X Close

Putin sees Finland as the next Crimea Russia has opened a new front

Manning the border. (EMMI KORHONEN/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images)

Manning the border. (EMMI KORHONEN/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images)


November 29, 2023   5 mins

For the second time in as many years, the Kremlin is deliberately fomenting a refugee crisis. In late 2021, it helped embolden the threats of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to “flood” Europe with migrants, targeting Poland and the Baltic countries. Now, over the past few weeks, Russian authorities have been forcibly pushing hundreds of migrants and refugees towards Finland’s eastern frontier.

Yesterday, as a result, the Finnish government sealed its entire border with Russia, with Estonia threatening to do the same. Meanwhile, the European Union’s border agency Frontex has pledged to deploy personnel to Finland’s border.

Predictably, Russia has denied any foul play, but few are convinced. Moscow’s actions are doubtless linked to Finland’s recent entry into Nato and its new defence pact with the United States, negotiated earlier this month. In response, a number of media outlets have interpreted this latest episode in Russia’s hybrid war as an act of revenge: threaten Russia’s security periphery, and face chaos on your own frontiers.

But, though deeply tied to its security calculus, Russia’s motivations go much deeper than that. Nearly two years into his war in Ukraine, these actions play a key role in supporting Putin’s fear-based domestic propaganda narratives. By pitting the encroaching threat of Nato against the livelihood of Russia’s public, he can justify the gradual reorientation of its society and economy towards a semi-permanent war-footing. At the strategic level, the move is also part of a broader vision of Russia’s geopolitical future, and its conception of competing hegemonies in northern and eastern Europe.

Before last year, Finland had been dependably neutral towards Russia for decades. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a national reckoning in the country, and support for Nato membership among Finns jumped to nearly 80% in late 2022. Despite never being part of the Soviet Union, Finland is no stranger to Russian aggression. It was under Russian occupation for over a century until 1917, and famously repelled a Soviet invasion during the Second World War.

Finland’s reorientation has thus predictably been utilised by the Kremlin as an opportunity to play the victim, presenting the current situation on the Finnish-Russian border as an attack on Russians, rather than a crisis of its own making. “They have to keep up the appearances, to make up these kinds of narratives, for themselves, for the population in Russia,” Pentti Forsström, a senior researcher at Finland’s National Defence University, and a retired lieutenant colonel in the Finnish Defence Forces, told me. “Now they are using every bit and piece of what we are doing, [like] closing the border, [to argue] that we are the ones to blame.”

In response to the border closures, the governor of Russia’s Murmansk region that borders Finland has already introduced “a heightened state of readiness… to ensure the security of our residents”, while Russians living in Finland have staged protests accusing the Finnish government of disrupting cross-border family ties.

This type of rhetoric aligns perfectly with Putin’s claims regarding a Russophobic West that infringes upon “the Russian world” and threatens communities in its near-abroad. Though the West used to take them less seriously, such claims have now become part of a longstanding narrative to validate Russian expansionism: protecting ethnic Russians was a large part of Moscow’s official justification for its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, as well as that of Georgia in 2008.

Not only that, but a crisis like the one along Finland’s border provides fresh “evidence” for the Kremlin to keep everyday Russians convinced of Nato’s aggressive presence. And this propaganda fodder is more necessary now than ever. Russia is quietly transitioning its economy and defence industry to a long-term war posture, and is facing a resurgence of political pushback from its people as it tries to recruit more troops for its fight in Ukraine. It is crucial that ordinary Russians continue to see the conflict as an existential threat to their way of life, for which it is worth sacrificing livelihoods — and lives.

Finland’s growing military co-operation with the US, and recent promises of support from Poland — a regular focus of Kremlin propaganda — make Finland a perfect place to roll out this strategy. For this reason, talking heads in the Russian media are already hinting that this is only the beginning of Russia’s hybrid war against Finland. In one notable clip, TV host Tigran Keosayan (who is married to the infamous head of Kremlin propaganda outlet RT, Margarita Simonyan) laid out the logic of this rhetorical campaign. “Dear Finns,” he said recently on his programme, “first you banned us from entering by car, now by bicycle” — a reference to the bicycles Russian authorities had allegedly given to migrants on their way to the Finnish border. “You leave us with no choice,” he finished, as a cartoon of a tank appeared onscreen.

