Russia moves first troops to Arctic base near Finnish border
Russia is stepping up its military activity in the Arctic region. As part of this effort, Russian Armed Forces reopened an abandoned military base on the Kola Peninsula in the Russia city of Alakurtti recently, just 60 kilometres from the Finnish border.
Russia is moving military forces to previously under-occupied military basis in Arctic territory that once belonged to Finland. The troops are stationed at Alakurtti Air Base--a naval air base in Murmansk Oblast, Russia located three km northwest of the Russian municipality of Alakurtti, north of the Arctic Circle. It is 60 kilometres from the border city of Salla in Finnish Lapland.
Once operated by the Germans, the base was transferred to the armed forces of the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Prior to the Moscow Peace of March 1940, the area around Alakurtti was part of Finland. Different Russian army and navy units have been based there through the years, but since 2009 the town has hosted mainly civilians and border guards and the air base has been largely silent.
In March 2014 the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported that the Murmansk regional administration and the Western Military District were preparing housing blocks and infrastructure to house some 3,000 soldiers and officers from Russia’s Northern Fleet.
An unconfirmed source also reported the air base would house a newly created Northern Fleet signals intelligence unit, charged with tracking military, maritime, and air movements and activities, supporting developments in the Arctic and the Far North, and searching for threats from the West.
Motorized infantry arrived by train
ITAR-TASS reported on Wednesday that the first motorised infantry brigade troops arrived at the reinstated base on Tuesday by train. The infantry is motorised, in that it also contains trucks that are available to transport the unit when necessary.
Russian papers predicted last spring that the troops would be transferred last December and said the brigade would likely be comprised of 7,000 soldiers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new military strategy emphasises protection of Russian interests in the Arctic, and Alakurtti is not the only abandoned base that is being revived in the north for this purpose. According to ITAR-TASS, the Russians are transporting equipment and opening several new air bases in the north, with a dozen bases planned for opening in the coming months.
The arrival of soldiers in Alakurtti will mean a dramatic change for the northern community. For the past few years, the population has only been a few thousand, so in the future troops will outnumber residents by a large margin.
Americans in Sodankylä
On the Finnish side of the border, things are quieter--but there's still a military presence. This week five US Marines and three army soldiers from Alaska are participating in a winter combat training course arranged by the Jaeger Brigade of the Finnish Defence Forces in the Finnish Lapland village of Sodankylä.
The first part of the course teaches theory and winter warfare criteria, in addition to survival skills that promote optimal performance. The second stage applies the knowledge learned in the first stage in practical exercises.
The course is a continuation of bilateral cooperation between the Finnish Defence Forces and the US Marines, whereby both forces send students to the other country to participate in training courses. The Army says the objective of the exchange is to develop better national defence capacity.
The Marines also spent some time in military training at the Finnish Army’s Guard Jaeger Regiment in the Helsinki island district of Santahamina during their stay. The joint Finnish-American exercises were first arranged in January 2014.
Finnish troops could be in Iraq by March
The Defence Minister told Yle on Monday that a final decision will be made this month on whether to deploy between 20 and 30 Finnish soldiers on a non-combat mission to train Iraqi-Kurdish forces.
The Defence Minister, Carl Haglund, has confirmed that a final decision will soon be reached on whether to send Finnish troops to northern Iraq to help Kurdish forces see off the threat from so-called Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
The Security and Foreign Policy Committee is likely to decide on the deployment by the end of this month, Haglund told Yle on Monday. If the decision is taken to go ahead, up to 30 soldiers could be in the Kurdish city of Erbil by March or April, he said.
Haglund added that the forces would be employed in a non-combat role, carrying out training of local forces in operations similar to those Finland is currently involved in across Afghanistan and Mali.
Duty to act
Other European countries have also pledged troops to the international Iraq mission.
”If we go there, it will be as part of a larger whole, including Sweden and Germany, among others,” Haglund said on Monday, adding that the Erbil region is comparatively peaceful and safe to work in.
“It is of course clear that any peacekeeping operation carries risks. That is inherent to the job,” Haglund said. He added that he expects parliament will support the proposal, given the strong sense that action must be taken to combat the spread of extremist ISIS militants in the region.
“The cruelty of the Isis regime is so extreme, that foreign states have a duty to act,” Haglund said. “I believe it is a worldwide moral duty to try and prevent this awful development. Therefore I believe it’s logical that Finland should seek to be involved,” he said.
Meanwhile researcher Antti Paronen from the National Defence University told Yle that the mission to train Iraqi Kurdish forces should be less dangerous for Finnish troops than the current deployment in Afghanistan.
”Finland has the capacity to supply training support at all levels, to privates and senior officers,” Paronen said. “The Iraq training operation would be much more limited [than current missions in Mali and Afghanistan], as it would be a small mission with only 20 to 30 trainers.”
Finnish troops would be involved alongside Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and German soldiers in training local Peshmerga fighters who are battling jihadist ISIS militias.
