As Russia Makes Moves in the Arctic, Some Finns Fear a Red Army from Within

Finnish soldiers attend the multinational NATO exercise Saber Strike in Adazi, Latvia, June 11, 2015. Ints Kalnins/Reuters

Like most of his friends in Finland, Vadim works, likes heavy metal and has completed his military service. What sets him apart from most of his peers, however, is his citizenship status: He's both Russian and Finnish. Since Finland passed a law permitting dual citizenship 12 years ago, more than 24,000 Russians have acquired Finnish passports and kept their Russian ones. Hundreds are required to serve in both militaries, but these days, few want to talk about it. (Vadim, like others interviewed for this story, asked me not to use his real name.) In recent years, some Finnish lawmakers and military officials have grown wary of dual citizens serving in the military. And the country's citizenship law, once popular, has become controversial.

"We thought that granting citizenship was an easy step," says Markku Kivinen, a professor of sociology and director of the Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Helsinki. "But it's not."

Under ordinary circumstances, the presence of Finnish-Russians in the military wouldn't be a national security concern. The U.S. Army, for instance, relies on many immigrants to fill its ranks. But these are tense times for Baltic Sea nations. Over the past few years, Moscow has aggressively increased its military presence in the region. Latvia, for example, has seen more than 50 Russian near-incursions into its airspace this year, along with roughly 20 approaches by naval vessels, including submarines. Last year, five Russian military planes crossed into Finnish airspace, compared with only one in 2004. And earlier this year, Sweden's domestic intelligence agency, Säpo, warned that Russian military intelligence has been trying to recruit agents and is "interested in" the Swedish police and military.

This isn't Finland's first experience with Russian incursions. After defeating Sweden in 1809, Moscow ruled modern-day Finland for 108 years. Sinebrychoff, Finland's leading brewery, was founded by two Russian brothers three centuries ago. And former Finnish President Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, an ethnic Swede considered by many to be the country's foremost war hero, once served in the Russian army too.

Over the past decade, however, Russian immigration has increased dramatically in Finland as newcomers have come looking for a better life. Each year, some 2,000 Russians choose to settle in the country, and about the same number become Finnish citizens. The influx makes Russians Finland's second-largest immigrant group, behind Estonians but ahead of Swedes.

Until recently, most Finns viewed Russian immigration as a good thing, especially since many of those crossing the border were doctors and other high-earning professionals. Two years ago, Finnish decision makers were even considering dropping the country's visa requirement for Russians. But as Moscow's military has made increasingly aggressive incursions, and more low-income Russians have crossed the border, the situation has changed. Last summer, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said the current situation warrants a closer look at Finland's dual-citizenship rules. And former Interior Minister Päivi Räsänen has voiced concerns about Russian plans to keep an eye on its citizens abroad.

"The question we're facing is also what happens to the second generation, the teenagers growing up in Finland," says Kivinen. "Russian immigrants face big challenges on the labor market and feel humiliated by their experience here."

A young immigrant struggling to find a better life—or watching his parents do so—doesn't necessarily become a disloyal citizen. And many Finns seem to understand that. Julia Tamminen, who's lived in Finland since 1999, says she's had only positive experiences in her adopted country. "I've never encountered any mistrust or discrimination towards me as a Russian citizen. Quite the opposite. People have always been very nice to me."

Likewise, one young Finnish officer and recent conscript (who was reluctant to be quoted by name) expresses confidence in the allegiance of Russian-Finnish soldiers. "Our dual citizens have lived here for a long time," he says. "Some of the dual citizens I know visit Russia from time to time, and they know that things are much better here, so I'm sure they believe that Finland is worth defending."

But some Finns still fear that a small minority of Russians may knowingly or unknowingly harm their new home country. And when it comes to ethnic Russians, there's the looming specter of their conscription duties in Russia, the Kremlin's monitoring of its citizens abroad and Moscow's attempts to recruit spies. Indeed, some Finns worry that while ethnic Russians may have no bad intentions, the Kremlin may try to take advantage of them.

"We're aware that some of our conscripts have also done military service in Russia, or will do so," says a high-ranking Finnish defense official, who declined to be identified due to the issue's sensitivity. "That's something we have to take account of in our planning. It's all a question of common sense and risk management."

Though the official declined to give details of the military's plans, he says conscripts rarely get access to classified information. But the Finnish military, he adds, is also careful not to limit Russian conscripts to particular duties just because they hold dual citizenship. "We're a democratic nation," the official says. "Each citizen is equal, and that applies to the armed forces as well."

Russia's defense attaché in Finland and Finland's Swedish-Russian association did not respond to requests for comment. The new Helsinki office of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, the Kremlin's in-house think tank, also could not be reached for comment.

As for Vadim, he never realized he was a cause for concern. In fact, he says he thoroughly enjoyed his military service.