Authors: Mariam Mikiani and Luka Chitiani
On April 4, 2023, Finland became the 31st member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO, the Alliance). Although the partnership between Finland and the Alliance had lasted almost 30 years prior to that, the mentioned relationship was based on Finland’s military non-alignment policy. However, in February 2022, Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine fundamentally changed the international security system and brought some unwelcome consequences for the Kremlin – Finland joining NATO among them.
This can be considered especially unpleasant for Russia when we remember that the Kremlin demanded so-called “security guarantees” from the West in 2021, which essentially meant putting a halt to NATO’s future expansion to the East. Among the demands put forward by the Kremlin was the prevention of the so-called former Soviet Union Republics from joining the Alliance, as well as the refusal to deploy NATO military bases in the mentioned countries. Yet, in February 2022, in response to the war launched against Ukraine, Russia instead got another NATO member state, Finland, as its neighbour (with which it shares a 1,340 km border).
Since then, and particularly over recent months, the intensification of the flow of migrants at the Finnish-Russian border has created a disagreeable situation for the Finnish authorities. In statements from Finnish officials, it has been repeatedly underlined that the Kremlin is behind the “migrant crisis”. The purpose of this blog is to illustrate the role that the migrant crisis has in the hybrid war being waged by the Kremlin and what purposes it serves.
Description of recent events
In the last week of November, Finland decided to close its final open border crossing point with Russia. The mentioned crossing is located in the Arctic part of Finland, about 250 km from Murmansk. The Finnish side was worried as, since August, up to 1,000 migrants without visas and valid documents had arrived at the border, 900 of whom requested asylum in November alone. Considering that Finland is an integral part of NATO’s north-eastern border and represents the northern border of the European Union, the migrant crisis is indeed a challenge, not only for one state but also for the mentioned Union. The migrants came seeking asylum from countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Pakistan, Syria, and Somalia.
The Prime Minister of Finland stated that the Russian side was orchestrating the process and claimed that the migrants were being instrumentalised. The decision was thus made to close the border for a period of two weeks, although it was not to affect the Vainikkala rail traffic. Finnish Interior Minister Rantanen stated that the process was “part of Russian influence operations.” Statements from other Finnish officials carried the same message, stressing that “closure of the entire Eastern border had become necessary. The decision was made to protect Finland’s national security from Russia’s hybrid operation.’’ The Memorandum explaining the decision also stated that the change in the situation at the border would not affect the right of any person to receive international protection.
The Russian side denied it was using migrants as a tool of hybrid war and expressed dissatisfaction with the Finnish decision to close the border. In a report published on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia website on November 20, we read, “Considering the organisation of migrant flows as a premeditated action by Russia is uniquely provocative and clearly tries to further aggravate our (Russia and Finland) relations.’’
The Kremlin’s media release also states that the decision violates the rights of the citizens of both countries and harms their interests. The text published on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website also clearly demonstrates that the Russian side criticised Finland for making a decision “hastily” without consulting with the Russian side.
In response to the events at the end of November, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia also expressed his displeasure, calling the process a “clear hybrid attack” orchestrated by Moscow. Margus Tsahkna’s statement says that Estonia is “ready to close the borders with Russia” if the situation continues. The Minister of Foreign Affairs also added that this process additionally proves that “Russia is not only fighting against Ukraine but is a threat to other states as well.”
When the two-week closure was up, Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo announced that two of the eight border crossings were to be reopened, adding that Finland would continue to take measures if necessary. As soon as the decision came into force, a new wave of migrants appeared at the Finnish border. Mari Rantanen, the Interior Minister, stated at a press conference, “The influx of migrants started faster than expected.” According to local media, at least 60 migrants appeared immediately after the opening of the two border crossings. Rantanen said that “closing the eastern border (again) has become necessary.” This time, Finland decided to close all border crossings until January 14. This development once again illustrates a Kremlin attempt to instrumentalise migrants.
