A Dawn Raid in the Archipelago

The day started with what sounded like a rare but not unique message on Twitter by the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation, the KRP:

The current search by the KRP in the premises of a company located in the Turku Archipelago may attract attention amongst boaters and holidaymakers.

However, the archipelago has seen some interesting developments during the last few years, and the innocent sounding tweet quickly caught the attention of Finnish security wonks. The developments of the day would soon show that the knee-jerk reaction was warranted.

But let’s start from the beginning: Airiston Helmi Oy was founded in 2007 as a non-public stock company for trading in real estate, and a number of the key persons behind the company were Russian nationals. The company has had just a handful of employees, and has consistently been showing figures in the red (as far as I know, it has never managed a single positive year). What has set the company aside from other failing attempts is however that a number of the real estate deals have taken place at strategic locations in the archipelago outside of Turku in southwestern Finland. The main location is Ybbersnäs in Pargas on the Finnish mainland, with another key location being the island of Säckilot.

Location of Säckilot

The sea lane to Turku and Naantali passes just four kilometers south of the island, with a direct line of sight in the south-east. The ports of Turku and Naantali are of vital importance to Finland in peacetime, but would be of even greater importance in wartime thanks to their location as far away as possible from the Russian border. Naantali also houses one of Finland’s two petroleum refineries, with a daily production capacity of 50,000 barrels.

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Naantali refinery. Source: Markus Rantala/Wikimedia Commons

However, companies and individuals buying houses in the Finnish archipelago for vacation homes are nothing out of the ordinary, and the large archipelago coupled with winding sea lanes means that quite a number of these are situated “strategically close” to the routes. Russian investments in Finnish real estate has also been rather high, owing to a number of reasons including Finland being a popular destination for Russian tourists and the stable markets coupled with rule of law making Finnish real estate an attractive investment opportunity for what used to be described as the emerging Russian middle class. The level of investment has gone down with the oil price, but numerous objects are found all over the country. 2016 an official report noted that a large number of Russian-owned real estate were situated in strategic locations and/or had other suspicious indicators connected to them. These included not only the real estate in the archipelago, but also locations close to airports and key mobilisation routes. The term “Hybrid War” was mentioned.

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M/S Hessu, former Kala 5, transporting a concrete mixer. Note decidedly non-naval colouring and new name. Source: MKFI/Wikimedia Commons

However, for Airiston Helmi things had turned even stranger when they in 2010 through the Finnish company Rederi Ab Fakir (part of the Alfons Håkans Group, a major player in Finnish towage and general shipping) bought two surplus Finnish naval vessels, the workboat Kala 4 and the launch Hakuni. When the Finnish Navy sells older vessels, they demand that the buyer repaint the vessel and change the name to avoid people mistaking them for active duty vessels. This is even a requirement when the vessels are operated by the naval reserve, but in this case Airiston Helmi was in a hurry and Rederi Ab Fakir left the vessels unpainted. The name was also kept, as Airiston Helmi “preferred it” over Rederi Ab Fakir’s suggested Kronos. Notable here is that in this case Airiston Helmi did nothing illegal, as the contract with the Navy only bound Rederi Ab Fakir to change the colour and name (it wouldn’t be the last time the Alfons Håkans Group and the Navy had a bit of a quarrel). Kala has however been modified and stripped of paint since, as is visible in photographs from today’s raid.

But things didn’t stop there. Airiston Helmi soon got into trouble with the local authorities, as the single-family homes they were building in Ybbersnäs and another location in Pargas both featured eight bedrooms each with their own bathroom, in what looked suspiciously much like a small hotel layout. The fact that one of the houses was actually marketed as one further raised eyebrows, and the company had to give official explanations to the city. The helicopter traffic between Ybbersnäs and other locations, mainly Latvia and Helsinki airport, in turn caused the neighbors to complain, but the complaints were dismissed. In addition questions have been raised regarding the exemptions that the company has received for buildings and dredging (though it should be noted that Finnish building exemption policies are notoriously chancy), as well as if they actually have permission to do some of the works that have been performed. And where does the money come from, considering that the company can’t show anything close to a profit?

Cue today’s dawn raid, executed by over 100 persons from the KRP, local police, Tax Administration, Border Guard, and Finnish Defence Forces. Simultaneously a numbered of locations were searched, and a no-fly zone was created over a sizeable area including both Säckilot and Ybbersnäs. No-one is saying much.

Searches are a normal part when investigating financial crimes. Assistance from other authorities has been required due to the geographical locations and the number of places where the search is conducted. Everything has gone smoothly and according to the plans. We have seized such material as is usually seized in searches investigating financial crime.

KRP doesn’t even mention the Finnish Defence Forces in the press release quoted above, but the Finnish Defence Forces confirm that they have “certain skill sets” which they are assisting with. The crimes investigated are money laundering valued at “millions of Euros” and serious tax fraud. The Finnish Defence Forces spokesperson denies that they have any interests in Airiston Helmi, but an anonymous military source contradicted the statement when asked by Helsingin Sanomat. According to the source, both FDF and SUPO (the Finnish Security Intelligence Service) have been keeping an eye on the company for years.

Again, operations of this scope are rare, but entirely plausible.

The Border Guard regularly cooperate with the Police, both sort under the Ministry of Interior in peacetime, and it is not far-fetched that the former would assist with boats and helicopters if there is an operation with several targets in the archipelago. The Finnish Defence Forces also have tight cooperation with the Police, often providing vehicles and special equipment when the need arises.

But it is hard to come up with a suitable need for FDF know-how or equipment in a white-collar raid. And what about the (unconfirmed) reports of the Border Guard having one of their two maritime reconnaissance aircrafts patrol the area of operations? And why is the no-fly zone in effect until Monday?

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OH-MVO, one of two Dornier Do-228 operated by the Finnish Border Guard in the maritime patrol role. Was she in the area today? Source: Own picture

Edit 230918 1100 GMT+2: It turns out that OH-MVO did visit the location before landing in Helsinki in the early afternoon.

Happy enthusiasts have already decided that Airiston Helmi is a GRU-run operation, complete with vessels for false-flag operations and barracks for spetsnaz units to stay in after infiltrating the country prior to war. It is a possibility, but I am unconvinced.

It is clear that GRU is far from the omnipotent force some authors would like them to be, if nothing else then Salisbury is the final proof. As such the hap-hazard nature of Airiston Helmi isn’t proof of them not being involved. However, it should also be remembered that money laundering is in itself a lucrative business, and there are a numerous reasons for people to want somewhere to stay for a night or two without having to sign a hotel ledger. And if you run a lucrative but highly illegal business, you might want to have some firearms handy in case the competition suddenly comes knocking. This would explain why the KRP chose to ensure that they have the necessary tools to subdue any resistance, including heavier protection and personal firearms (and FDF backup). On the other hand, the Russian cleptocracy makes the dividing lines between crooks, spies, and businessmen somewhat blurred, and even if Airiston Helmi would prove to be a non-political criminal enterprise (it should be noted that no-one is convicted of anything as of yet), it isn’t beyond the realms of imagination for the GRU to call in a favour every now and then (the smuggling case which lead to the abduction of Eston Kohver by the FSB comes to mind).

In any case, don’t expect any clear-cut answers from the authorities within the next few days. And if anyone says they know for certain what’s going on, chances are they are as honest as Airiston Helmi’s bookkeeping.

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Little Green Tanks

An unidentified foreign aircraft touches down at Oulunsalo Airport. As the Finnish Border Guard personnel close in on the now parked aircraft, the situation escalates. A firefight erupts, leaving one border guard wounded and causing a hostage situation. Soon some of the mysterious intruders spread out and try to take over the control tower at the airport. The local border guards realise that the situation is getting out of control, and call for support. The Army and the police (arriving in a borrowed Pasi APC) manage to turn the table, first evacuating the casualty and then storming the tower.

