Deep fakes and blackmail: Finland warns Russia could meddle in NATO membership debate

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By David Mac Dougall  with AFP
President of Finland Sauli Niinisto speaks during the press conference after the NATO Summit at the official Presidential residence Mantyniemi in Helsinki, Finland
President of Finland Sauli Niinisto speaks during the press conference after the NATO Summit at the official Presidential residence Mantyniemi in Helsinki, Finland   -  Copyright  Credit: AP

Finland's intelligence service says the Nordic nation must prepare for Russian interference and hybrid attacks as the country continues a debate about NATO membership.

The security police Supo says Russia could resort to old-fashioned tactics like blackmailing politicians, or employ new technology like deep fake videos to influence the discussion.

“Finnish society as a whole should be prepared for various measures from Russia seeking to influence policymaking in Finland on the NATO issue," said Supo Director Antti Pelttari in the service's latest annual report released this week.

"Public authorities must secure the conditions for a full and frank debate without intimidation, and ensure that outsiders are unable to influence security policy decisions made by Finland," he adds.

The report highlighted the danger of "extensive Russian interference and illegal surveillance" with Pelttari telling journalists in Helsinki that tactics might include allegations about abuse or harassment of people with a Russian background in Finland, blackmail of politicians, and deep fake videos of real people.

The report also warns Finnish businesses to be on "constant alert" over cyber security. While Supo says Russian resources have been tied up domestically and in Ukraine since the start of the war, that could still change.

“Supo considers it likely that Russia will expand its cyber and information operations from Ukraine to the West. An increase in operations targeting Finland is therefore also considered probable in the coming months.”

The majority off cyber attacks in Finland are denial-of-service attacks, but Supo warned there's an increased risk of energy utilities infrastructure networks being targeted in future.

David Mac Dougall
FILE: Exterior of the Finnish Parliament building, Eduskunta, in HelsinkiDavid Mac Dougall

Finland's changing national discussion on NATO

Since Russian forces launched an invasion against Ukraine at the end of February, public support for joining Nato has risen sharply.

The latest poll released on Wednesday for Helsingin Sanomat newspaper shows 61% of Finns are in favour of joining the military alliance, a figure that had held stable around 20-25% for the last few decades.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö acknowledges that a NATO membership application could provoke an "impetuous" response from Russia, including airspace or territorial violations. But Niinistö also says being part of the NATO family, with Article V security guarantees, would have a "preventive effect" on aggression against Finland.

The Finnish government has ruled out the idea of ​​an emergency application for NATO membership but has been carrying out wide-ranging political consultations for the last month.

However, no decision on a possible parliamentary debate will be taken before the conclusions of a new strategic review on its security situation, expected in April.

Mikhail Klimentyev/AP
Vladimir Putin and Sauli Niinistö chat as they enjoy a steam boat cruise in Savonlinna, Eastern Finland, on Thursday, July 27, 2017Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

A history of hybrid attacks

Finnish society is no stranger to Russian hybrid attacks - from hacking cases at several ministries, to disruption of GPS signals and human trafficking provocation along the 1340km border.

"Being under the influence of Russian hybrid operations is nothing new to our society" says Anders Adlerkreutz, parliamentary group leader of the Swedish People's Party, one of the five parties that make up Finland's coalition government.

"We have plenty of experience of that during the past decade, whether it’s general disinformation, targeted trade sanctions to test the resiliency of our society or targeted streams of asylum seekers at certain points of our border," Adlerkreutz tells Euronews.

"It is worth noting, that every time Russia threatens Finland with actions if it pursues a NATO membership the support for a membership goes up," he adds.

Green League MP Atte Harjanne, who like Adlerkreutz sits on parliament's defence committee, says the warnings from Supo need to be taken seriously.

"There’s a broad spectrum of malicious methods including things that we probably haven’t thought about. It’s thus important not only to maintain capabilities to manage and counter specific threats but to strengthen the societal resilience by maintaining a high-trust society and strengthening the institutional base of democracy," says the first-term MP, whose party is also one of the five in government.

But the landscape of hybrid threats is constantly shifting, and Harjanne notes that many Russian channels of influence no longer exist, or have become weaker now due to economic sanctions.

Looking more widely, MPs are taking into consideration that Russian attempts at influencing any likely NATO application don't necessarily have to happen inside Finland.

"A membership needs to be approved by every NATO country. That means that quite a few parliaments might be subject to Russian hybrid actions" cautions Adlerkreutz.

"For that to not be effective it is important that all member countries get real information and are aware that Finland would have a quite significant positive impact on the capabilities of NATO. Thus our membership would have a stabilising effect."