Edward Lucas
AUTHOR:Edward Lucas
19 April 2017

Hybrid war in the High North: Finland responds to the Russian threat

Talking about hybrid threats—the toxic cocktail of force, money, propaganda and spycraft—is one thing. Actually doing something about them is another. So the new center on hybrid warfare being set up in the Finnish capital Helsinki is a welcome, if belated and modest development.

So far Britain, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden and the United States have signed up to the Finnish initiative. So have the European Union and NATO. (Oddly, neighboring Estonia has not—sparking a political row in Tallinn.)

The Finnish foreign minister, Timo Soini, said at the signing ceremony last week that hybrid threats are a European and a transatlantic priority. That is true, but would be news to most people.

Western efforts against hybrid warfare have so far been low-key to the point of invisibility. There is a little-known EU Hybrid Fusion Cell within the (also low-profile) EU Intelligence and Situation Centre (EU INTCEN) of the European External Action Service. It liaises, apparently, with its (unnamed) NATO counterpart. In most countries, efforts against Russian hybrid warfare are run by the intelligence and security agencies.

Secrecy at this stage is not necessarily a bad thing: Russia’s espionage agencies are an essential part of the Kremlin’s hybrid-war offensive against the West. It makes sense to keep a large part of our initial response secret. Even from my limited viewpoint, it is clear that our services are hurriedly brushing up their expertise on Russian mischief-making; they are bringing back long-retired experts, and even asking outsiders for their advice.

Those efforts are already paying off. Russia has for years enjoyed the advantages of stealth and anonymity. Not any more: we can start tracking their efforts, infiltrating their networks, and running deception operations to confuse and distract them.

Our intelligence and security agencies should do all that, and advise our decision-makers. But they should not lead our efforts. The best way to defeat hybrid attacks is by developing a strong, resilient security culture which pervades the whole of society. Russian influence can crop up in the media, in finance, in government, in academia, in NGOs—in fact, almost anywhere.

This is mostly not territory where spies tread easily. Nor should they. We will not defeat Putinism by ‘Putinising’ our own societies. We don’t want university administrators, businessmen, newspaper editors or politicians taking instructions from spookdom. At most spies can give tips and warnings—but the resulting decisions must be taken autonomously.

We had this problem well under control in the Cold War era, when Kremlin money aroused an allergic reaction in most parts of society, and Kremlin propaganda was a laughing stock. By the end of the Cold War, Soviet influence was confined to a few fetid corners of academia, to ideologically driven trade unionists in some European countries and to the dusty husks of the international communist movement. Similarly, we should drive Putinist influence back to its natural habitats: the extremes of right and left, and the shamelessly greedy.

Finland is the right place to share and hone these skills. As Mr. Soini noted, his country specializes in a “whole-of-government approach” based on cooperation between state agencies, business and civil society. That model dates from the Second World War and its aftermath, when Finland had to tread a careful path between avoiding Soviet tutelage and provoking the Kremlin with overt resistance. Finland’s core institutions survived unpenetrated, even during decades when the Soviet Union regarded Finland as its most docile capitalist neighbor.

The new venture gets going later this year. Its annual budget will be a modest €1.5m ($1.6m). I wonder if it takes donations.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis.