WORLD POLITICAL REVIEW
February 13, 2018
HELSINKI, Finland—Tucked away in an unassuming office building near Helsinki’s waterfront, a group of around 10 academics and government officials—most of them Finns—spend long days and nights tracking disinformation and influence operations emanating from neighboring Russia. They make up a newly formed research and strategy unit tasked with lifting the veil on a range of security threats that blend conventional and unconventional tactics.
The European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, known as the Hybrid CoE, was founded last year in Helsinki by a dozen member states of the European Union and NATO. It defines hybrid threats as the fusion of irregular and regular tools—everything from tweets to tanks—that both state and nonstate actors, like terrorist groups, are using to try to destabilize countries and institutions. Its mission is to study those threats and advise participating countries, as well as other members of the EU and NATO, on how best to counter them.
The decision to locate the Hybrid CoE’s headquarters in Helsinki placed this Nordic country at the center of efforts to respond to Russia’s recent embrace of disinformation campaigns that try to undermine Western democracies. Yet because of the fraught historical relationship between Finland and Russia, this isn’t necessarily a new mission for Finnish officials, who have been thinking about how to counter Kremlin-organized influence operations ever since the country declared independence from Russia a century ago. And while many Western governments only recently woke up to the threat posed by Russia’s newer hybrid warfare tools—including online bots, targeted advertising, “fake news” and Kremlin-linked social media trolls—Finland has spent years trying to render them ineffective.
These Finnish efforts have even had some success. “The Finns know that they’re reasonably good at this,” says Jed Willard, director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Center for Global Engagement at Harvard University. “Because they have a long border and long history with Russia, they know instinctually how to deal with any sort of interference coming from the east. Because of that confidence, they were on board with tackling this problem pretty quickly.”
During a visit to Helsinki last November, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis offered an enthusiastic endorsement of the Hybrid CoE, saying it would be highly valuable as the U.S. and its allies work together to understand a new world in which hybrid threats are proliferating. “Here in this Helsinki center, the shared concerns of our transatlantic democracies can be researched and addressed in a collaborative manner, each of us learning from the other and building resistance to those with malign intent toward our democracies,” he said. “With this center, Finland has created an institution fit for our time.” On the other side of the two countries’ shared 833-mile border, Russian operatives also seemed to recognize the center’s potential—and immediately tried to disrupt it. Even before the Hybrid CoE officially began its work, it had a target on its back. A website with a Russian “.ru” domain was quickly created for “The Helsinki Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats,” an obvious imitation of the Hybrid CoE. When the Hybrid CoE debuted its logo—a simple arrangement of nine blue and red dots—this Russian website posted a similar one featuring a Finnish coat of arms. The contents of the imposter website included a pamphlet titled, “EU’s Infowar on Russia:
The Hybrid CoE’s leadership was unfazed by the knock-off. To the contrary, says Juha Mustonen, the center’s director of international relations, “That was somehow poetic justification for the center’s existence, that as soon as it was established there was a fake one.”
Tensions between Finland and Russia have generally been high ever since Finland broke from the Russian Empire to become a sovereign state during World War I. From Finland’s perspective, the country has tried to balance the pursuit of stronger ties with the West with the maintenance of a constructive bilateral relationship with Moscow. But a key goal has always been defending its independence from its more powerful neighbor.
In the short Winter War, which lasted for just three and a half months from late 1939 into early 1940, the Soviet Union invaded Finland right after World War II broke out. The heavily outnumbered Finns initially beat back the Soviet offensive, but the resistance fighters ultimately acquiesced to a treaty that ceded some territory. From 1941 to 1944, the two again fought in what is known as the Continuation War, during which Germany provided support to Finland. Yet despite the Soviet Union’s expansionist efforts, Finland emerged from World War II with its independence intact.
In the Cold War era, Finland pursued a process known as “Finlandization,” which involved trying to accommodate the Kremlin while consolidating ties with the West. During this period, the Finns got an early taste of Moscow’s disinformation efforts, as Soviet schoolchildren were inculcated with the narrative that Finland was the aggressor in the Winter War.
Since joining the European Union in 1995, Finland has moved even closer to the West, although it has refrained from joining NATO, the military alliance whose expansion into former Eastern Bloc countries has infuriated Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is as strong an indicator as any that Helsinki’s diplomatic balancing act continues. Today, Finland maintains a solid relationship with its neighbor to the east, while remaining realistic about the risks it poses.
When Finnish officials try to explain how they have successfully countered the Kremlin’s disinformation tactics over the years, they point to what they call their comprehensive “whole-of-society” approach to security, which was adopted after World War II. After the battles of the 1940s, in which all Finns were called upon to defend the nation’s independence, officials tried to apply that same mindset to the postwar era, bringing government agencies, civil society organizations and businesses together to protect and promote national security. The effort has been centralized in the Ministry of Defense’s Security Committee, which meets about once a month to ensure that vital information does not stay confined within various government agencies or in the private sector.
