May 26, 2015

Anatomy of a News Item


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

Capon reported 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 [about] whether such a move is necessary”.

Further into the article, two Finns, Peter Iiskola and Jon Hellevig, are interviewed. Both 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 as 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 issued: “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 defence”.

The article goes on to suggest that the sending of the letter was related to an incident on 27–28 April 2015 inside Finnish territorial waters not too far from Helsinki, when 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 defence issues as if they were experts on the Finnish military? It wouldn’t have taken much effort for the Newsweek writer to find the truth – a simple phone call to the Information and Press Office of the Defence Forces would have allowed her to base her article on facts rather than malicious hearsay.

So, what are the facts?

First, the basic hard fact is that the Finnish Defence Forces are indeed currently in the process of sending a letter to each reservist between the ages of 20 and 60. The strength of the Finnish field army today, if fully mobilized, is 230,000, but about 900,000 Finnish citizens have received military training through compulsory conscription. According to Finnish Defence Forces spokesman Colonel Mika Kalliomaa, planning for sending the letters was initiated as early as 2010, while the final decision on their contents and timing was made in 2013. Consequently, they do not reflect current political and military tensions in Europe caused by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing Russian military intervention in Ukraine.

Second, while it is true that this is the first time all reservists will be getting this kind of letter, this is by no means the first time they have received any letter. For example, call-up letters are routinely sent to reservists when their designated wartime units are mobilized for peacetime 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 Defence Forces to gather and, if necessary, update 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 letters was mailed in the first week of May, and all 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. There will therefore be three versions of the letter, depending on the recipient’s crisis-situation position or duty. One version will be sent to reservists who are part of the 230,000-strong field army; the second goes to those who are part of crisis-period reserves; and the third will be sent to those who would not be called up even in crisis situations, as their current civilian jobs are essential to ensuring vital services are carried out as effectively and smoothly as possible.

Finally, it is interesting to note that certain categories of people will not get the letter at all: those who are between 50 and 60 years of age and whose military rank is no higher than private; those who have been, for one reason or another (generally connected with mental health or medical issues), totally exempted from military conscription; those who have refused to undertake military conscription but have chosen alternative civilian service; those who are living abroad permanently; and those who are currently serving a prison term.

The conclusion is that it appears the Newsweek article bears some of the distinct signs of trolling.1

First, it contains either astonishingly shoddy reporting or an intentional 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 peacetime function is to train conscripts. Furthermore, while Finland has certainly been a steadfast partner for NATO since 1994, 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.

Second, even a rudimentary check of their background would have revealed that Iiskola and Hellevig in no way represent general opinion in Finland, and are not military or defence policy experts of any sort. To Newsweek’s credit, Capon’s article was quickly updated and Hellevig’s remarks were totally removed after an outcry over the article in the Finnish media. However, the suggestion that the Finnish Defence Forces were somehow guilty of instigating panic and playing on the Russian threat was not removed.

And finally, if Capon had wanted, she could have pointed to recent Russian intrusions in the northern corner of Europe near Finland’s borders: airspace violations, provocations in territorial waters, aggressive espionage operations, use of energy as a political weapon, and even open threats of the use of nuclear weapons. Why she chose not to include these facts is not easy to understand.
1 See Ben Nimmo, ”Anatomy of an Info-War: How Russia’s Propaganda Machine Works, and How to Counter It”,, 18 May 2015.

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