Defending national sovereignty against Russia – with sagacity and sisu!

Defending national sovereignty against Russia – with sagacity and sisu!

”Finland’s security policy: A hundred years of in-between” report was published in parts. This is the seventh article of the report.

The deliberate, systematic and gross Russian violations of Ukraine’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity have generated uncertainty in the Baltic Sea region. The Kremlin and the Russian President Vladimir Putin are entirely unrepentant of the deeds he authorized and which are being committed by a range of actors inspired by his decisions and statements, and on his behalf. What is more, Russian representatives of the government and parliament use insults and threats to intimidate critics – from foreign dignitaries to individual citizens – and brush away any denunciation of the Russian aggression in Ukraine by labeling vocal critics as anti-Russian and Russophobic, thereby seeking to discredit them, and to dismiss their condemnation as illegitimate. Meanwhile, the Russian leadership’s readiness and determination to impose their will by force, at home and abroad, remains unabated. The striking lack of restraint and malicious intent – including the use of poisonous substances and targeted killings to silence particularly intransigent critics – and the systematic acquisition and deployment of conventional and unconventional tools of coercion in pursuit of the Russian (elite) interests is creating a high level of unpredictability and posing a potential threat to its closest neighbours.

The well-documented aggressive Russian actions and the shameless abuse of power by the state structures against the Russian people and against Russia’s most vulnerable neighbours have been on display for more than two decades – they are by no means a new phenomenon. In view of the complete absence of remorse, it is unlikely that the deliberate subversive Russian actions against multiple foreign governments, political parties and societal actors will subside in the coming years – unless radical changes take place in Russia itself and in the way in which the Russian regime shores up its own power and exerts its control over the Russian people. The challenges posed by Russia to the national security and sovereignty of the states located in its proximity will therefore have to be dealt with persistently and systematically by current and future decision-makers to ensure that the independence of their state and the wellbeing of their societies, are not compromised by pernicious Russian interference and acts of psychological or physical aggression. Aggressive Russian covert and overt malicious cyber attacks and cyber espionage compound the problem.

The Russian aggressive actions against its closest neighbours and Russian official threats and intimidations against the countries in the Baltic Sea region have generated an environment in which in particular the governments of the smaller states in the Baltic Sea region have to carefully consider the effects of Russian influence operations at the local, national and European level. The precedent set by the Russian actions in 2014 demands a consistent and continuous, heightened level of preparedness, and an unbending determination to withstand subversive influence attempts of any kind, no matter in what shape or form and in what dose they may be administered, at any given time. Of course this is no easy feat. The deception and systematic manipulation of public opinion by Russian state actors, affiliated structures and agents and the co-optation of decision-makers by powerful business lobbies under the influence of the Russian state are pursued now with greater zeal and intensity than previously. We know from an abundance of evidence collected in the past years by the national security and intelligence services across the Baltic Sea region that nationals of EU and NATO member states are targeted and exploited by Russian intelligence agencies as tools for the pursuit of Russian political, economic and security interests. A core objective since 2014 is to alter decisions at the EU level on sanctions against Russia, but also on EU policy towards Ukraine, on security and defence and to influence critical EU internal developments. In security and defence, heavy pressure is exerted by Russian state actors on the decisions of the national governments in support of NATO operations and notably the deployments of personnel and equipment of NATO allies in the Baltic Sea region. But Russian interference in national decisions is also evident in the energy sector in each of the Baltic Sea region states.

National counter-intelligence operations have confirmed that Russian influence operations in the Baltic Sea region cut across a broad range of sectors. They are concentrated on the energy sector, defence and security as well as the acquisition of advanced technological know-how and equipment. Besides the illegal acquisition of sensitive information and equipment, we know that a considerable range of Russian actors are, in different guises, engaged in activities designed to manipulate national policy-making and to exert influence on important policy choices made by local and national authorities in the Baltic Sea region countries.  When such interference succeeds, it not only grants Russian state undue influence over domestic and foreign policy decisions in the targeted countries, it also constrains the ability of national governments to protect the freedom, safety and security of their own societies.

During the construction of the first two Nord Stream pipelines economic deals were offered to local authorities and larger European companies in the relevant Baltic Sea states by the Gazprom-controlled consortium prior to the application for the construction permits and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) being submitted. The national governments of each of the countries that had to give their consent to the project were put under heavy pressure to approve the pipeline construction. Heavy pressure was applied by the Kremlin, and financial demands from the local authorities that had been offered deals ‘too good to refuse’, financially benefitting from the construction deals added to the pressure. These, together with domestic and international businesses that had been offered economically beneficial deals constrained and inevitably influenced local and national decision-makers in their assessment of the Nord Stream project’s consequences. The local deals were concluded under the radar and long before the permitting procedures at the national level had started or had been completed, in most cases even long before the consortium even applied approval in the affected states. What is more, in Hanko and Kotka, and in Mukran in Germany, a large part of the work for the pipeline on shore was undertaken before any of the respective governments had taken their decision on whether or not the project as a whole should be allowed to go ahead.

