Opening remarks by President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö at the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats 2 October 2017

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As EU member states, we share a common security environment with NATO. The EU and NATO are facing the emerging challenges increasingly also together.

With this in mind, I am honoured to welcome the NATO Secretary General and the EU High Representative to Finland. Your joint visit is a clear sign of your commitment to counter threats also together.

When I think of hybrid threats, an old story told to me by the Algerian peace-mediator Lakhdar Brahimi immediately comes to mind. It goes like this:

An ordinary looking man riding a bicycle came to a border crossing. He had a big sack on the rack. Naturally the customs officer asked him what it contained.  “Oh, it’s just sand. I need it on the other side of the border,” he said. 

The sack was examined and it was indeed full of sand. The next day and the days following the same happened. Once the sack was sent to a laboratory, and the answer was the same: ordinary sand!

Little by little, the cycling sandman became a curiosity rather than a danger. But one junior customs officer remained restless, he had to know more. So, the next time the cycling sandman appeared, he asked the man: “Please, tell me the secret of your sand. I promise to keep it in secrecy.”

“Sand?”, the man replied, “it is just sand. I smuggle bicycles!”

This story reveals the basic dilemma we face with hybrid threats. Namely: the threats exploit our lack of understanding, preparation and foresight. Often we may see what the adversary is doing, but we fail to understand what it actually means. And when we finally grasp the situation, they have most probably already made a good collection of bicycles on the other side of the border.

The range of hybrid threats is wide. Information operations and cyber tools are at the core of attempts to influence. In a similar manner, vulnerabilities in the critical functions of our societies are abused in hybrid tactics. Also our political and economic freedoms are misused by our challengers.

Hybrid threats call for enhanced awareness. We have to understand – at a strategic level – the aims and means of our challengers. We need to identify our vulnerabilities and we need to be prepared and resilient. Resilience, or the ability to resist and recover from pressure, is of great importance. The citizens’ will to defend their nation is the key factor.

But one must remain level-headed about the threats we face. Sometimes the threat can also be less than meets the eye. At times I have been struck by the level of alarmism in our debates concerning the threat posed by the Russians.

It goes without saying that we must take Russia very seriously. At the same time we must avoid inflating the threats, either.

Sometimes it is hard to avoid the impression that we are waging a part of the information war on behalf of those who attack us. Therefore, I welcome the research component of the new Centre and hope that it will bring measured contributions to the debate.

We must also remember that the threat does not always come primarily from the outside. Our own divisions create opportunities for hybrid threats. Identifying and abusing them is always a delight for external actors. We must take a better care of the cohesion of our own societies.

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I am happy to be delivering these opening remarks today. The Centre of Excellence highlights three central issues in Finnish security policy.

Firstly, it shows that Finland is a producer and not a consumer of security.

Secondly, we take a comprehensive approach to security. This is a must for a small a nation but it also reflects the changing nature of threats we face.

Thirdly, it highlights our determination to produce security in close co-operation with our partners.

On behalf of the Republic of Finland, I would like to thank the eleven governments that have joined us in establishing the Centre. Allow me also to express our appreciation to the European External Action Service and the European Commission and the NATO Secretariat – and personally to Mr. Secretary General and Ms. High Representative and Vice President for your strong support in establishing the Centre.

With these words I wish you all a fruitful opening seminar and every success in the important tasks that await the Centre.