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Soldiers taking positions before storming the control tower. Note the use of two-way simulators, showing that the enemy is supposed to shoot back. Source: Maavoimat FB

This is a textbook example of so called hybrid war, the kind of operation that has occupied western military thinkers since the Russian invasion of Crimea in the early days of 2014. The scenario described above was the one used for local defence exercise OULU17 in March 2017. The sudden appearance of little green men in unsuspecting locations deep behind the borders have rightfully been seen as a new(ish) threat which require new solutions to counter efficiently.

But what if the counters are in place? If the defence forces have the required units on standby, establishing superiority over a handful of soldiers cut off from their homeland is far from an impossible task. Of course, landing more little green men is a possibility, but sooner or later you reach the point when you just have to ask if the whole “hybrid” thing is really worth it compared to a traditional all-out strategic strike?

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The Finnish readiness units taking part in the local defence exercise KYMI217. Note winged arrow-patch of the readiness units and the dismounted tanker. Source: Maavoimat FB

The Finnish hard-counter has been the creation of the Army’s new readiness units (Fi. valmiusyksiköt), as well as an update to Finnish laws earlier this summer, meaning unmarked military units entering the country are nowadays treated as criminals, and the local police will arrest any survivors of a scenario such as the one described above.

The readiness units were born out of the realisation that the Army’s dependence on mobilising reserves to counter a rapidly developing situation might simply not be fast enough, and that the professional Erikoisjääkärit special operations forces at Utti Jaeger Regiment might not have the numbers to deal with an incursion. Finnish law does allow for the use of serving conscripts for live missions, provided that they have adequate training for the mission at hand (this in itself constitutes a reinterpretation of earlier laws which took place post-Crimea). The issue comes down to the fact that the majority of Finnish privates serve the minimum time of just short of half a year. Combined with the fact that new conscripts enter service twice annually (in January and July) there are clear time gaps during which there are no adequately trained conscripts (roughly the first and third quarters). In many cases your run-of-the-mill company designed to work as a part of a bigger unit on the conventional battlefield might also not be ideally suited for independent operations of the kind required here.

Enter the readiness unit, a unit in which volunteer conscripts get training in additional weapons systems, advanced small unit tactics, urban operations, and heliborne insertion/extraction. The service time is 347 days (the longest possible for conscripts), and the units are lead by regular professional staff.

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Different authorities combine to take care of a mass casualty incident during exercise KAJAANI17. Source: Maavoimat FB

What is interesting is that while much of the focus has been on their role as light airmobile force to provide fire support to the police in case of little green men popping up on the Åland Islands, the fact is that they are indeed fully functioning army units. This includes the full range of weaponry in use by Finnish infantry, such as anti-tank missiles, but also support from other branches such as armoured units.

The armour is an especially interesting case, as both Leopard 2A4’s and CV 9030’s played a prominent role during exercise KYMI217 recently. Readers of the blog will remember that the Army transferred a number of older 2A4’s from the Armoured Brigade to other units last year following the introduction of the 2A6. Ostensibly, these were mainly meant for OPFOR duty and to provide an in-house ability to train combined arms operations, but it is also clear that they provide the capability to quickly raise armoured units in different geographical areas.

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A presumably ‘local’ Leopard 2A4 during exercise KYMI217. Source: Maavoimat FB

If the readiness units represent the high-end when it comes to meeting a hybrid war, the lower end of the spectrum include the local units (Fi. Maakuntajoukot and Paikallisjoukot). While the local forces take a longer time to mobilise than the readiness units and feature older and lighter equipment, they provide geographical coverage throughout the country (with the exception of the Åland Islands) and enough firepower to be able to quickly take up the fight with any enemy forces suddenly appearing behind the lines, and thus buy time until the cavalry arrives (which could very well be a readiness unit).