The same procedure is applied to Nord Stream II:  since 2015 high-ranking Russian state representatives are heavily pressurizing the government of Sweden to grant the permits, while the construction work is already well under way in Finland and Germany in the absence of a formal approval in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Danish logistics company Bluewater and the local authorities in Kotka, Karlshamn, Luleå and Mukran have been tied into the project with logistics and construction service deals granted to firms benefitting the local economy in these countries. Russian state-affiliated business transactions, shifting ownership structures in critical industrial sectors and Russian state-affiliated influence activities by means of business deals at the local level will demand closer attention to defend the independence of national decision-making on issues that have important security implications for the affected country and the whole of the Baltic Sea region.

That Russian state actors strategically target the highest political echelons and make instrumental use of persons who yield influence in the political, business and media arenas of the Baltic Sea region states is hardly a secret. Among the showcases of the Kremlin’s successes in co-opting persons of influence are several well-known former statesmen that are also connected to the Russian success in forcing through the construction of the Nord Stream pipelines against considerable resistance and despite the obvious direct and indirect soft and hard security threats that the project poses. Former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen was recruited as lobbyist for Nord Stream and former Prime Minister Carl Bildt was engaged in Lundin Oil (a partner of Rosneft) and Vostok Nafta (a shareholder in Gazprom) before he entered government again as a Foreign Minister, receiving much criticism for these business links since there was a strong risk that they would colour his political judgement, in one way or another. Both Lipponen and Bildt contributed in their respective functions to the joint Swedish and Finnish government decisions in 2009 on granting the construction permit to Nord Stream. Whether they made a decisive difference, and how, is debatable, but they both had a role to play in their national arenas and in the European Union. Sweden held the EU Presidency when Nord Stream was approved jointly by Helsinki and Stockholm on 5 November 2009 paving the way for the formal start of the construction of the two pipelines, shortly before an EU-Russia summit was hosted by Sweden on 18 November.

By far the best-known showcase of Russian successes in strategically using statesmen for the achievement of the Russian elites’ interests is the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He was first coaxed into concluding an intergovernmental agreement with his personal friend Vladimir Putin on the construction of Nord Stream just days before his electoral defeat in 2005. He then financially benefitted from entering into a business relationship with Russian state-controlled Gazprom in the Gazprom-controlled Nord Stream consortium. Since 2015 he is also employed in Gazprom’s whole-owned Nord Stream II, adding Russian state-controlled Rosneft to his portfolio of business engagements in September 2017. That Schröder until this day maintains an extensive network of political allies currently active in German politics, including in key government functions is not just a minor detail. After seven years as the Chancellor of the most influential European country and a key figure in the German social democratic party (SPD), he commands authority and can act as a conveyor belt and amplifier for Russian interests, if and when the Russian state actors, including his personal friend Vladimir Putin, manage to strategically use him for that purpose. When persons that command trust are utilized for the pursuit and achievement of Russian state interests in exchange for remunerations from Russian state-controlled entities, it risks undermining the independence of national decision-making. When high-ranking Russian officials at the same time ridicule and threaten officials in the target countries and remain unrepentant about the ruthless acts of aggression that Russian troops are engaged in, there is every reason to be on high alert about the exploitation of influential persons by Russian state-affiliated actors and their effects on sovereign decision-making in the democratic Baltic Sea region states.

What is more, pernicious Russian intimidation and smear campaigns have exerted in recent years psychological pressure on targeted individuals that is not negligeable and which can severely impact the ability of targeted decision-makers, of the media and of the expert community to fulfill their important democratic functions that guarantee the independence and important checks and balances in fully sovereign, democratic states. It is therefore necessary to monitor, manage, counter and reduce the extent to which individuals and national institutions and businesses are strategically used by the Kremlin and to ensure that these influence activities cannot impinge on the independence of decision-making processes to such an extent that policies are developed and decisions implemented that no longer serve the best interests of the societies that the governments are meant to protect.

Yet another fundamentally difficult challenge to master stems from the fact that in our democratic societies the power and decision-making authority but also responsibilities are dispersed among different actors and several hierarchical levels and vertically across different compartmentalized sectors. This absence of a central control and the lack of oversight, obstacles to information flows and the consequent lack of understanding of the entirety of interactions with foreign agents of influence provides a host of opportunities for antagonistic actors and grants them access to a range of disruptive tools. Measures can certainly be adopted by national governments and local authorities and the affected individuals that can mitigate these risks and can safeguard the vital state and societal functions in the Baltic Sea region states. However, in the absence of both an acute awareness of risks and effective solutions to prevent them, unpleasant surprises may be in store for the Baltic Sea region states. The establishment in 2017 of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki certainly will go some way to build up the requisite knowledge and competences to face the hybrid security challenges from Russia.

To better be able to manage the security challenges originating from Russian influence activities, it will be necessary to monitor very carefully the structures, actors and processes of subversion in the political, security and especially the economic sector but also in the media and public debating spaces. For as long as the Russian Federation remains under autocratic control, the security risk associated with the regimes’ pernicious activities, designed to manipulate sovereign decision-making in other countries in the Kremlin’s favour, will have to be carefully managed and reduced to the extent possible. As important as sisu and sinnikkyys are for the Finnish way of life, as important is it to remember that national security and societal resilience require more than ‘just’ military hardware, personnel, a strategic deterrence posture and well-rehearsed defence plans. When the protection of national sovereignty is concerned, all state and societal vulnerabilities must be carefully monitored, the exposure to malign Russian influence must be systematically minimized and the uncertainties of the future must be managed with sagacity.