Trust is proving to be a valuable asset in democratic societies. And institutions at all levels have proposed to protect it from foreign attacks – from a State or a movement – that destabilize a model of coexistence; from the hacking of emails, the tension in social networks with emotional discourses; from cyber attacks; from electoral interference. In short, the computer threats and misinformation that the world has been suffering for five years and that they are finding so difficult to annul because “there is always an element of surprise”, acknowledges Mikko Kinnunen, responsible for evaluating hybrid threats for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland.
On the sixth floor of an old industrial building in a suburb north of Helsinki, the capital of Finland, 22 individuals work at the Center of Excellence (CoE) for the Hybrid Threats that the European Commission and NATO inaugurated two years ago as a way of dissuasion towards Moscow. “Here we analyze everything,” warns forcefully Vytautas Kersanskas, deputy director of the Center, in one of its rooms.
The conflict of coexistence in Catalonia and its fit with the rest of Spain; the protest movement of the yellow vests in France; the demonstrations because of the name of Northern Macedonia in Greece; the financing of the pro-Brexit movement in the United Kingdom; immigration in the south of the EU, and all kinds of discourse which result in a confrontation (for or against) between the inhabitants of a western democracy are subject to analysis in the austere CoE decorated in the purest Nordic style. Because “hybrid threats are not only military,” warns Päivi Tampere, a worker at the Center.
This office, which has a financing of 2.3 million euros in 2019, receives the contribution of Austria, Canada, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Holland, the United Kingdom and the USA, plus the EU and NATO. Here “the vulnerabilities of the member countries are classified and attempts are made to minimize the risks”, explains Tampere. “If there are groups in society that do not feel represented, that feel alienated and not taken into account, that is a weakness because they buy a polarizing discourse that ends up generating conflict”, she continues and points out that the best remedy is transparency. “Polarization fuels distrust,” says the report Helsinki in the era of hybrid threats, prepared by the CoE.
Ever since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Brussels, but especially the countries bordering the orbit of the Kremlin, raised their guard building all kinds of capabilities -military and civilian- on the eastern flank of the Old Continent. According to Kersanskas, “Europe is now less vulnerable than five years ago”.
But despite that relative improvement, Kinnunen, responsible for evaluating hybrid threats for the Finnish government, recognizes that democracies are moving slowly in this battle. “Authoritarian states are developing sooner and at a faster pace”, he acknowledges. The deputy director of the Center explains that in the West certain values are respected such as freedom of expression, non-censorship and respect for human rights, which does not happen in other places. “An open society is more vulnerable,” admits Kinnunen.
Although the episode of Crimea was in 2014 and the subsequent war that still persists in the Ukrainian region of Donbas, in the provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk, it was not until 2016, with the Brexit referendum and the subsequent election of Donald Trump to occupy the White House, when the EU began to take measures regarding this type of activities that “occupy a gray area in the traditional line of separation between war and peace,” as Kinnunen explains, sitting in a dark leather chair in his Office in the Ministry of Defense.
The report posits that the objective of these threats riding in this ambiguous atmosphere is to generate confusion, and that the formula to combat them is difficult to find. In addition, Kinnunen adds, it is important to remember that this threat “has no borders”.
Finland, because of its status as a non-member of NATO (only a partner), because of its 1,300 kilometers of border shared with Russia and because of its geographical location, is a fundamental actor in the fight against these threats. “And the opinion of most countries in Europe is that the threat, today, comes from Russia”, says Kinnunen. The Nordic country, of 5.5 million inhabitants, faces elections on Sunday to the Eduskunta (Parliament), a process that, in the words of the ambassador, is “crucial” and “priority” and especially vulnerable. “They European elections [26 May] will also be crucial, a priority and especially vulnerable, as well as our [rotatory] EU presidency starting in July”, he advances.
And the fact is that the objective of the interference is to change the political decision making in the governments. Kersanskas explains it bluntly: “Russia acts with the aim of breaking the EU and NATO”. None of the parties fighting for the Finnish government this Sunday seems to want to take the step and join the Atlantic Alliance.
The tension in the Baltic Sea has been increasing for years, but Ambassador Kinnunen does not consider that Finland, where it is customary to cross with kids in military uniform on the street due to the obligatory nature of military service, is a “main” objective today, although a clear recipient of these attacks. In November, the country saw how its GPS navigation systems for civilians in the Arctic were pirated for weeks and they identified that attack as originated from Russia. “We decided to tell it and make it public”, he says to illustrate the way they try to keep the population from losing faith in the system. “Trust is a great word,” Kinnunen sums up.
At high speed and without brakes
B. D. C. (Helsinki)
“We are driving on a highway, at high speed, without brakes, without a safety belt and even without an airbag”, explains Päivi Tampere of the Hybrid Threat Center, making a metaphor of the danger of using platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in the dissemination of discourses that confront people.
The role of social networks as a vehicle for the dissemination of fake news, hoaxes, disinformation and tension is fundamental in the struggle of the so-called hybrid war. But until a few months ago, the big companies had not been involved in this fight.
For Mikko Kinnunen, Finnish ambassador for the Hybrid Threats, it appears, however, insufficient. And he asks for more commitment from these private companies. “There is a constant need to maintain dialogue with them to create some kind of regulation. And if it’s at international levels, like the EU, better”, he says.
Belén Domínguez Cebrián (Special Envoy)
Helsinki 13 APR 2019 – 15:06 CEST