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Reservists of Keski-Pohjanmaan Maakuntakomppania (the local volunteer company of central Ostrobothnia) stretching their legs during exercise PAUHA16 at the Vattaja training range. Picture courtesy of Jouko Liikanen

To sum it up, far from just being light fire brigades to take down little green men, the readiness units are equipped to be able to counter the whole spectrum of modern military threats. When also including the local forces, the Finnish Army is able to field a layered approach to any threat which might appear suddenly and in unexpected locations, be they hybrid or traditional.

Meripuolustuspäivä 2016 – Maritime Defense Day

Once a year the Finnish Navy and Naval Reserve together arrange an invitation only seminar under the name of Meripuolustuspäivä (Maritime defense day). The purpose is to keep up to date with current trends in the field, as well as to enhance contacts and information sharing between the active-duty and reservist members of the Finnish naval community. This year’s edition was held at the Naval Academy in Suomenlinna outside of Helsinki, and was attended by approximately 100 persons, stretching from flag rank officers (active and retired) to cadets, with the civilians coming from the Naval Reserve, marine and defense industry, and other stakeholders. The information in this post comes from both presentations and informal discussions.

Robin Elfving, chairman of the Naval Reserve, during his presentation dealing with the current state and future of the organisation. Source: own picture

The Navy is certainly going places, and while the continued development of Squadron 2020 naturally grabs much of the spotlight, a number of other developments are taking place in the background. The Hamina-class is set to undergo their MLU in the 2018-2021 timespan, and it will mean a significant upgrade in capability for the vessels. Key amongst the changes are the introduction of ASW-capability. This is to mitigate the shortfall in ASW-capable hulls that will take place with the withdrawal of the older Rauma-class. The MTO 85M will also be replaced as discussed in an earlier post, with the new missile being installed on both the Hamina and the corvettes, as well as replacing the truck batteries before 2025. The plan seems to be that the updated Hamina will be the ‘little sister’ of the corvettes, sporting some of the same weapons and capabilities, which will allow for better interoperability between them. The introduction of a proper ASW capability in particular is most welcome, as sub-hunting is a field where search ranges are very limited, making the number of hulls available a key factor. The Navy will now also be able to work up proficiency on new capabilities on the first modified Haminas while waiting for the first corvette to reach operational capacity. In the meantime, further procurements have been made for a number of weapon systems destined to stay in service, and part of the Jurmo-fleet is also destined for a MLU in the near-future.

The last Katanpää-class mine-hunter is set to be handed over by the yard in Italy on the 1 November. The vessel, like its sisters already in Finland, will receive some minor changes to bring it up to standard. On the whole, the Navy is very happy with the class, with representatives noting that the delays and issues during the build phase largely have been related to the handling of the project, and not the vessels themselves.

Squadron 2020 is on track, and enjoys broad political support. Notably the final acquisition decision is not yet taken, as the project is still in the concept phase with the Navy going through the responses received for the RFI. The renders released are described as “artists impressions”, something which Saab’s representative was happy to latch on to and explain that instead of the fixed radarpanels on the latest renders a stealthy radar installation can be created by putting a spinning radar inside the mast. I can see that this is a less expensive solution, but tracking of fast-moving targets such as missiles will naturally suffer. I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

The scale model shown by Saab at Euronaval 2016, featuring a Giraffe 4A and a 1X above it in the cut-outs. This combination of shrouded rotating radars (the cut-outs are for illustrative purposes only) gives both long-range search capability and short-range tracking of rapidly closing targets. Photo: Saab, used with permission

The increased tensions around the Baltic are visible in the everyday work of the Navy. Not only is the Russian Baltic Fleet more active, but also the increased number of vessels being built for export by Russian yards bring traffic to the Gulf of Finland as they undertake sea trials here. The Finnish Defence Forces identify every single vessel moving on the northern Baltic Sea and in the Gulf of Finland, employing whatever method is the most suitable for each individual situation. The Navy is also further increasing its emphasis on readiness, not only as a technical requirement, but also as a state of mind for all personnel involved. This include not only active duty soldiers and seamen, but also conscripts which are now allowed to take part in such readiness operations for which they have received proper training. The Navy of today is first and foremost a readiness organisation.

