In September, Russia will conduct its Zapad 2017 military exercise, the largest since the end of the Cold War, and one which is already sending shivers down the spine of NATO, which not only has “serious doubts Moscow is revealing the true extent of its military exercises”, but because the last time such a major training exercise took place was just before the Crimea “annexation.” One country, however, isn’t taking chances: Russia’s northern neighbor Finland, which as the WSJ reports, is “going underground.”
In something straight out of an H.G. Wells novel, Helsinki has built an entire subterranean city beneath Helsinki which forms a “crucial line of defense for the capital. Finnish soldiers routinely train here, with a mission to keep Finland’s government running and city residents safe in a network that features more than 124 miles of tunnels, passageways and shelters” the WSJ reports.
The “extensive underground network” has been adapted over recent decades with one thing in mind: to become an impregnable defensive redoubt which provides most of the amenities of regular, above the surface existence: blast doors seal entrances…
The entrance to the Katri Vala Park bomb shelter in Helsinki
… passageways are adapted so the military—with a regiment dedicated to controlling the tunnels—can contain enemy infiltrators; utility and subway tunnels provide arteries for communications; there is a constant water supply and even Wi-Fi. In fact, there is enough shelter space for all city’s more than 600,000 residents in the event of an attack or disaster.
While the underground fortress has long been in place, the upcoming Russian drills are shaping up as a focal point for some very nervous Finns: “The soldiers make sure we will have the advantage underground if they ever come to us wanting a fight,” a former Finnish Defense Ministry official told the WSJ.
Showing just how pervasive anti-Russian sentiment has become across Europe, the WSJ notes that “with thousands of Russian troops expected to mass at the border for the exercise, the Finns worry the training could be a screen for aggressive military moves.” Which is ironic because even as Russia’s war games take place on Finland’s border, NATO – of which Finland is not a member – has been aggressively stepping up its own presence in the Baltics, across the Gulf of Finland.
Still, that has not assuaged the local paranoia that the upcoming Russian drill could result in an outright invasion:
“More than looking at what will happen during the exercise, we’re more interested in what will happen afterward and make sure that the troops actually do leave,” said Jarno Limnell, a Finnish expert on cybersecurity and military science.
Then again, perhaps Finland does have reason to be concerned: after all it was the three-month-long “Winter War” against the Soviet Union in 1939-1940, which was started by Stalin on November 30, three months after the outbreak of World War II, that has shaped much of Finnish defensive planning.
It was during this war that “in record cold temperatures, small groups of Finnish ski soldiers in winter camouflage picked off approaching Red Army soldiers in the forests. The Finns lost 10% of their territory to the Soviets, but maintained their sovereignty.”
Planning is still shaped by that experience—with an emphasis on survival and forcing the enemy into unfamiliar terrain—though it shifted, after the Cold War, to the tunnels.
Fast forward to 2017 when in March of this year, Finland carried outn extensive military exercise based on a recent, real-world scenario: the takeover of government buildings by foreign special forces, like the Russians who seized installations in Crimea during the 2014 Russia-Ukraine conflict. And, as the WSJ adds, “some of those exercises took place in Helsinki’s underground labyrinth. The network connects shopping centers, subway tunnels, parking garages and pathways that accompany power and water lines. Tunnels also lead into passageways used only by the military and connect to an island used exclusively for the military regiment responsible for defending Helsinki.“
While much of the underground “city” is dual use – and many of the tunnels remain a secret – most Helsinki residents descend on occasion to get around, particularly in winter; some shop, swim, or attend an underground church. One swimming complex beneath a shopping center can be transformed within hours to shelter 3,800 people.
Showing just how engrained the “defensive” mentality is among the locals, Ilkka Vahaaho, an employee of the city of Helsinki’s real estate department said that “today if you build a new underground space, it must be capable of being transformed into a defense center within days.” The state of the art defense centers are connected to city power and water supplies, and some have advanced ventilation capable of filtering out radioactive particles.
To be sure, government defense strategists say it is “highly unlikely that Russia would invade as it did in Crimea.” Furthermore, recently passed legislation allows Finland to ask other countries, including NATO members, for military assistance in case of attack. Nonetheless, Finnish authorities say their system of civilian-military defense councils assures that national defense is considered at all levels of civilian life. They say that the exercises underground and elsewhere “combine military and civilian organizations, including businesses and medical workers who practice responding to crises. “
That means preparing the whole population for the worst-case scenarios, said Janne Kuusela, the Defense Ministry’s policy director.
“The tunnel system we’ve built comes from our own lessons learned from the Second World War: You need to do what you can to keep your vital functions going even if you’re being heavily bombarded,” he said. “That’s why they’re there.”
And while nobody is realistically concerned about a full-blown military invasion, high-ranking officials say the country faces other, nonmilitary, threats from Russia: cyberattacks, information warfare and political and economic pressure, something referred to as “hybrid warfare.” And while there has been no actual evidence of that, Finnish authorities, echoding similar sentiments from other western nations, most notably the US, say they have seen “concerted efforts by pro-Russian nongovernmental groups, social media accounts and cyberattacks attempting to influence domestic politics” confirming – one would suppose – once again that Vladimir Putin is the greatest Machiavellian organizer of governmental overthrows among “democratic” nations, not to mention chaos and mayhem, around the globe armed with just a computer.
Like in the US and elsewhere, Moscow has scoffed publicly at accusations it uses such methods to influence politics abroad, and President Vladimir Putin has denied that the state is behind hacking attempts, which are merely attempts by “democratic” government to scapegoat foreign “adversaries” for domestic political instability. Ironically, there is little discourse in the current “democratic” press of the greatest political intervention machine known to man: the Central Intelligence Agency, whose offshore political exploits go back for decades.
In any case, Finland remains steadfast in its anti-Russian sentiment, and says it has faced Moscow’s use of pro-Russian activists, propaganda and political pressure on Finnish politicians since the Cold War.
As a result, this year 10 countries from NATO and the EU committed to establishing a research center focused on hybrid warfare, to open in Helsinki in September. “When Western Europe started talking about hybrid warfare and preparing to defend against it, we realized this is what we’ve already been doing for decades,” Kuusela, the defense ministry policy coordinator, told the WSJ.
Expect to hear much more about the Russian mega-drill in the coming months.