Migrants arrived at the Russian-Finnish border in the north on November 21 by bicycle. Photo: Business Insider

Finland threatened to completely close its border with Russia, accusing its neighbor of taking advantage of the influx of refugees to cause instability, although Moscow denied it.

Tensions on the Russian-Finnish border have escalated in the past few weeks, as illegal migrants poured in. According to Helsinki estimates, in November alone, more than 600 illegal migrants arrived from Russia at the country’s border to find their way into the European Union.

This number has exceeded Finland’s annual quota for accepting refugees and migrants and has had a significant social impact on this Nordic country of only about 5.5 million people.

The Finnish government accused Russia of deliberately bringing migrants to the border area, then providing vehicles and creating conditions for them to move to the border on their own. Meanwhile, Moscow denies all accusations. Russian officials warn of the prospect of a “humanitarian crisis” at the border, with hundreds of people stuck in the winter cold because Finland did not open its border gates to refugees.

By November 22, Finland had closed 7 out of 8 border gates with Russia to prevent the flow of people from third countries to this country. Raja-Jooseppi border gate in the northernmost part of the country, close to the North Pole, is the only place where trade is still open between the two countries. Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo announced that he is ready to close the remaining border gates if migrants continue to flood the country from Russia.

Finnish Defense Minister Antii Hakkalen also previously warned that the country was ready to close the entire eastern border to “ensure national security, and prevent all acts of intervention and manipulation”.

Tomi Kivenjuuri, head of the legal department of the Finnish Border Guard Agency, accused Russian officials and border guards of heavily interfering in the process of bringing illegal migrants, mainly from Middle Eastern and African countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Kenya, Morocco, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria, to the borders of the two countries.

Some images posted in the past two weeks show migrants being helped to the border by car and truck, then being given bicycles or electric vehicles to travel the rest of the way to the border gate with Finland.

“Russia appears to be using ‘hybrid warfare’ tactics on the Russia-Finland border, similar to how Russia and Belarus created a migrant crisis on the Polish border in 2021. The purpose of this tactic is also to create instability for NATO”, Research Institute War (ISW), a US-based policy think tank, reviews.

Expert Hanna Smith, from the European Center for Synthetic Threat Response (Hybrid CoE), noted that Russia once warned that Finland would suffer the consequences because joined NATO earlier this year. She believes that the emerging migration crisis on Finland’s eastern border could be one of the consequences that Moscow has mentioned.

Expert Jukka Savolainen, Ms. Smith’s colleague, commented that Russia is testing a “migrant weapon” to probe how Finland responds to unconventional tactics. When Finland acts decisively by closing its borders, Russian public opinion will have the feeling that they are under siege from the West, thereby strengthening internal solidarity to fight against external threats.

“Russia needs to create the mentality of a besieged stronghold, seeing the West as a constant threat. The Finnish border will be a useful tool for the Kremlin to promote this sentiment. Once the message is repeated continuously, people will form a defensive mentality and even skeptics will turn to trust”, Savolainen said.

This is not the first time the Russia-Finland border has become tense because of the influx of refugees. From late 2015 to early 2016, Finland recorded about 1,800 illegal migrants crossing Russia to the north of the two countries’ border.

Finnish officials at that time also accused the Russian side of providing buses and accommodation for migrants, instructing them to apply for asylum in Finland as soon as they stepped through the border gate. However, Helsinki at that time refused to call this a “hybrid war” tactic, because it wanted to maintain stable relations with Moscow.

Fontanka, a newspaper in Russia, last week investigated a route popular with illegal migrants. They often enter Russia through Moscow airport with legal immigration documents, but then take a bus to St. Petersburg to find a service to transport people across the border. Human trafficking organizations will bring migrants to the border and then instruct them to buy bicycles for 3,000-10,000 rubles (about 34-113 USD) or steal bicycles to get to the border gate themselves.

Some ads for crossing the border with this route are posted online in Arabic, offering the opportunity to enter Europe to seek asylum, with a price of 2,100-5,400 USD.

This phenomenon is not unique to Finland. The Polish government in 2021 has accused Belarus of collaborating with Russian private military groups to smuggle thousands of illegal migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan to the border to try to cross into Poland.

In 2022, Italian intelligence accused Wagner, a private Russian military corporation, of organizing boats to take illegal migrants out of Libya and into Europe.

Estonia and Norway also discovered in November that the flow of migrants passing through Russia into these two countries was increasing, so they warned of border closures. Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets called this a tactic of “organized migration pressure”. He believes that Moscow wants to create social unrest, and fear in neighboring countries and erode people’s trust in current institutions.

Pilot area for border fence construction with Russia in Imatra region, Finland on October 26. Photo: Reuters

Pilot area for border fence construction with Russia in Imatra region, Finland on October 26. Photo: Reuters

According to two Hybrid CoE experts, the situation at Finland’s eastern border is not yet as serious as the migration crisis at the Poland-Belarus border in 2021.

The wave of illegal migrants who found their way into Poland through Belarus two years ago was more organized, with Warsaw accusing Belarus of designing a refugee camp near the border to maintain inter-governmental pressure. custom. Refugees also do not just target the border gates but try to cross the border all over the border, clashing with police and border guards near the separation fences.

“The developments at the Russia-Finland border in the period 2015-2016 can be considered the first exercises, while the developments in Belarus in 2021 are large-scale exercises. The tactical goal at that time was to promote the flow of migrants beyond the control of enemy officials, aiming to collapse the immigrant reception system. Finland’s situation is still better now”, Jukka Savolainen analyzed.

Helsinki is advocating a drastic and quick response to the wave of migrants passing through Russia flocking to the border, including a policy of building a 200 km long border fence.

Finnish public opinion has begun to fracture over these reactions. While right-wing forces support tightening immigration controls, a part of Finnish people worry that they will not be able to go to Russia to meet relatives when the border gate is closed. Protests broke out in the cities of Helsinki and Lappeenranta protesting border closures.

“Russia is experimenting with dividing Finnish society while observing which forces in Finland tend to cooperate. They are planning to build a new relationship, but that is a long-term goal”, Hanna Smith commented.

She analyzed that the crisis at the border is dividing Finnish public opinion into two groups, one group sees this as a national security issue, while the other group sees this as a humanitarian issue. Helsinki will need to be extremely careful to avoid moves that will escalate the stances of the two groups and create social instability.

Savolainen is also concerned that the number of refugees flocking to the eastern border will skyrocket in the near future, making the humanitarian crisis more serious and turning Finland into the subject of European debate on refugees. In addition, the controversy over border control measures also carries the risk of inflaming “Russophobic” sentiment, which is detrimental to Helsinki.

“Arguments that Finnish society is ‘Russianphobic’, as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described it, will drive a wedge between Finns and ethnic Russians living in Finland Lan. The recent peaceful marches will then be more chaotic”, Hanna Smith warned.