An Anatomy of a News Item

Hamina Class "Pori" fast attack craft of the Finnish Navy. Photo:Wikimedia

On 1 May, 2015, Newsweek magazine published an article titled “Finnish military preparing 900,000 reservists for ‘crisis situation’”. The writer of the article was Felicity Capon, a reporter for Newsweek Europe, based in London.

In the article, Capon reveals that “the Finnish Defence Forces are to send letters to all 900,000 of the country’s reservists at the beginning of this month, informing them what their role would be in a ‘crisis situation’, causing a row whether such a move is necessary.”

Peter Iiskola and Jon Hellevig are interviewed. Both of them are notorious pro-Russian propagandists, who in Finnish media appearances have strongly supported Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. On top of that, Hellevig is on record for calling Prime Minister Alexander Stubb a “Nazi whore,”

newsweekThen, further on in the article, two Finns, Peter Iiskola and Jon Hellevig are interviewed. Both of them are notorious pro-Russian propagandists, who in Finnish media appearances have strongly supported Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. On top of that, Hellevig is on record for calling Prime Minister Alexander Stubb a “Nazi whore,” and is also known for publicly threatening to rape Karita Mattila, the world-renowned Finnish soprano, for her refusal to perform with the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev due to the latter’s open support for Russian actions in Ukraine.

According to Iiskola, this is the first time such a letter has been sent out: “It is extraordinary and is clearly intended to make people feel there is a Russian threat and that ‘pre-mobilization’ steps must be taken.” Furthermore, Iiskola believes that rather than responding to a genuine threat from Russia, “the Finnish military is hoping to instigate panic and encourage the soon-to-be-formed government to spend more on defense.”

Further on, the article alludes that the sending of the letters is related to an incident on 27-28 April 2015 inside Finnish territorial waters not too far from Helsinki, where a Finnish naval vessel dropped six depth charges as a warning to what was believed to be an intruding foreign submarine. Again, the implication in the article is that the Finnish authorities were too ready to blame the Russians for the violation. In fact, the authorities were very careful not to point fingers in any direction. They did not even speak of a possible submarine but instead used the euphemism “unidentified underwater object” in their press releases and interviews.

What are we to make of an article that freely mixes fact and fiction and makes such a basic blunder as quoting widely known pro-Putin Finns with no obvious qualifications on defense issues as if they were experts on the Finnish military? It wouldn’t have taken much effort for the Newsweek writer to find the true facts – a simple phone call to the Information and Press Office of the Defense Forces would have allowed her to base her article on facts, not on malicious hearsay.

So, what are the facts?

First, the basic hard fact is that the Finnish Defense Forces are right now in the process of sending a letter to each reservist between the ages of 20 and 60, a total of around 900,000 individuals. The strength of the Finnish field army today, if fully mobilized, is 230,000 soldiers, but there are about 900,000 Finnish citizens who have received military training through compulsory military conscription. Planning for sending the letters was started some years ago, and as such does not reflect the current tense political and military situation in Europe caused by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the on-going Russian military intervention in Ukraine. According to Finnish Defense Forces press spokesman, Colonel Mika Kalliomaa, planning for sending the letters was initiated as early as in 2010, while the final decision on their contents and timing was made in 2013.

while it is true that this is the first time all reservists are getting this kind of a letter, this is by no means the first time that letters are being sent to reservists.

Second, while it is true that this is the first time all reservists are getting this kind of a letter, this is by no means the first time that letters are being sent to reservists. For example, call-up letters are sent routinely to reservists when their designated war-time units are mobilized for peace-time refresher training exercises. For financial reasons, such exercises were relatively small in scale and few in number from 2011 to 2014, but this year they will be expanded, with some 18, 000 reservists to be called up for training and exercises.

Third, the letter in question will not be sent out for operational reasons; rather it is an administrative tool for the Defense Forces to gather and if necessary correct the information they need. The letter will contain such basic information as the name, address, and military rank of the recipient. But it will also tell recipients what their military unit is and, perhaps more importantly, what their tasks would be in a mobilized field army. The first batch of the letters was mailed in the first week of May, and the total of 900,000 letters will be delivered in batches of 80-90, 000 by the end of May.

Fourth, there are over 3 000 different task descriptions in the Finnish field army. Therefore, the letter will be sent in three different versions, depending on the recipient’s crisis situation position or task. One version will be sent to those reservists who are part of the 230,000 strong field army; the second version goes to those who are placed in crisis-time reserves (beyond the field army of 230,000 soldiers); and the third version will be sent to those persons who would not be called up even in crisis situations, as their current civilian jobs are necessary to making sure that the society’s vital tasks will be carried out as effectively and smoothly as possible.

Finally, it is interesting to note that there will be certain groups of people who will not get the letter at all: those who are between 50 and 60 years of age and whose military rank is just a private; those who have for one reason or another (usually for mental or medical problems) been totally freed of conscript military service; those who have refused to do military conscription but who have chosen alternate civil service; those who are living abroad permanently; and those who are currently serving a prison term.

In conclusion, it appears that the Newsweek article bears some of the distinct signs of trolling.1

First, it contains either astonishingly shoddy reporting or a purposeful spinning of facts. For example, Finland does not have “a small professional army of 16,000,” as the article claims, but a professional military of roughly half that size, whose main peace-time function is to train conscripts. Furthermore, Finland has since 1994 surely been a steadfast partner to NATO, but it has not “strengthened its ties with the Western Alliance since the crisis in Ukraine erupted.” And there certainly is no “huge pro-NATO campaign underway from the country’s military chiefs,” as every single objective observer of the Finnish media could have told the Newsweek correspondent.

To Newsweek’s credit, Capon’s article was quickly updated and Hellevig’s remarks were totally removed after a burst of commotion over the article in the Finnish media. However, the allusion that the Finnish Defense Forces were somehow guilty of instigating panic and playing on the Russian threat was not expunged.

Second, even a rudimentary check of backgrounds would have revealed that Iiskola and Hellevig by no means hold representative opinions in Finland, and are not military or defense policy experts of any sort. To Newsweek’s credit, Capon’s article was quickly updated and Hellevig’s remarks were totally removed after a burst of commotion over the article in the Finnish media. However, the allusion that the Finnish Defense Forces were somehow guilty of instigating panic and playing on the Russian threat was not expunged.

And finally, if Capon had wanted to, she could have pointed to recent Russian intrusions in the northern corner of Europe, near Finnish borders: airspace violations, provocations in territorial waters, aggressive espionage operations, use of energy as a political weapon, even open threats of the use of nuclear weapons. Why she chose not to include these facts in her article is not easy to understand.

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1 See Ben Nimmo, ”Anatomy of an Info-War: How Russia’s Propaganda Machine Works, and How to Counter It”, http://www.cepolicy.org/publications/anatomy-info-war-how-russias-propaganda-machine-works-and-how-counter-it, 18 May 2015.

Re-Published with the kind permission of ICDS

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