The Kremlin has been accused of running a ‘systematic lying campaign’ against Finland, with officials in Helsinki anxious over Russia questioning the legality of its independence.
The claim comes amid increased security concerns in Finland following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and tensions between Russia and the west over the movement of nuclear-capable missiles in the Balkan Sea.
Both Finland and Estonia accused Russian fighter jets of violating their airspace last week, with Finnish jets twice scrambled after Russian Su-27 planes were reportedly detected over the Gulf of Finland – a claim the Kremlin denies.
Finland’s Defence Ministry has described Russian aviation over the Balkan Sea as ‘intense’, and officials believe the Kremlin is behind ‘aggressive’ media attacks against the country.
Finland will next year celebrate 100 years since its declaration of independence from the Russian Republic.
It shares an 833 mile border with Russia, but questions over the legality of the country’s independence have made Finnish leaders uneasy.
After the 2014 annexing of Crimea in Ukraine, one of Vladimir Putin’s closest advisers warned the Russian leader would be setting his sights on Finland
After annexing Crimea in 2014, having stated the region ‘must be returned to Russia’, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former advisers said the Russian leader would be setting his sights on Finland.
Crimea had been part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic until 1954, when it transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Andrej Illarionov , Putin’s chief economic adviser between 2000 and 2005, told Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet: ‘Parts of Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and Finland are states where Putin claims to have ownership.’
He said the Putin regime sees Finland’s independence as ‘treason against national interests’.
Markku Mantila, the Finnish government’s communications chief, said: ‘We believe this aggressive influencing from Russia aims at creating distrust between leaders and citizens, and to have us make decisions harmful to ourselves.
‘It also aims to make citizens suspicious about the European Union, and to warn Finland over not joining NATO.’
Finland remains outside NATO, which has suspended relations with Russia and has been at the heart of rising tensions with President Vladimir Putin.
As it is not a member state, an invasion would not be considered an attack against the alliance, which has 28 members.
But earlier this month Finnish Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö signed a bilateral Statement of Intent with the US, strengthening defence ties, information exchange and reaching agreements on training.
A plaque commemorating former Finnish president Carl Gustaf Mannerheim was met with protest in St Petersburg
It has an official policy of non-alignment, and Niinistö stressed that the country is not edging closer to NATO membership, which has long been a controversial subject.
Mantila has hit out at the aggressive campaign he says the Kremlin is leading against Finland.
Reports earlier this year in Russia claimed Lenin’s Bolshevik administration had no right to accept Finland’s independence.
And in June, a university in St Petersburg put up a plaque commemorating Carl Gustaf Mannerheim – Finland’s most famous military officer and former president, who served in the Tsar’s army but later led Finnish forces in World War Two.
The plaque quickly became a target for protesters who have called Mannerheim – regarded in Finland as a symbol of the country’s struggle against the Soviet Union – a murderer and ruthless Nazi collaborator.
‘The plaque’s been shot at, hit with an axe and doused in red paint several times,’ Mantila said, noting that Finland had nothing to do with the plaque project in the first place.
Russia has started moving nuclear-capable Iskander missiles, which could have a range of more than 400 miles, into its Kaliningrad enclave bordering Poland and Lithuania.
It comes as tensions mount between Russia and NATO, with July’s NATO summit reaffirming that ‘all practical civilian and military cooperation’ with Moscow was suspended.
In May the Kremlin said a NATO missile defence system in Deveselu, Romania posed a ‘direct threat to global and regional security’, and vowed to take measures ‘to ensure the necessary level of security for Russia’.
On Tuesday Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said: ‘It’s good that NATO reacts to the concerns of the Baltic states and moves troops to the Baltic countries and to Poland. On the other hand we’ve now seen how Russia responds.’
He continued: ‘Finland’s position remains that we’ll do our best to calm tensions in the Baltic region and increase stability. We are still ready to make further efforts to advance this.’
Mantila pointed to a case reported in the Russian media last month, which accused ‘cold blooded’ Finnish authorities taking custody of children from a Russian family living in Finland ‘due to their nationality’.
And a report by Kremlin-led NTV said ‘even the locals call Finland a land of ruthless and irrational child terror’.
Mantila said the network of officials who monitor attempts to influence the country has verified around 20 cases of clear information operations against Finland from the past few years, and around 30 ‘very likely’ such operations.
‘There is a systematic lying campaign going on… It is not a question of bad journalism, I believe it is controlled from the centre,’ he said.
Kremlin and Russian foreign ministry officials were not immediately available for a comment.
Foreign Minister Timo Soini has also acknowledged the alleged propaganda, saying the government was countering false information with facts.
‘All states engage in propaganda, authoritarian states even more so,’ he told Reuters.
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