However, there is a further element to Russia’s strategy that often gets lost in our feverish news cycle. Finland’s position in the north-eastern Baltic Sea and its proximity to Russia’s strategically important Kola Peninsula have made it critical for Russia’s naval ambitions for more than a century.

For Russia, access to warm-water ports is a permanent objective, essential for projecting global power. A neutral Finland had meant that St Petersburg — which Peter the Great originally built as the country’s navigational and cultural gateway to the West — could provide Russia with a secure maritime corridor for a naval presence in the Baltic. But since the shifting of alliances over Ukraine, this has changed. With Finland now joining Estonia within Nato’s embrace, the military alliance could conceivably blockade the entirety of the Gulf of Finland, reducing Russia’s sea access to its militarily significant (but territorially microscopic) Kaliningrad exclave.

For years now, Russia has been laying the groundwork to capitalise on warming temperatures in the Arctic Sea, which, in addition to opening up new trade networks and oil and gas reserves, present an opportunity to literally circumnavigate this hypothetical Nato blockade via its northern coastline. And this goal is intimately connected to the security of the ice-free Arctic port of Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula, which hosts a significant Russian nuclear-deterrence force just a stone’s throw north-east of Finland.

By this ominous logic, however, Russia’s geopolitical interests in the region are driven by the same strategic impetus as Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its push to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea in 2022: a desire to control crucial waterways that allow Russia to escape the prison of the Eurasian landmass. Presumably with such considerations in mind, the Russian military confirmed earlier this year that it would be splitting its Western Military District in two and creating a new locus of military activity right along Finland’s borders, reviving the Leningrad Military District that had been dormant since 2010.

Well before this month’s escalation, it was proof that the escalating hybrid war playing out on Finland’s border is only the beginning of a broader Russian campaign against the country. For Putin, this is the culmination of his twin desires: to bolster his jingoistic narrative at home; and to reinvest in a neglected theatre of great-power competition. For Finland, though, this all means only one thing — the period of quiet rapport it enjoyed between Nato and Russia has come to a definitive end, replaced by an anxious new world of menace and instability.


Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist reporting on politics and society in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

Michal_Kranz

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

44 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Nell Clover
Nell Clover
7 months ago

All these migrants come from the Middle East, Africa, and the Stans of Asia.

Why when Russia allows a few hundred migrants unrestricted passage to illegally enter Finland is it an act of destabilisation? It can only be the presence of these migrants causing the destabilisation.

France allows 30,000 undocumented migrants unrestricted passage to illegally enter the UK every year. These are exactly the same migrants as those entering Finland. Yet our government and media don’t call this destabilising, and anyone that does is labelled far right.

The cognitive dissonance is dizzying.

Last edited 7 months ago by Nell Clover
Steven Carr
Steven Carr
7 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

We should welcome all people fleeing Putin’s tyranny, not close the borders to them.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Nonsense! We already have too far many of these “needy beggars”.
The UK is NOT a global Charity Shop despite whatever you and your ilk may think. ‘We’ have enough problems of our own, such as people like your good self, in case you haven’t noticed.

A D Kent
A D Kent
7 months ago

The UK is not a charity shop – we’re more of a bull in a china one.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
7 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Er, these aren’t Russians and they’re not refugees and they’re not fleeing Russia. These are Asian, Arab and African economic migrants taking the land route to illegally enter Western Europe via the Caucuses and Russia.

Last edited 7 months ago by Nell Clover
Pat Davers
Pat Davers
7 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Ah, it’s all about intent you see. If your intent is to welcome migrants in the belief that they will reinvigorate your society and culture, then that is apparently a good thing. However, if these same migrants are sent there precisely to cause havoc, then that is a bad thing. It doesn’t actually matter if the end result in terms of destabilisation etc. is the same.
Deontological diversity 1, Consequentialist diversity 0

JP Martin
JP Martin
7 months ago

The dishonesty required by the current political climate is truly remarkable. On the one hand, we can all recognise the unpleasant fact that the arrival of certain people threatens our security. The actions of both the Finnish and Russian governments validate that these migrants are essentially weapons of war. On the other hand, we must not articulate these facts and receive lectures about the values of diversity and pluralism.