“That has always been our approach to security,” says Jori Arvonen, Finland’s state undersecretary for EU affairs in the office of Prime Minister Juha Sipila and chairman of the steering board for the Hybrid CoE. “And it is very relevant when we are talking about hybrid threats, because hybrid threats are targeted more than traditional threats towards citizens.”
Experts say this model has been especially helpful in the past few years, as Finland has increasingly had to fight back against the Kremlin’s cyber-enabled information operations. These have included, for example, stories in Russian media outlets claiming that the Finnish government abducts children with Russian backgrounds amid custody battles between Finns and Russians. That particular campaign intensified in 2012 in an apparent attempt to spark distrust of Finnish authorities among Russians and the Russian-speaking population in Finland. Helsinki was initially caught off guard, especially as the government officials who could best debunk these accusations were legally barred from commenting on open cases involving minors.
Russian outlets have also continued reporting that Finland, and not the Soviet Union, started the Winter War, muddying the waters of historical fact. In this case, Russia’s main goal, it appears, is to compromise Finland’s image and sow doubts among Finns about their national identity.
The Russian efforts go beyond negative media stories. As the world is now well aware, Kremlin-linked information operations include bots, trolls, hackers and provocateurs that target individual countries and populations both covertly and overtly. Their specific tactics include breaking into computer systems and trying to weaponize leaks of private emails and other sensitive, potentially embarrassing material, as has been seen during recent elections in the U.S. and France. These tactics have also been used in Finland. In fact, operations against Finland have ramped up in recent years as Moscow has aimed to prevent Helsinki from taking steps that would move it closer to the West, such as strengthening defense cooperation with European allies or even joining NATO.
As Moscow’s efforts have accelerated, Finland has drawn from various government agencies and nongovernmental entities to develop a network dedicated specifically to countering hostile information operations coming out of Moscow. It is made up of around 30 specialists from different ministries and agencies, a set-up intended to mitigate bureaucratic problems that can impede offices from sharing information or coordinating responses. These specialists have focused on teaching public servants and the media about the Kremlin’s disinformation tactics by holding workshops and training sessions. They have also tried to promote a strong national narrative to counter Moscow’s claims. In broad strokes, this narrative emphasizes Finland’s democratic values, excellent education system and even the saunas that are beloved in Finnish culture.
Officials are adamant that, as ever, the entire population must join together in rebuffing Moscow’s disinformation offensive. “We are very openly discussing these issues, these topics, these examples, in the media, so people know this is happening and this is real,” says Jarno Limnell, a professor of cybersecurity at Aalto University in Helsinki and a former officer in the Finnish Defense Forces. “For example, it was a few years ago when our president, Sauli Niinisto, said openly that yes, there is an information war going on at the moment and yes, it is a duty of every Finn, every citizen, to combat it.”
Yet while it is eager to fight back, the Finnish government also believes it is important to avoid compromising Finnish values by adopting the same tactics as Russia, says Max Arhippainen, director of communications at the Ministry of Defense.
“Would we launch a dirty tricks department in the prime minister’s office? Use the same methods as our counterpart?” Arhippainen adds. “We would betray the same values that we are here to protect. This is an asymmetry that we can’t do anything against. We have to just accept it.”
Inside the Hybrid CoE
In addition to Finland and the U.S., the Hybrid CoE’s members include Estonia, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. One additional country—the Netherlands—has already signed on in 2018, and officials say more are expected to join, though they would not disclose the others. The European Union and NATO are not signatories themselves, but are invited to participate in the Hybrid CoE’s activities.
The center’s specific tasks include research and analysis of hybrid threats, as well as organizing exercises to test crisis-response tools related to cyber threat scenarios. It also makes recommendations and offers trainings to participating countries, as well as the EU and NATO at large, based on its research. These trainings stress the need to assess internal vulnerabilities as well as recognize the actors behind threats and their goals.
Its work is organized around “communities of interest,” or subject areas that individual member countries take the lead on. Finland is in charge of the group focused on vulnerabilities and resilience, for instance, while the U.K. heads up the group concerned with hybrid threats posed specifically by state actors.
The sharing of knowledge is useful, but the changing nature of the threat posed by Russia and other actors means lessons can’t be applied in exactly the same way from one country to the next. “The Russian approach is very much tailored country by country,” says Hanna Smith, the Hybrid CoE’s director of strategic planning and responses. “So we can learn something from each other, but not in the way of what works in the Finnish case works in the Estonian, or Swedish, or U.S., or French case directly.”
