweden with “military and political consequences” if they abandon their long-standing non-alignment but both countries insist they will not submit to pressure from the Kremlin.

The two nations have already forged closer ties with Nato during the crisis in Ukraine, sharing intelligence and attending summits with US President Joe Biden and other alliance leaders. Finnish troops are taking part in the month-long Cold Response drills being held in Norway by Nato and partner countries.

As the debate on membership plays out, Finnish intelligence is expecting Russia to widen the focus of its cyber operations from Ukraine to other European countries including Finland.

Antti Pelttari, the head of intelligence agency Supo, predicted an increase in operations targeting Finland in the coming months as he unveiled the country’s annual threat assessment on Tuesday.

Finnish society “should be prepared for various measures from Russia seeking to influence policymaking” which could rise to the level of intimidation, Mr Pelttari said.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her government will present security options to parliament next month. EPA

Attempts at interference could range from low-level hacking to attacks on infrastructure or even violence against political enemies, the agency believes.

It cited assassination attempts attributed to Russian intelligence in Britain and Germany as the “extreme end” of what Moscow could accomplish.

There are also concerns about Russian attempts to gather intelligence on Finnish policy, with the question of Nato membership a particular interest, and information warfare from Moscow’s notorious propaganda machine.

The annual report named Russia and China as countries which conducted “continuous intelligence operations that jeopardise Finland’s national security”.

Future cyberattacks could involve blocking and defacing Finnish websites to give the impression of paralysing society, the intelligence agency fears.

Hacking attempts such as this would mirror recent attacks on Ukrainian government websites which President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blamed on Russia.

The threat of more serious attacks has also risen, the intelligence service said, with businesses told to ensure that energy distribution systems and other critical infrastructure cannot be accessed from public networks.

Ministers must also intervene to “secure the conditions for a full and frank debate without intimidation, and ensure that outsiders are unable to influence security policy decisions made by Finland,” said Mr Pelttari.

Opinion polls have shown rising support for Nato membership since the Ukraine crisis began, with many Finns regarding the alliance’s Article 5 defence guarantee as a protective shield against Russia.

But Finland has historically been wary of antagonising Russia and being drawn into any European conflict. The government is keeping its options open, planning to present a paper on security options to parliament next month.

Russia objects to any eastward expansion of Nato and cited a possible Ukrainian accession as one of its reasons for invading the country last month.

Alliance leaders say their door is open and that it is none of Moscow’s business what countries such as Finland and Sweden choose to do.

Updated: March 30, 2022, 11:24 AM