Northern Lights: My interview with Finland’s president, moving to Central Asia, and the standoff in Ukraine

Finland’s president has a plan to get Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to collude — on climate change.

That was the focus of my interview with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in a recent piece published in POLITICO Europe. Niinistö hopes to get Trump and Putin to show up at a meeting of leaders of the Arctic Council to tackle at least one element of Arctic climate change — black carbon. The Finnish president has made black carbon, the black soot emitted from coal-fired power plants and by burning fossil fuels that speeds up climate change in the Arctic, his pet issue and pushed for rolling it back during the substantive face time that he’s had with the Russian and American presidents over the last two years.

It’s certainly an up-hill battle for Niinistö, especially given that both men have denied that manmade climate change exists. Niinistö has also received his share of criticism at home that he’s wasted his time trying to bring Putin and Trump together instead of focusing elsewhere, which could lead to more meaningful results in curbing climate change. It was an interesting conversation about the difficulty in getting world leaders to come together and fight climate change, especially amid the series of shocks to the international political system of late.

You can read the whole article here: https://www.politico.eu/article/sauli-niinisto-black-carbon-finnish-leader-targets-donald-trump-and-vladimir-putin-in-climate-change-drive/

Good morning/good afternoon/good evening to everyone. If you’re new to this newsletter, pleasure to have you and as always, send me any feedback or tips by email or tweet (@ReidStan). Also, don’t forget to share this newsletter with anyone you think might be interested or add them to the mailing list. New people can subscribe by clicking this link and entering their email here –> (tinyletter.com/ReidStandish).

Now a personal update. I’ll be leaving Finland and my Nordic beat and returning to my Central Asian journalistic roots starting in the New Year. My wife Kaisa, who is a Finnish diplomat, will be joining the embassy in Astana, Kazakhstan and we’ll be moving there this weekend. We’re in the process of packing up our last things, so it will be a shortened newsletter today.

It will certainly be a change after a year and half of being based in Finland and covering northern Europe, but I’m excited about all the interesting stories that I can sink my teeth into in Central Asia. Overall, I really liked living in Finland and was able to report a bunch of interesting stories while I was here. I won’t be forgetting about this part of the world and may return for some more reporting relatively soon (depends on the speed that my journalist accreditation gets approved in Kazakhstan), but my sights will be turning towards Eurasia in the New Year.

Thanks to all the wonderful people that I’ve met here and please stay in touch. I have a few more stories from northern Europe that will be coming out in December and will send some more newsletters once they’re ready. I hope to keep this newsletter alive and will likely shift it (and rename it) to focus on Central Asia.

If you have any tips, suggestions, or introductions for Central Asia, please get in touch! I’m also accepting suggestions for what the newsletter’s new name should be. Send me your Central Asia-themed ideas! I know there are clever people who read this newsletter, so hoping to get some smart ones.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

– The holidays are fast-approaching, so I’m going to include a few plugs for some good books that are out and available. I recently got my hands on Joanna Lillis’ Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan and it’s a great read. Joanna has lived in Kazakhstan and reported around Central Asia for many years and the book is a great introduction to the country and region’s fascinating politics and history that still has plenty for experienced Central Asia-watchers to enjoy.

– Also, historian/journalist Gordon Sander has an updated version of his book out. Off the Map: A Personal History of Finland is available to buy in Finland and can be ordered online through the contact form here. Some of you may remember that I mentioned the book back in the summer. Gordon first came to Finland in 1977 at the height of the Cold War and the book is about the growth and evolution of the country told through Gordon’s own experiences and adventures.

– Finally, I’d be remiss not the mention the escalated crisis happening in Ukraine and Russia in the Sea of Azov. There have been some smart reports and analysis on the issue (read here and here), but I particularly liked this piece by Nate Reynolds in Foreign Policy magazine that pushes back on the narrative that Putin’s foreign policy adventures are about maintaining popularity at home: “Any optimism that Putin will reduce tensions with the West in search of sanctions relief to mitigate domestic troubles is also misplaced. Putin shows no signs that he feels pressure to change course, apparently betting that he can exacerbate growing divisions in the West and improve Moscow’s position over time.”