It’s worth noting that the Hybrid CoE does not have a mandate to respond to hybrid activities itself. That remains in the hands of member countries acting individually or in concert with one another, Arvonen says.
An Ever-Changing Global Threat
While Russian disinformation is most frequently discussed in the context of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the methods on display during that campaign were only part of a long-running effort that preceded—and extends far beyond—the race for the White House. Since 2014, Moscow has ramped up its high-profile disinformation efforts around its interventions in Ukraine and Crimea. And in 2017, the Kremlin sought to influence elections in Germany, France and the Netherlands, though it failed to attain its desired results.
Many analysts expect similar cyber-enabled information operations to be on display during elections this year, especially in Italy, Mexico and—again—in the U.S. once the congressional midterm campaigns heat up.
Members of the U.S. intelligence community and other experts say the Kremlin’s overarching purpose with disinformation is still to exploit societal divisions and undermine the public’s faith in institutions of power—disrupting the concept of truth, the very notion that a factual version of events exists, is central to these efforts.
The U.S. has largely found itself paralyzed by recent Russian operations. There are a number of ongoing congressional investigations related to the 2016 election cycle, as well as the headline-grabbing investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller into, among other matters, whether President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Kremlin, which supported his candidacy.
At the State Department, meanwhile, the so-called Global Engagement Center, which is tasked with countering state and nonstate propaganda, was not authorized until last year to take the lead in addressing Russian disinformation targeting the U.S. government. Prior to that, its 70 employees had been largely focused on countering the messaging of terrorist groups. This is a departure from the center’s earlier work producing widely mocked English-language Twitter campaigns against the self-styled Islamic State. Today, it is prioritizing partnerships with Silicon Valley and groups working on countering violent extremism, and it hopes to develop additional partnerships with NGOs, think tanks and experts working on Russian disinformation. But little real progress has been made.
As countries across the globe debate how to counter Russian disinformation both within their borders and in the broader information space, Finland offers a useful case study—but only up to a point. “You can’t recreate what the Finns have,” says Willard, from Harvard’s FDR Center. He notes that the country’s small population and “common identity” make it easier for the government to marshal a collective response. “They have kind of the equivalent of the National Security Council that can very quickly mobilize everyone down to the garbage collectors and teachers,” he says.
But he says one piece of advice he offered to Finland several years ago, when he worked as a consultant on the government’s strategic communications, could be valuable for other nations, too: “Always punch above the metanarrative belt.” By this he means that countries should focus on positive narratives they can create for themselves, rather than being drawn into Kremlin-driven talking points about the West being corrupt, decadent and weakened by democracy.
“Every country has to be able to tell its own story. There is a shared story that we are the West, but beyond that, you’ve got to be unique for each nation,” Willard says. “It’s important not to get bogged down in the lies or the little subplots, and rather to look at where they’re coming from.”
Countries should focus on positive narratives they can create for themselves, rather than being drawn into Kremlin-driven talking points about a corrupt and decadent West.
For Arhippainen, the Finnish Defense Ministry spokesman, this means that while it might be tempting to slap a tag of “fake news” on stories spread via social media or to respond to every allegation that appears in the Russian press, it can be counterproductive. “We try to avoid directly addressing lies and smears,” he says. “If you take a lie in your own mouth, you give the lie and the liar more credibility.”
Yet experts say that even before they come up with a strategy for how to respond to Russian disinformation tactics, officials in Western countries need to come together in agreement that a response is necessary. Despite the various Kremlin-linked campaigns that have played out very publicly in recent years, Western political leaders are hardly united in thinking that such tactics amount to a critical threat to their countries’ national security.
“We can see a number of countries where the political elite is still divided on the issue,” says Arvonen, from the Finnish prime minister’s office. “Some are in denial. Some are very actively saying that this is a threat that we have to get more prepared for.”
For his part, Limnell, at Aalto University, is convinced these tactics are here to stay. “We just have to live with that,” he says, adding that countries also must begin trying to anticipate how the threat will evolve. “If we are just concentrating on those cyber methods—what have been used or what we have seen already—then we’re always one step behind,” he says. “We have to be more proactive, to think about what are the next steps in this influence.”
From their small outpost in Helsinki, staffers at the Hybrid CoE hope their research and analysis will be at the forefront of this thinking, yielding new strategies and tactics to confront the Kremlin’s disinformation and influence operations. Ultimately, their aim is to serve as an essential nerve center demystifying the threats that have rattled so many.
Mackenzie Weinger is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been published in the Financial Times, Politico, and The Washington Diplomat, among others, and she has a master’s degree in War Studies from King’s College London. She reported from Helsinki with assistance from the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.