Martin M
Martin M
7 months ago

I wonder what Putin thinks about the fact that he purportedly invaded Ukraine to stop the expansion of NATO, but the invasion has been the direct cause of NATO expanding by at least two (and ultimately possibly tree) members.

Pat Davers
Pat Davers
7 months ago

We should be rejoicing that all this diversity is being introduced into hideously white Finland.

I really don’t see what the problem is.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

After a couple of Finnish winters ‘they’ will wish they hadn’t bothered.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

I had assumed that Finland was short on curry houses and might appreciate a bit of culinary diversity but apparently I was wrong. According to this article:
 https://ciaranthegardener.com/2011/07/10/kanaviilokki-finnish-chicken-curry-with-blackcurrant-jam/#:~:text=A popular home made dish,with jam, black currant jam.
the Finnish have a curry dish that they enjoy with blackcurrant jam so perhaps they have all the exotic cuisine they need.

Pat Davers
Pat Davers
7 months ago

Comparisons between Finland and Crimea are a massive stretch anyway. Finland is a sovereign nation, with an overwhelmingly Finnish population. On the other hand, the large majority of the people in Crimea and ethnic Russian and/or Russian speaking, and Crimea itself has only been part of Ukraine since the latter half of the 20th century, when it was transferred from Russia to the Ukraine at a time when they were both mere administrative units within the USSR.

Gorka Sillero
Gorka Sillero
7 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

You forgot that Ukraine is/was also a sovereign nation. How convenient…

Osmo Vartiainen
Osmo Vartiainen
7 months ago

There is much hyped up tension, even propaganda in the air. I’m comfortably sitting in my warm house here in Finland and I don’t see any evil Russians lurking around in the freezing snow. Yes, they are certainly benefitting of the situation where they are apparently going to imply laws against illegal immigrants. Intentional bullying yes, but not an existential threat. So, we close our borders towards the east, and that’s it, until they grow up. There is to be much larger such expulsions around the Russian borders elsewhere, I would expect, as they imply the new law. We have all of a sudden a lot of hot heads of our own too, just as there are in the UK and US. war is a big business and fear brings a lot of votes. Hawks are hovering all over. Cancel culture is applied to international politics as well. Finland and Ukraine are not comparable in the Russian lore, history or any perceivable geopolitical military strategy. Yes, we sit rather close to st. Petersburg and the Kola peninsula and obviously now, that we joined Nato, they will boost their presence along the borders. That is, on their side of the border. That’s to be expected, as is a variety of hybrid bullying. We should keep our heads cool and nor provoke or be provoked. Less drama the better.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago

Sounds a bit hysterical.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
7 months ago

Back in the USSR days the Finns had a deep discussion as to whether the Soviets were the friends or the brothers of the Finns. In the end it was decided that they were the brothers as one is free to choose one’s friends.

Osmo Vartiainen
Osmo Vartiainen
7 months ago

Neighbours. Some of them friendly some nasty. That’s all.

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
7 months ago

“a desire to control crucial waterways that allow Russia to escape the prison of the Eurasian landmass”
Neither the Gulf of Finland nor the Black Sea are particularly significant from this perspective.
The Russian Navy could be blockaded in the Baltic (at Copenhagen) and the Mediterranean (at Gibraltar).

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
7 months ago
Reply to  Mark Goodhand

Actually, a blockade at the Bosphorus Strait would pen the Russians up in the Black Sea.

A D Kent
A D Kent
7 months ago

Year right – it’s just Russia conducting a ‘hybrid war’, only them who exercise ‘fear-bassed domestic propaganda narratives’.  A few hundred migrants across a border isn’t really in the same league as spending hundreds of millions of dollars over decades fermenting colour revolutions in any country on good terms with the Russians. 

Seriously what did the Fins expect when they joined NATO when all the other NATO states were emptying their weapons stockpiles into Ukraine? Their dim-witted leadership had a knee-jeck reaction and fell hook-line-and-sinker for a modern version of the Domino Theory. 

