There is a Finnish proverb, which roughly translates to “to be in the purse of the Lord,” says diplomat Jarmo Sareva.
An Irish equivalent might be “to be on the pig’s back”. It’s a phrase he believes perfectly describes Ireland’s approach to defense and security.
“Once upon a time, when life was simpler and less complex, you were safe and sound in that purse. But of course things have changed. And they will change even more,” he said in an interview on Friday.
In the globalized and digital world of the 21st century, “this scholarship is now open”, adds his colleague Liisa Talonpoika.
Ireland and Finland share many similarities. They have similar sized populations and economies, both are considered international tech hubs, and both have historically been dominated by a much more powerful neighbor.
Neither is a member of NATO and both countries define themselves as “non-aligned military”.
Even though our models cannot be exported, we believe they can serve as inspiration for others.
But, in terms of security and defence, the countries could not be more different. Finland’s defense budget is about five times that of Ireland (it just struck a deal to buy 64 state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jets from the US) and provides for military service Compulsory for men over 18.
Finland’s exclusive economic maritime zone is 30 times smaller than Ireland’s, but its navy operates more than 200 ships compared to Ireland’s nine.
The differences go far beyond the military, says Talonpoika, who is Finland’s ambassador on hybrid threats.
Finns take a “whole of society approach” to safety, she says. Its defense college runs three-week training courses for political, community and business leaders on how to respond to threats, and children learn to spot disinformation tactics as early as kindergarten.
To this end, Helsinki hosts the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which organizes training courses and exercises for the military and governments. Ireland would be welcome, says Talonpoika during a visit to Dublin. We are one of the few states in the European Union to still be a member.
“It’s not just the army that protects us,” she says. “It’s constant work that involves everyone.
“I think we are doing well,” adds Sareva. “Even though our models cannot be exported, we believe they can serve as inspiration for others.”
As experienced diplomats, the two ambassadors refrain from criticizing Irish defense policy or the lack thereof. However, they are very keen to know whether the invasion of Ukraine and the recent Defense Force Commission report have sparked a debate in Ireland on security issues.
Privately, other EU diplomats have recently expressed dismay and what they see as a lack of debate or awareness of security issues there at a time of heightened global tensions.
The Finns had a version of this debate following a cyberattack on its Foreign Ministry in 2013 (blame was then allegedly assigned to a Russian state-sponsored hacker group).
A national cybersecurity debate ensued, leading to much more robust cybersecurity legislation and capabilities, Finnish Ambassador to Ireland Raili Lahnalampi said.
Cyberattacks are just one of many types of hybrid threats that EU countries now routinely face, says Talonpoika. Simply put, a hybrid threat is a threat from foreign actors that includes anything but military action. Examples include cyberattacks, spreading misinformation on social media, and attempting to influence or interfere in elections.
It can even go as far as refusing to cooperate on immigration or international child custody, two areas where Finland has clashed with Russia.
The lies spouted by Russia’s ambassador to Ireland about his country’s intentions towards Ukraine amid planned naval exercises off the Irish coast are a prime example of a hybrid threat, she said. “It can come in many ways, but of course it’s about showing your power.”
Social media is the perfect weapon to spread misinformation and radicalize citizens, says Sareva, citing the work of the Internet Research Agency, the St Petersburg-based Russian online influence agency that has actively interfered with the 2016 US elections. And it is often the elderly who are the most sensitive.
“I would go so far as to say that young people today have a natural instinct to wonder what is real and what is crap. But then people like Facebook turn our elderly, mild-mannered parents into blood and soil fascists.
Even as he spoke, there were growing political calls in his country for Finland to join NATO in the face of Russian aggression. Such a decision would require a referendum which will also be a prime target for hybrid warfare.
Will this have an impact on Ireland? It’s hard to say. But you have to be prepared and strengthen your networks
It is unlikely that Ireland will soon hold a referendum on its NATO membership. But security analysts believe other votes, such as referendums on greater European integration or even a united Ireland, would be extremely attractive targets for Russian interference.
The invasion of Ukraine is also expected to lead to an increase in cyberattacks against other countries in revenge for Russian sanctions. “Will this have an impact on Ireland? It’s hard to say. But you have to be prepared and strengthen your networks,” says Sareva.
Echoing Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s comment on Thursday, he said that while Ireland and Finland may be militarily unaligned, “there can be no neutrality when it comes to our European values: liberal democracy, open society, human rights, fundamental freedoms, gender equality, all the bases”.
Being in the “Lord’s Purse” affords Ireland protection not available to Russia’s closest direct neighbours, he adds.
“But even there the Tsar’s long arm can reach your waters.”