For the Navy, international cooperation is a must. “We lack the capability to do certain things”, as one officer put it, and this hole is plugged through international cooperation, with Sweden as our single most important partner. The most important initiative is the joint Finnish-Swedish Naval Task Group, which is consistently improved and also the framework under which Finnish and Swedish units participate together in larger multinational exercises.

For the Naval Reserve, it continues its work as a link between the Navy and its reservists, as well as the common denominator for naval reservists throughout the country (including reservists from the coast guard). While the brand amongst active reservists is strong and holds a certain sense of pride, the organisation has now also been making a conscious push to heighten awareness of the naval reserve and its activities outside of currently active reservists, which has included a new website and increased presence in social media. To further enhance discussions in social media, the Naval Reserve also launched its Twitter-guide, including tips on how to take part in the defense and national security debate on said forum. At the same time, equipment-wise the training capabilities have been increased with introduction of more L-class vessels and new canoes for the training of coastal jaegers.

The theme of the panel was Hybrid Warfare, a topic which is as current as it is unclear. Defining what exactly constitutes hybrid war was a challenge in itself, with one definition being the employment of whatever methods work best, regardless of whether they are in line with traditions or any kind of legal/chivalric code. Another definition put forward focused on the use of unconventional methods by conventional actors (i.e. armies or other organised units) OR the use of conventional methods and weapons by irregular actors. A prime example of the first one is the Russian assault on Crimea and further operations in Eastern Ukraine, while the recent attack on Swift by Yemeni rebels (with or without the help of foreign ‘advisers’) using a modern complex weapon system such as a sea-skimming missile is an example of the later. It was also noted that hybrid warfare is a relatively new term in western discussions, and only after its widespread adoption here has Russian sources started using it, and then only as a description of how the west analyses Russia’s operations.

The threat of the unexpected is hard to guard against. Like a cartoon figure not noticing the saw cutting through the floor surrounding you, hybrid warfare works best when the target doesn’t notice that it’s foundation is being weakened. This can be achieved e.g. through the use of knowingly breaking international agreements or codes, such as falsely declaring emergencies to gain access to ports.

The term information warfare was also debated, as the use of (dis)information is a crucial part of any hybrid operation. However, as war usually involves more than one part, if someone is waging an information war against Finland, wouldn’t that mean that we are also conducting a war by defending us? Can we say that Finland is engaged in defensive information warfare? Our current defense largely consists of meeting false accusations and oversimplifications with correct information and facts, but is this also an information operation that qualifies as a kind of warfare?

The panel assembled. Source: own picture

For the information part, it is clear that an orchestrated campaign aimed at tarnishing Finland’s reputation is being waged by Russia. The goal here might be to isolate our country internationally, with a good example of what can happen when your reputation is low being Ukraine’s reputation as suffering from a high rate of corruption, which in turn lessens the willingness of the international community to come to its aid. Another point was made regarding Hungary, with the rhetorical question ‘Who would want to come to their aid if a crises occurred?” being asked. This is reminiscent of smear campaigns being directed against individuals, which e.g. can focus on addressing (often false) discrediting information to their employers or partners, with the aim of silencing or isolating a person.

This then transits over into the fact that the concept of nationalism is seemingly changing. With the increased polarisation and diversification of the Finnish society, the big question is how will “Finnish” be defined in the future? If the only thing defining it is a passport, that will inevitably threaten the unity of our society. With the younger generation seemingly less open to traditional Finlandisation, this seems like a likely target for hostile propaganda.

…and speaking of propaganda: what is really the PR-value of the Admiral Kuznetsov task force slowly heading south under a cloud of black smoke? Because one thing is sure, and that is that the military value the air wing can offer for the Syrian regime forces is limited at best.