Russia’s Hybrid Warfare Tactics: A Closer Look at the Migrant Crisis on the Russian-Finnish Border

23.11.2023

Sources: Finnish Border Guard Graph: Helen Wright

On November 18, Finland closed four border checkpoints along its southeastern border with Russia due to a sudden influx of asylum seekers, predominantly from Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria. The Finnish Border Guard reported that since September 2023, approximately 300 migrants have arrived at the Finnish border from Russia, with a notable surge recorded between November 7 and 14. Finnish authorities suspect that Russia is orchestrating a hybrid warfare tactic. The Finnish Prime Minister accuses Russian border guards of escorting migrants to the Finnish border, a claim vehemently denied by the Kremlin.

 The situation mirrors tactics employed by Russia and Belarus in 2021 to destabilize NATO and accuse the alliance of aggression, as the Institute for the Study of War reports in its November 20 report. In 2021, Belarus assisted thousands of Middle Eastern migrants in crossing into Poland. In that instance, the Kremlin used the crisis to wrongly accuse NATO of aggression against Belarus, escalating tensions in the region. Finland’s accusations against Russia indicate a similar pattern. 

Russians protesting in Helsinki and Lappeenranta

In recent developments, protests have taken place in Helsinki and the eastern city of Lappeenranta on November 18 and 20, respectively. The demonstrations, organized by ethnic Russians and Russian nationals, are demanding the Finnish government reopen southern border checkpoints, asserting that the closures infringe upon their rights to visit relatives in Russia.

Savinova brings books from Russia—the history of the USSR, war history books, and “Soviet textbooks”.

The organizers of the protests include a German teacher and a communist named Elena Savinova, who is still employed by a Russian non-profit organization, Heard Immunity, alongside Russian national Gleb Kudryavcev. Kudryavcev moved to Finland in March 2022, coinciding with the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Notably, Kudryavcev’s Telegram channel suggests ongoing close cooperation with several Russian online services, including Tinkoff Bank, which has been under EU sanctions since February 2023. 

Screenshot from Solovyov TG channel soon after the demonstration in Helsinki took place.

Messages on their Telegram channels suggest a link between the protest organizers and Russian online platforms, sparking concerns about their involvement and potential influence. 

Vladimir Solovyov, one of the most prominent Russian propagandists, promptly responded to Russian protests against the border closure in front of the Finnish Parliament, garnering favorable reactions

The next protest is planned for November 25 in Tampere.

Reactions from both slides 

The recent border closure in Finland has triggered a spectrum of reactions, highlighting the complexity of the situation.

In a recent interview with Yle during her visit to North Karelia, Ukraine’s ambassador to Finland, Olga Dibrova, expressed support for Finland’s decision to close its eastern border. Dibrova emphasized that the measures taken by Finland were not an overreaction.

In a recent interview on state TV, prominent Finnish pro-Russian propagandist Johan Bäckman pointed to Washington as the driving force behind Helsinki’s decision to close border crossing points with Russia. “Who’s taking this decision, who approved this decision? Of course, it’s Washington” 

Finnish pro-Russian propagandist Janus Putkonen, currently residing in Russia-occupied Donetsk, has given an interview to the Russian RT channel condemning Finland’s decision on partial border closure.

Tigran Keosayan, the husband of Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT and a well-known Kremlin propagandist, has made alarming threats against Finland threatening to send tanks to reopen the border. 

Meanwhile, a Russian T-72 tank destroyed and burned near Kyiv during the Ukrainian war is on display in Helsinki’s Kansalaistori, with a direct view of the parliament building. The tank is scheduled to be on public view until December 7. The tank has previously been on display in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Ria Novosti reports that the Russian Embassy in Helsinki has sent a note to the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expressing protest over the display of a destroyed Russian tank in Kansalaistori.

According to Rinna Kullaa, an assistant professor of global history at the University of Tampere, the plight of asylum seekers on Finland’s eastern border may persist well into Russia’s upcoming presidential elections next spring. Kullaa sees Russia trying to break Finland’s discussion culture and society in two.

Presidential candidate Alexander Stubb suggests Russia’s actions have two motives: instilling fear and creating instability in Finland, using fear as a tool of power. Stubb also notes the possibility of Russia shifting blame onto Finland for the border closure as part of its internal policy. Looking ahead, Stubb speculates that after the Russian presidential election, a new phase in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and another mobilization wave may occur.

Finnish Parliament Speaker Jussi Halla-aho suspects that Wagner soldiers disguised as asylum seekers can also arrive in Finland. However, doctorate researcher Mikko Räkköläinen from the University of Tampere finds that the scenario presented by Halla-aho does not correspond to how Wagner or similar actors have operated in the past.

According to Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, the Finnish government is highly prepared to make new restrictions on the eastern border with a quick schedule, and the situation is being closely monitored. On November 22, he announced that it would close all border crossings with Russia on the night between Friday and Saturday, except Raja-Joosepi, the northernmost crossing point. Minister of the Interior Affairs, Mari Rantanen said that the new restrictions will take effect at midnight on Friday and will remain in force at least until December 23. Four checkpoints in Southern Finland will stay closed at least until 18 February 2024. 

The possible outcomes

Russia’s role in the migrant crisis appears to be a hybrid warfare tactic aimed at destabilizing NATO, diverting attention from the conflict in Ukraine, and shaping information narratives. The unfolding situation, coupled with Finland’s contemplation of closing its entire border, will soon reveal the extent of Russia’s involvement and its impact on regional stability.

The Kremlin’s persistent attempts to undermine NATO, along with previous threats following Finland’s NATO accession, indicate a larger strategy aimed at disrupting regional stability to achieve geopolitical objectives. 

Screenshots are from sources used in the story.