Security of supply worked well in an exceptional year for Finland’s energy sector
Even though 2022 began in challenging circumstances, Finland’s energy security remained stable. The production and distribution of energy are so critical to society that they are also attractive targets for hostile fearmongering.
The key functions of Finnish society would not run without electric power. Potential disruptions to energy production and distribution affect the functioning of society more acutely and widely than breakdowns in many other critical sectors. This explains why possible threats against the energy sector arouse fears so readily.
Such concerns have been raised in the context of the Russian invasion, with the dismantling of energy reliances at times leading to uncertainties about the availability of energy. In addition, Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine has raised fears of Russia harming energy infrastructure or even staging a military escalation elsewhere in Europe.
Explosions on the Nord Stream gas pipelines in September 2022 also highlighted concerns about the vulnerability of the energy infrastructure in Europe. The consequences of the Nord Stream pipeline sabotage on the availability of energy in Europe were ultimately quite minimal, and no individual state was targeted. The explosions did not occur in the territorial waters of any country, but in a marine economic zone. They served above all as a deterrent with a minimal risk of escalation.
“The explosions illustrate that individual infrastructure components can be vulnerable to sabotage, or to malfunctions arising from cyber operations. Outcomes such as crippling the energy infrastructure of an entire society are nevertheless more difficult to bring about,” explains Supo Senior Analyst Lotta Hakala.
Hakala points out that, on the whole, the energy sector has done well from the point of view of security of supply, despite a shaky start to 2022.
Critical infrastructure refers to services that are essential to the functioning of society. These services include, for example, those of the energy sector, health care and water supply system, in which malfunctions or outages would immediately affect the normal operation of society.
Electricity networks are still working in Ukraine
The Russian attack on Ukraine has demonstrated that an electric power grid can hold up well even when subject to active cyber operations, or when the country is the target of a war of aggression. Even before the largescale war that began in February 2022, Russia was highly active in targeting cyber operations against the Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Hakala notes that longer-term damage and power cuts were, ultimately, only brought about as a consequence of the physical attacks that occurred in the end of the year.
“Even these strikes have not completely paralysed Ukrainian electricity distribution. While the state of the power grid varies across the country, electricity distribution is still working in such regions as Kyiv, the capital city, even though that city has been the target of very intense attacks with power outages continually occurring.”
In practice, it is difficult to paralyse an entire nationwide power grid.
Even though limited and temporary disruptions in electricity distribution can be achieved, Supo currently considers it unlikely that another state would seek to incapacitate the Finnish energy sector. Physical sabotage, in particular, would not be possible without an intrusion into Finnish territory, which in turn would require for the perpetrator to have an interest in significantly escalating the current security policy situation.
Russia’s ability to influence the energy situation in Europe is declining
High energy prices and uncertainty give Russia influencing opportunities in Europe. It is typical for Russian influencing efforts to exploit social conflict.
On the other hand, the ability of Russia to use energy cooperation as a means of coercing European countries has declined as a result of Russia’s war of aggression, with Europeans progressing in their own efforts to disengage from energy dependency.
“Russian energy exports largely comprise fossil fuels whose importance will decline in the long term. This will further reduce the ability of Russia to exert influence,” Hakala remarks.
The threat of spying on critical infrastructure has increased
Russia is seeking technical details regarding the critical infrastructure in Western countries in order to target critical infrastructure if conditions escalate. Russia is also seeking details about the potential weaknesses in the Finnish energy sector. The threat of foreign intelligence operations against critical infrastructure has grown.
Supo provides expertise to businesses in assessing the threats of state actors against critical infrastructure, both directly and by producing information for the National Cyber Security Centre.
“Supo engages in continual dialogue with businesses in the energy sector. The exceptional situation this year has not affected this long-sustained basic work,” Hakala says.
While cyber threats are now particularly relevant for companies in the energy sector, risks related to human intelligence should not be overlooked. It is important to ensure the security of employees. Supo conducts security clearance vetting of private sector employees working with critical infrastructure, where necessary.
Security work has long been standard practice in the energy sector precisely because these operations are so critical. Energy sector businesses are among the most competent in safeguarding against cyber threats. However, even with the most meticulous preparation it is still not possible to discount all threats.
The Finnish energy sector:
- Importing and processing raw materials (gas and oil).
- Electricity distribution (high-voltage distribution networks and the main power grid connecting local electricity companies).
- Electricity generating (nuclear, hydro, wind and solar power plants, coalfired power plants and backup power plants).