Russia’s withdrawal from its border agreement with Finland is an expansion of its hybrid warfare on the EU

As Russia continues to weaponize migrants to undermine EU unity on Ukraine, the EU can learn important lessons from Finland.

Expert comment
3 minute READ

Last week, Russia unilaterally terminated a Finnish-Russian border agreement dating back to 2012. While this move is largely symbolic as the agreement was suspended following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it nonetheless demonstrates Russia’s willingness to escalate tensions with its neighbour along its northernmost boundary with the EU and NATO.

It is the culmination of a period of instability on the border. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 led to an exodus of Russian nationals seeking to avoid conscription into the war effort – leaving via the Finnish border and other crossing points. Moscow responded by tightening its border controls to stem the flow.

The weaponization of migrants is an important element of Russia’s war in Ukraine, intended to undermine EU unity and the resolve of Ukraine’s allies.

In November 2023 an unexpected increase in migrant traffic on the border, albeit at low levels, caused alarm in Helsinki, which responded by closing some land border crossing points with Russia. It then closed the whole border, claiming Russia was orchestrating a rise in undocumented asylum seekers making the crossing into Finland.

The weaponization of migrants is an important element of Russia’s war in Ukraine, intended to undermine EU unity and the resolve of Ukraine’s allies. But Finland is well versed in handling the tactics of its aggressive neighbour – and can teach the EU important lessons about creating societal resilience.

Pawns in the war game

This was not the first time Russia and its allies used migrants as a hybrid warfare tactic to destabilize Europe. In summer 2021, Belarus, a close ally of Russia, deliberately moved predominantly Iraqi and Afghan migrants to its borders with Poland and Lithuania, leading to protests and violent clashes with border force officers.

The intention of such moves is to exploit internal divisions within the EU about migration, and ultimately weaken the cohesion of the whole bloc. The strategy has grown in importance to Russia since it invaded Ukraine, an act which provoked a mostly united front by EU countries. In this latest instance, migrants have been used as tactical pawns in Russia’s war game.

There is a clear logic behind this: Migration is particularly sensitive among EU member states, and plays into other hybrid tactics Russia has deployed against the EU – such as a huge Russian disinformation campaign uncovered in France aimed at undermining support for Ukraine earlier this year (including by stoking fears about Ukrainian migration).

While Russia has largely been unsuccessful in creating divisions among EU member states so far, cracks are beginning to show.

The EU’s coordinated response and support for Ukraine can be lauded as one of the Union’s significant foreign policy successes in recent years, with aid and arms support packages quickly proposed and adopted and a 13th sanctions package currently being prepared.

However, while Russia has largely been unsuccessful in creating divisions among EU member states so far, cracks are beginning to show.

Hungary’s President Orban has been a long-standing supporter of President Putin. In Slovakia, former Prime Minister’s Robert Fico’s pro-Putin party is back in power.

With further upcoming national elections in several EU member states, as well as the European Parliamentary elections in June, it’s possible that Russian disinformation and exploitation of the migrant issue could help more parties hostile to Ukraine attain power.

The EU’s response

The EU’s steadfast support for Ukraine is more important than ever – especially as US support might wane regardless of the presidential election outcome, as the war in Gaza and Chinese posturing over Taiwan focus attention elsewhere.

This has to include financial support as much as military. Even the next €50 billion package, hopefully to be agreed during the EU Council this week, is unlikely to be sufficient to help Ukraine win the war.

The EU should respond to Russian warfare by ensuring its sanctions on Moscow are watertight, closing loopholes and negotiating with third countries to ensure enforcement.

Yet delays in approving this package due to Hungary’s opposition point to increasingly difficult internal negotiations that EU leaders will need to overcome.

While staying firm on support for Ukraine, the EU should respond to Russian warfare by ensuring its sanctions on Moscow are watertight, closing loopholes and negotiating with third countries to ensure enforcement.

Most of all, to respond to the Russian hybrid threat, the EU must work to improve the resilience of its citizens to Russian dis- and misinformation campaigns, many of which will be intended to exploit sensitivities over migration and other wedge issues.

The European Parliament has called for additional measures to protect the European Parliamentary elections from Russian (and Chinese) interference, but such measures need to be taken consistently beyond key inflection points.

This is clearly not a quick fix solution, but it is essential that EU countries build long-term societal understanding that manipulation of the truth by hostile states is a fact of life.

Lessons from Finland

Finland can offer the EU important lessons in this regard. The country has had to toe a careful line for decades, between maintaining relations on border issues with a historically aggressive neighbour and its own position of turning increasingly towards the West.

Article 2nd half

To meet this operational challenge, Finland has taken a whole-of-society approach, ensuring that Finnish citizens understand the risk Russia poses through sophisticated government education programmes, starting with national security courses in schools and prestigious national defence courses for business, academic and third sector leaders.

Ethnic Russians staged protests in response to the initial Finnish border crossing point closures, but these did not overflow into wide-spread protests or civil unrest as in Belarus in 2021 – a clear demonstration of the strength of Finland’s approach.

Finland has successfully managed and secured the EU’s northern border for decades. It is only right that the EU has rallied behind Finland, offering staff, equipment, and financial support to help manage the impact of Russia’s latest escalation.
 
More escalations will doubtless follow, but drawing inspiration from Finland’s societal resilience, the EU can better withstand Moscow’s future hybrid attacks.