As for the Russophobic West – I’m sure Putin is over playing it at home, but who else has been so heavily sanctioned, insulted (gas-station masquerading as a country), chucked out of international sport, ejected from payment systems or had their assets seized in recent years? They’ve apparently been behind any unpalatable election result in the West for the last decade or so – but none of this is anything to do with them as a people? 

As for describing the Eurasian landmass as a ‘prison’ I think the author is showing his petticoats there a bit.  

Benjamin Dyke
Benjamin Dyke
7 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

If you’re so enamoured of Russia and sceptical of the West why don’t you move there and enjoy all the fabulous Russian freedoms. Are you seriously saying Finland has nothing to fear from Russia and has no need for strategic defensive support? Are you really arguing that Russia can be trusted more than NATO countries? Your guff seems to rule out all possibility of Russia having ever done anything wrong – do you work for the Kremlin?

A D Kent
A D Kent
7 months ago
Reply to  Benjamin Dyke

What a fatuous response that is. Finland had very little to fear from Russia prior to 2022. Unlike Ukraine they hadn’t suffered a violent coup, weren’t suffering a civil war, hadn’t been restricting the rights of any Russian speaking minorities and hadn’t been making noises about arming themselves with nukes. This notion that Russia & Putin were hell-bent on some kind of reckells Imperial expansion that was only going to end at Calais wasn’t backed by anything other than neocon statements. All sorts of people – US, EU & other diplomats, academics and experts warned and warned again for over 30 years that bringing Ukraine into NATO was a reddest of red-lines for the Russians. So did many Russians too – Liberal or otherwise.

I’m not saying they can do no wrong – the invasion itself was disastrous and not necessary – but neither was it unprovoked. They’re as trustworthy as any other country – NATO members included – you only have to look at the recent statements from Hollande & Merkel re their cynical approach to Minsk process to understand that.

Dominic A
Dominic A
7 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Finland had very little to fear from Russia prior to 2022.

Except for the period of 1939 through 1991. Of course a lot has changed and improved since then – for some, for others; not so much.

pilop pilop
pilop pilop
7 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

The EU is expansionist ….just look at the damage they have caused using Brexit as the backdrop (like Putin’s “protecting Russian’s narrative”).

Northern Ireland has become a colony of the EU….. EU laws forced upon it, with no say whatsoever by the Northern Irish people. This imposed border inside the UK has resulted in total collapse of the Good Friday Agreement and devolved government. The 220+ year old UK constitution enacted via the Act of Union between the 4 UK nations has been violated with article 6 subjugated by EU law. If this was the US, Russia or any other nation, it would be a declaration of war. However, the English are the largest UK nation and have simply thrown Northern Ireland under a bus….. sacrificed them to the EU, for an easy life.
This story is not over, just like the proud Ukrainians, the Northern Irish people will not accept damaging foreign EU laws and UN NSGT status and EU colonial rule by foreign bureaucrats, undemocratic and unelected by anyone in Northern Ireland.

Last edited 7 months ago by pilop pilop
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
7 months ago

These are worrying times. The Soviets managed to sustain a geopolitical conflict for decades with an inefficient command economy centered around extracting resources and channeling them into an industrial sector dominated by military manufacturing. Now, unlike then, they have the money and technology of China behind them. If the Sino-Russian political alliance holds long enough for them to realize economic synergies, we could be in for a difficult century.

David Harris
David Harris
7 months ago

“…Russian expansionism: protecting ethnic Russians was a large part of Moscow’s official justification for its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, as well as that of Georgia in 2008.”
Taken directly from the Nazi playbook of the 1930s.

rick stubbs
rick stubbs
7 months ago

The Russians will think 3 times before provoking a hot war on the Finn border. The Finns have a large armed force and long prepared defensive positions.Not to mention, triggering a NATO response would mean kissing Kaliningrad goodbye and put St Petersburg within easy range of the missile fires far worse than those Russia now inflicts upon Ukraine. Does the author think the Baltic states and Poland would hesitate to strike if the Finns are attacked? And Russia clearly doesn’t have the military bandwidth to invade Finland. Their posturing on the border is a pathetic joke. Any fantasy of an unstoppable Russian blitzkreg into the West died on the outskirts of Kiev, Oddly, perhaps, the author simply fails to mention any of these inconvenient facts. He assumes they can just roll up Finland at will. Why? To strike fear into the hearts of the West? Carry water for some other actor?