Migrants as a tool of Hybrid Warfare: An analysis of the Russian Tactics
Migration is a particularly problematic issue for the EU member states. The wave of migration in 2015, when asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iraq arrived at the borders of the European Union, caused considerable discontent within the EU states. The discussion of Russia’s use of migrants as a tool of hybrid war against the European Union is still relevant today. When discussing this issue, experts pay special attention to the case of Belarus and Poland in 2021.
In 2020, presidential elections were held in Belarus, as a result of which power was again put in the hands of Alexander Lukashenko. The mentioned elections were declared fraudulent by the West, and due to persecution and repression of opposition leaders and representatives of the civil sector by the pro-Russian leader of Belarus, the European Union imposed sanctions on the country at the initiative of Poland. It was in response to this that Lukashenko began to use migrants as a hybrid warfare tool, a move on which he “consulted” with his closest partner, Vladimir Putin.
In 2021, Poland declared a state of emergency and imposed a restricted movement regime at the border with Belarus. According to various data, up to 40,000 attempts to illegally cross the EU border from Hungary were recorded after the escalation of the situation. The Prime Minister of Poland claimed that Poland was “facing a large-scale political provocation.” The situation was also difficult for Lithuania. The mentioned states noted that the involvement of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who helped Belarus plan the hybrid attack, was notable in these processes.
As a result of an investigation of the events, the following scheme was unveiled: Belarus was issuing tourist visas to the migrants and allowing them to enter the country without a visa, after which they were transported in waves to the border of the European Union. Armed military forces of Belarus accompanied them and, in some cases, even forced migrants to enter the territory of the European Union. In response to the challenge, Poland started the construction of a wall on the border with Belarus in January 2022, which was completed that summer. The 186-kilometre, 5.5-meter-high wall was built to protect Poland against the threat of migrants being used as a mechanism for hybrid warfare.
Hybrid warfare involves synchronising the use of various power instruments tailored to the societal spectrum’s specific vulnerabilities. According to a report compiled as part of NATO’s Multinational Capability Development Campaign, hybrid warfare may include the use of military, economic, political, civil and informational means. As we have already mentioned, each of them is “targeted” at a specific vulnerability of society.
British political scientist Barry Buzan distinguishes the following types of threats: military, political, societal, economic and ecological. The author explains that the political threat threatens the organisational stability of the state. In various cases, it may mean both pressure on the government and the weakening of the state. In the case of a societal threat, the communication and dissemination of aspects of ideas have paramount importance. Issues related to religion, culture, local tradition or language are often the main targets of societal threats.
The Russian authorities’ use of migrants as a mechanism of hybrid warfare demonstrates the usage of political and social threats tothe state. On the one hand, the influx of migrants in large numbers to the EU countries causes discontent among the population and, in some cases, opposition parties. On the other hand, the closing of borders raises concerns about the protection of the rights of migrants and asylum seekers in the international community because the foundation of Western society is the protection of human rights. In response to the developments around the Finnish-Russian border, we read in the letter published by the Council of Europe that (they are) “concerned about the protection of rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.”
Thus, the use of migrants is an unconventional tactic which distinguishes hybrid warfare from traditional forms of conflict and puts Western states in a difficult situation, seeing them have to simultaneously respond to the threat in the form of the migrant crisis while at the same time maintaining a commitment to the democratic values on which Western civilisation stands.
In conclusion, we can highlight several main findings: First, we must remember that hybrid war sometimes involves using new, non-traditional methods in confrontation. After that, it is essential to emphasise that Finland’s accession to NATO is an unequivocally unwelcome event for Russia, which was followed by the Kremlin’s use of the migrant crisis as a kind of “punitive” measure.
In addition, the events that occurred and analysed at different times reveal that this vulnerable group of society has been used by the Kremlin for political purposes more than once. Russia has created a dilemma for Finland, where the state is forced to both protect its national security and ensure the rights of migrants as a vulnerable group.
Russia is using the migrant crisis to apply political pressure and manipulate, creating artificial problems and tensions at the Finnish border. In addition, Russia seeks to use the sensitivity of the topic to title the closure of the borders to migrants as Finland’s inhumane treatment of a vulnerable group.