2022 – an exceptional year for Supo staff

The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought questions of national security back to the top of the public agenda. Supo staff members tell us how the war affected their work in 2022.

A border crossing location.

“It is important to understand why Russia behaves in certain ways”

Senior Analyst Suvi Alvari observes that it took a while for the impacts of the war to take shape. It is essential from an intelligence perspective to perceive the reasons for Russia’s actions.

“I was reading the news in Russian on my phone while sitting on the metro travelling to work when the war broke out. I was nervous about how people would react if they saw it. Monitoring Russian-language sources is also an essential part of our work as analysts.

A pile of work came tumbling out when I logged into my office computer. A great many messages came in over those days. Besides our Finnish clients, there was growing interest in Supo from our international partners. On the other hand, pressure had already been building up in January and February before the war began. The situation clarified when the invasion began, but only
momentarily. It took a while to appreciate the true overall impacts of the outbreak of war and how fundamentally the world changed.

We immediately set about envisioning various scenarios and considering which essential aspects had to be included in our next report to the highest echelons of national government. For example, what if Kyiv were to fall?

It is often in the nature of intelligence to go into detail. Though some aspects will emerge in the public domain at a later time, some will not. Analysts must examine things with optimal objectivity and from various points of view. It is important to understand why Russia behaves in certain ways.”

Supo reports on the future

A Senior Analyst was urgently activated when the war began. Supo’s mission in this crisis was to report on the future.

“I was on duty when the invasion of Ukraine began, receiving a call about the start of the war that very morning. The call came as no surprise, as by that point it seemed clear that war was about to break out. We had been monitoring the crisis for a long time, and I recall that the possibility of Russia making a misjudgement and launching an attack had come up in conversation. We swiftly completed our first working report on the subject. Though it was highly concise, we did state the broad repercussions of the invasion.

I then addressed a Supo staff meeting concerning the situation in Ukraine. This was a pure coincidence, as the meeting had already been arranged at a considerably earlier time. The exceptional nature of the situation was evident from the questions asked by staff members. The invasion had made them consider the threat of war to Finland as well.

I have been working in central government for many years. When a crisis begins, the state administration usually sets about maintaining an ongoing scenario. At Supo, by contrast, we immediately seek to minimise the time that we spend reporting on current developments. Our mission is to look ahead and envision the nature of broader impacts that the war will have on Finland in the longer term.

One memorable moment in an exceptional year came when I was speaking at an event arranged at the Finnish Parliament in the spring. The Parliament building, the people and the state of the world gave me a feeling of involvement in witnessing things that portended a historically significant event. My presentation discussed influencing by Russia and phenomena arising from the war.

My remarks were warmly received and the MPs seemed knowledgeable, with plenty of questions to ask. Some MPs were exhibiting clear signs of concern. Interest was shown in safeguarding policymaking related to NATO membership, and in security issues more generally. The tone of my presentation was reassuring.”

We began talking about the Russian threat explicitly

Head of Communications and Public Affairs Milla Meretniemi remarks on how the war changed the way in which people in Finland talk about Russia.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the way people in Finland talk about Russia overnight. This was also evident at Supo. While always willing to discuss espionage and influencing, we did not previously give interviews about the threat posed by Russia to Finland.

It is telling that most of the calls that we received in the early days of the war were about Finnish people who had gone to Ukraine, which represented a rather marginal phenomenon. The media hardly considered that they could ask us about Russia. Our role as an  intelligence service was also not yet familiar to everyone.

Obviously there was nothing new for us in acknowledging that Russia is Finland’s most significant national security threat. We also gained more manoeuvring room in public debate when Finnish policymakers began talking about the Russian threat more explicitly.

On 7 March we published a column by Supo Director Antti Pelttari stating that Russian activities pose the greatest threat to Finland’s national security. This was a couple of weeks before we published our yearbook. The press conference concerning the yearbook really focused solely on assessing the threat posed by Russia. We then discussed this subject throughout the rest of the spring.

The circumstances were subject to conflicting pressures, as we also had to reassure people and get the message over that the authorities were in charge of the situation. Many people in Finland were really scared when the war broke out. We often played such a reassuring role during this exceptional year. Occasionally we had to rebut the worst threat scenarios that were entertained in the public arena.”

“We must be prepared for non-military threats”

Demand for information from Supo grew significantly when the war began. Head of Cabinet Saana Nilsson explained the situation to policymakers at several events.

“Spring 2022 saw us arranging a huge number of meetings for politicians in varying capacities. A great many requests came in. Many were concerned over issues such as what kind of threats Russia might pose for Finnish politicians. It was more important than ever for Supo to provide support to policymakers.

A group of ministers from one of the governing political parties invited me to address a hearing in early March at which I made three key points. Firstly I stressed that we were not only facing a military crisis. Military preparedness was understandably uppermost in the public debate immediately after the war began. I pointed out that Finland should also be prepared for other
threats, such as espionage and influencing. 

I also observed that the process of formulating the Finnish policy position on NATO would be the main focus of interest for Russian intelligence. I told the ministers that these circumstances would make them targets of espionage. Finally, I noted that the attention of Russia was currently focused on Ukraine at that time. From a security perspective, this provided a window of opportunity for preparations.

A lot of questions followed, as at all other events during the spring, and getting away from such hearings was never easy. You could tell from the demeanour of the politicians that they understood how pressing the issues were.

In this meeting the group of ministers posed several questions at once, so I quickly jotted them down to help me remember to answer them all. The uppermost question concerned how Finland should use its window of opportunity while Russia was distracted in Ukraine.

Policymakers are always hoping that we would provide optimally concrete specialist assessments. The actual decisions have to be made by politicians themselves.”

“The Russian intelligence services seek to exploit people’s weaknesses”

The Russian invasion led to a rise in the number of security clearance vetting investigations conducted in Finland, explains Ilkka Hanski, Head of the Vetting Department.

“Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequent decision of Finland to seek membership of NATO, Supo found that the operating environment and threats had changed or clarified in the long term. We assessed how Russia would react to an application for NATO membership. Though the reactions were ultimately moderate, we had no way of knowing this in spring 2022, so we prepared for everything. 

We contacted several key businesses and organisations in the spring with a view to verifying that their security culture and arrangements were appropriate to the new circumstances. We called attention to the good practices that should normally be applied. It was necessary to attend to data security and to ensure that security clearances were up to date.

We worked with some organisations to assess in greater detail how they could improve their security arrangements. For example, we asked them to evaluate which of their functions were the most critical. We noted that individuals working in certain positions should undergo more extensive security clearance vetting than had previously been conducted. On the other hand, I pointed out that the circumstances should not lead to overreach, for example by discriminating against Russians in Finland.

Our message was evidently received and understood, as the number of applications for security clearance vetting increased by around 15 per cent in 2022. There were 17 per cent more inquiries regarding foreign interests than in the preceding year. We had to reorganise our operations and hire additional staff. It is vital for us to ensure our national resilience.

Seeking to infiltrate organisations by various means is an established approach used by Russia. The Russian intelligence services seek to exploit people’s weaknesses. Naturally security clearance vetting will not detect anyone’s intention to commit a criminal offence, but it can be helpful in other ways, such as by finding factors that could expose a person to coercion.

We may be satisfied on the whole that security vetting clearances have been completed relatively widely for people who work with national security in Finland, and that these are also kept up to date.”

Outbreak of war brings even closer cooperation with the Border Guard

A senior Supo detective working in Lappeenranta explains that the proximity of the Russian border is evident in daily work. Collaboration between public authorities increased still further after the war began.

“I work at the regional office of Supo in the south-eastern city of Lappeenranta. We collaborate continually and very closely with the Border Guard on a daily basis. The proximity of Russia and the international border affects our work here in many ways. Our location is convenient, only twenty kilometres from the border. We can drive there very quickly if necessary.

We receive many tip-offs from the Border Guard. They know precisely what kind of questions are of interest to Supo. Collaboration was stepped up when the war started. We swiftly formulated a profile of points to look out for in relation to individuals seeking to cross the border.

Our team carefully considered how to respond when the Russian military mobilisation began in September. We decided to interview people coming across the border. Many of our staff can speak Russian. We gathered information on such issues as the nature of the refugee situation over the border, and on the current internal mood in Russia.

Drawing on long experience working at Supo, I considered that while many people crossing the border are escaping, there may also be some whose mission is to gather intelligence on how things are done here. It is our job to find such individuals among the crowd. 

While the authorities were initially braced for a larger number of arrivals, it soon became clear that the increase would not be so great. Many people who crossed the border soon continued on to other countries or returned to Russia.

Cooperation between the Border Guard, the police, the National Bureau of Investigation, the customs, the Finnish Immigration Service and the Finnish Defence Forces is a really important asset. Though quite few in number, we can be highly effective when we work together.”

Drone swarms proved to be luminist artworks

The number of tip-offs received by Supo grew significantly with the Russian invasion. A senior Supo detective explains that such tip-offs have even been the start of major cases.

“My team receives tip-offs from members of the public and from other Finnish authorities. Our job is to assess and process the calls that come into Supo.

The number of such calls grew substantially in 2022. We saw a big jump in the number of tip-offs right after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, with four times as many contacts in March 2022 as in January of the same year.

Global events and international news coverage affect the calls that we receive. If your e-mail inbox is full when you come to work in the morning, then your first impulse is to check out the latest media coverage to find out what has just been reported. The tip-offs that came in suggest that some people began to express suspicion and concern over matters that had seemed completely normal before the Russian invasion.

Drones were the subject of a very lively public debate in the autumn, involving many influential members of society who are active in social media. Even a single tweet from a very prominent individual about drones or critical infrastructure would manifest for a couple of days as a peak in the number of tip-offs that we received. We directed such calls to the police authorities  that are primarily responsible for controlling unmanned aviation.

The flood of incoming communications was huge during peak periods, with nearly all of our time spent receiving such information. While we naturally did also receive some serviceable  information, this was accompanied by such episodes as multiple reports of rapidly moving drone swarms that investigation subsequently revealed to be works of luminist art.

It is quite understandable that outsiders have difficulty in discerning which events and observations will be helpful to Supo, and we are always pleased to receive tip-offs from members of the public, various organisations and other public authorities. Such tip-offs have even provided the initial impetus for major cases.”