Finland must learn to live with active Russian influencing

While the activities of Russia are the most significant threat to Finnish national security, Russia’s main focus is elsewhere than on Finland in the immediate future.

White fibers on a blue background.

Finland must learn to live in a new situation where poor relations with Russia are the norm, owing to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine and its efforts to foment discord in Europe. Russia interprets Finnish NATO membership and its participation in the sanctions jointly imposed by Western countries as a unilateral decision by Finland to weaken relations.

Russian influencing operations targeting Finland will probably become more active than the measures that the Finnish public was accustomed to before the Russian war of aggression. Russia has already communicated its dissatisfaction with Finland’s amended foreign and security policy by taking such measures as closing the Finnish consulate in St. Petersburg and changing the procedures of its border authorities on the Finnish frontier.

Even though Russia will be more of a challenge than before, the situation of Finland is in no way exceptional. Many European countries have already been facing similar conditions for a long time.

As a country sharing a common border with Finland and conducting a war in Europe, Russia is the most significant threat to Finnish national security. Its main concerns nevertheless remain elsewhere than in Finland, and no military threat is likely in the near future. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also weakened its own ability to exert influence in Finland and Europe.

Russia is not an all-powerful influencer

Though sometimes portrayed in public debate as a peerless influencer that pulls strings and weaves detailed plans spanning decades, Russia is not especially adept at developing new methods of influencing or carefully targeting its operations.

Russia often acts and then watches to see what happens. It also does not always understand Western societies, readily overlooking easy points of influence. Russia is often unable to anticipate the reactions of Western countries effectively.

The influence of Russia should nevertheless not be underrated. It remains quite proficient at seizing opportunities and turning them to its advantage. It is common for Russia to gather crumbs of benefit almost by accident, often merely by causing uncertainty and confusion.

To Russia, the world looks threatening

To understand Russian influencing, it is essential to appreciate the world view of the Russian state leadership. The core of this mentality is that Russia is a great power. The truth, by contrast, is that Russia will inevitably decline in international importance. Russia is a rapidly deteriorating economy that relies on oil while the rest of the world is transitioning to renewable energy sources.

It nevertheless seeks to be treated as important. Russia believes that, as a superpower, it is entitled to greater rights as a state than other countries. At the same time, the world looks threatening and challenging from the Russian perspective.

These principles also underlie the Russian view of Finland. While bordering countries are important, Finland is not Russia’s main concern. Russia views international relations as a zero-sum game for major players, in which small players are always controlled by others. If Russia does not exert influence, then someone else will.

It is easy for people in Finland to forget that Russia also perceives threats emanating from Finland. It seeks to control everything that comes across the long international border – EU influencing, Western propaganda and other aspects that are considered to oppose the interests of the Russian state leadership.

Russia seeks to influence policymaking

Russia influences on several levels. Sometimes the goal is to send a message or to establish a deterrent. The other extreme is a significant and tangible weakening of national security. Finland has so far largely been a target for messaging and efforts to create deterrence.

The ultimate goal of such operations is always to influence policymaking by steering it in the desired direction or by such means as seeking to limit the scope of national leaders to make decisions.