“I would compare this to the Mali training operation in Africa. I don’t believe that the danger on the ground is as acute as it was in Afghanistan a few years ago. The situation however must not be trivialised, and it’s clear that the operation will involve putting troops in the line of danger to some degree,” Paronen said.
A US-led coalition began airstrikes against Isis in Iraq at the start of August, expanding operations to Syria shortly after. The coalition also contains forces sent by Great Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The US have said that the operations could continue for years to come.
Minister Haglund said on Monday he was not able to give further details of the possible mission nor provide a concrete timetable for Finnish troops’ involvement in the country, given that a deployment decision is still being awaited.
Report puts foreign intelligence gathering, online surveillance on the agenda
Finland needs new legislation to cover intelligence gathering activities, according to a working group report delivered to Defence Minister Carl Haglund on Wednesday. The Transport & Communications Ministry is opposed to large-scale surveillance of online communications, but there’s no dissent from the proposal to give Finnish authorities a mandate for intelligence-gathering outside Finland.
Finnish spies could be sent abroad to gather intelligence under new proposals presented to Defence Minister Carl Haglund on Wednesday but proposals to eavesdrop on online communications still face opposition.
The working group was set up to consider a new law governing Finnish intelligence gathering. It is recommending legislative oversight of Finnish intelligence on a judicial and parliamentary basis, while expanding the scope of intelligence operations.
At present the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo) has no mandate for overseas operations. In order to counter external threats, the working group is suggesting that one single organisation receives a mandate to send officers abroad for human intelligence operations, as well as commencing online intelligence gathering against foreign targets.
Finnish intelligence "weaker than other countries'"
”We have fewer tools (than many countries) we can use to prevent crimes like terrorism,” said Haglund on Wednesday. “The Defence Forces’ capability to spot certain types of threat is weaker than in many other countries.”
The report suggests further consideration of the controversial issue of whether to grant a mandate to intercept communications that travel through Finnish cables if they are connected to grave threats to national security.
The Ministry of Transport and Communications, however, filed a dissenting opinion about online surveillance. The ministry said that large-scale online snooping would imperil citizens’ constitutional rights, as it is difficult to distinguish domestic from foreign communications—and snooping on people not suspected of crimes is currently illegal.
No back doors
”This means we have to deal with sensitive issues,” said Haglund. “Nothing can be done without regard for constitutional rights. That’s why it takes time.”
Business lobbyists have also previously criticised proposals for online surveillance, as some Finnish businesses set out to provide cloud services that do not offer intelligence agencies access to data and market them as such.
In response, the working group recommends safeguards in a new data surveillance law that would ensure intelligence agencies cannot demand encryption keys or insert ‘back door’ access to data services. They also propose a new round of consultation with representatives of interested parties, including business lobbyists, as suggested by the communications ministry.
With that in mind, the report suggests that the new legislation could need the involvement of several ministries, including the Justice Ministry to consider changes to the constitution.
At Last but not least
The Finnish Security police reported last year : Phone tapping also occurred in Finland
Earlier in December media outlets in Sweden and Norway reported suspicions of espionage in the form of phone tapping in their respective capitals. On Friday Finland’s security intelligence police Supo said Finland may also have been the target of similar attempts to harvest classified information.
According to Finnish security police Supo, bogus mobile phone base stations concealing clandestine transmitters may also have been used to illicitly listen in to phone calls in Finland.
“Finland and the people living here are constantly the targets of espionage by foreign powers. Many different kinds of technical systems are used for this purpose, and they can include tracking phones and phone traffic. Based on the information we have the toolkits may include so-called fake base stations,” Supo communications chief Jyri Rantala told media.
Supo however declined to say where this may have occurred nor would they provide more detailed information about the different techniques used for spying. The intelligence organisation also remained mum on the question of who might be behind suspected attempts at espionage.
“Unfortunately I can’t provide more detailed information. If we were to divulge more detailed data about what we know of the individuals who may be behind this or their techniques, we would disclose what we know and expose our own methods to the opposite side. That would help them to reach their goals. And that’s the last thing we want,” Rantala explained.
Government handling sensitive information
The communications chief pointed out that the Finnish government handles a great deal of information related to European Union policy, defence strategies, the upcoming election as well as corporate technology and inventions.
“The intelligence police have long stressed that mobile phones shouldn’t be used to discuss sensitive or classified information. That’s the best way to avoid risk. It’s important to be aware that someone else could gather information that you share via your mobile phone – without your knowledge,” he cautioned.
Less than one week ago Norwegian police warned politicians about possible taps on their mobile phones after reportedly uncovering a cache of listening devices in different parts of the capital Oslo, including near the Parliament and other government buildings.
Earlier this week the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter reported that evidence of surveillance devices had been found near government buildings in downtown Stockholm. The paper alleged that it had recorded 42 suspicious operations in mobile phone traffic in the area Tuesday and Wednesday. Sweden's intelligence police Säpo said it would investigate the reports.