Last edited 7 months ago by rick stubbs
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
7 months ago

I’m still not persuaded that Finland should have joined NATO. With its long border with Russia the status quo would have been far better. Don’t poke the bear.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago

Why? Russia has shown that it has no qualms invading its neighbours (Ukraine and Georgia spring to mind) so why would Finland be safer individually than as part of a collective defence? If Ukraine had been part of NATO it wouldn’t be facing the problems it currently does

A D Kent
A D Kent
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

If the Fins were to succumb to a violent coup and then to start shelling the Russian borderlands, then you analogy might be more correct BillyBob. The Russians had plenty of ‘qualms’ about invading – that’s why they repeatedly offered reasonable terms for a new European security settlement prior to and immediately after their invasions.

Martin M
Martin M
7 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

“Reasonable terms” = “Do everything we say, and we won’t invade you (well, we probably won’t invade you)”.

Julian Townsend
Julian Townsend
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

If Ukraine had accepted neutrality, rather than signalling its intention to join NATO whilst assembling a large army with the explicit intention of fighting Russians; if there had been no US-instigated nationalist coup, if the elected president of Ukraine had not been forced out of office; if civil war had not subsequently broken out in Ukraine, then Ukraine would not be facing the prospect of utter ruin tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians would still be alive, the EU would not be facing economic crisis, and the US neocons would have had to find someone else to lose a war with.

Last edited 7 months ago by Julian Townsend
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago

By neutrality you mean accept having their entire foreign policy being dictated by Moscow?

Julian Townsend
Julian Townsend
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

As opposed to fighting a hopeless war on behalf of the US neocons ,sacrificing a generation of young men, losing half their territory and seeing the infrastructure in the remaining half destroyed, while whatever is left of the country is flogged off to the likes of Black Rock?
Staying on friendly terms with ones neighbours seems a better option than that, and in fact a majority of the (then) Ukrainian people did vote for this when they elected Yanukovich, and again when they voted for Zelensky, who campaigned on a platform of making peace with Russia, only to change his tune once elected.

Martin M
Martin M
7 months ago

“….whilst assembling a large army with the explicit intention of DEFENDING THEMSELVES FROM Russians….”

Dominic A
Dominic A
7 months ago

Historically, and I would argue currently, it is the Bear who mauled and poked the Finns. The Bear did not do so well in 39/40, losing 3-1 to the Finns, despite the Finns getting no help from the allies, and hinderance from Germans.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
7 months ago

Progressive Finnish leaders ditched neutrality to get invited to western cocktail parties and support Clown World
Antagonising your neighbouring nuclear superpower has consequences.
They will get culturally enriched

Last edited 7 months ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
RM Parker
RM Parker
7 months ago

It sounds as though some Russians living in Finland are beginning to behave like the Sudeten Germans in 1930s Czechoslovakia. Worrying trend.

Osmo Vartiainen
Osmo Vartiainen
7 months ago
Reply to  RM Parker

No they are not. Don’t worry!

Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff Dudgeon
7 months ago

It has all been foretold in the recent Norwegian film series on Netflix ‘Occupied’, a very watchable drama with an icy Russian ambassador to Oslo taking over.

Last edited 7 months ago by Jeff Dudgeon
Steven Carr
Steven Carr
7 months ago

Another racist , right-wing article about how migrants are allegedly unwelcome.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
7 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Another completely denialist comment which totally misses the main point, which is that migrants are being indiscriminately used as a weapon in hybrid warfare. Of course the blame lies on the side of the author for being racist and intolerant and not with Russia for using vulnerable human beings as weapons, potentially resulting in them freezing to death in the far north! Of course! How silly and right wing of us to think that!

Last edited 7 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

You Sir are in a minority of one.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
7 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Upvoted, because I saw what he did there…

Last edited 7 months ago by Derek Smith