– Seeing as how I’m headed to Astana in the middle of winter, I’ll leave you with a photo from the last time I was in the Kazakh capital during the winter.

That’s all for now!

Reid

Northern Lights: House of Cards’ warped political legacy, the new Northern Europe, and China’s hidden camps

The final season of House of Cards, the Netflix drama that holds a special spot in television lore for its portrayal of political cynicism, will premier next week and the show leaves behind a warped legacy. To Americans, it both reflected — and reinforced — rising public perception that Washington is corrupt and selfish. But to many international viewers, the show also served as a form of validation for toxic conspiracy-theories about America, and in some cases, even providing a propaganda boost for some of its main global rivals.

That’s the focus of my latest piece for The Washington Post, which looks at how the show was received abroad and whether it may have acted as a poisonous piece of soft power for America’s image abroad. There’s plenty of interesting cases, especially in China, Iran, and Russia.

President Trump might take a look at the TV viewing habits of his frenemy Vladimir Putin to get an idea of what the Russian president really thinks of him. Putin is a fan of “House of Cards,” the Netflix drama about contemptuous, conniving, murderous politicians that returns for its sixth and final season on Nov. 2. In his book “All the Kremlin’s Men,” Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar says that Putin has recommended the show to officials as a way to better understand the United States and that it “affirmed his belief that Western politicians are all cynical scoundrels.”

You can read the full article here (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/house-of-cards-is-credible-just-ask-the-russians-chinese-and-iranians/2018/10/25/81b02346-d644-11e8-aeb7-ddcad4a0a54e_story.html?utm_term=.faa5cdc98411)

Good morning/good afternoon/good evening to everyone. If you’re new to this newsletter, pleasure to have you and as always, send me any feedback or tips by email or tweet (@ReidStan). Also, don’t forget to share this newsletter with anyone you think might be interested or add them to the mailing list. New people can subscribe by clicking this link and entering their email here –> (tinyletter.com/ReidStandish).

WHAT I’M READING

1) Trident Juncture, NATO’s some 50,000 personnel military exercise, kicked off yesterday in Norway. It’s a big deal for defense and security in northern Europe and a big part of the response to Russia since its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Ralph Clem, a retired USAF General and professor at Florida International University, has a good explainer in The Washington Post breaking down the specifics of the exercise and what it means. Read it here.

2) China is accused of locking up hundreds of thousands of Muslims without trial in its western region of Xinjiang. While Beijing continues to deny the claims, the BBC published a major investigation this week that unearthed new evidence about the scope, size, and reality of what is underway in western China. It’s an impressive piece of journalism on a topic that isn’t getting the full attention it deserves. Read the article here.

3) Bill Browder, the British financier best known for the Magnitsky Act and being one of Putin’s top enemies, has taken his campaign against Russian money-laundering to the Nordic world. Nordea, Scandinavia’s largest bank, has been rocked by a major money-laundering scandal, and Browder filed complaints with Nordic prosecutors last week alleging that he can pinpoint 365 Nordea accounts in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway that received $175 million from shell companies set up to launder money and evade taxes from 2007 into 2013. The story is still developing, but it will be interesting to see what shakes out in the coming weeks.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

– Sweden’s central bank is planning to start a pilot project next year for a potential future electronic currency, the e-krona. Like most Nordic countries, it’s very easy to go about daily life in Sweden without using any cash at all. It’s actually quite remarkable how little I use cash since moving to Finland. Yesterday I opened a new bank account here in Helsinki and as the teller was setting it up, she asked if I use cash frequently. I answered “no,” but it made me think of the last time that I used cash for something over 5 euros and I couldn’t remember ever doing so. I don’t think I have actually made any proper purchases with cash since moving to Finland over a year ago.

– Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was invited to Norway next year to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its northernmost region’s liberation from the Nazis. The celebration will take place in Kirkenes, which was the first Norwegian town to be freed by the Red Army. Northern Norway has a unique relationship with Russia and is at odds in many ways with Oslo’s policy towards Moscow in recent years. Shared history over WWII is a big part of the ties that keep Norway’s north close to Russia (something that Moscow has been trying to play up in recent years.) I published a piece earlier this month from Kirkenes that touched on this topic. You can read it here.

– Recent reports have surfaced saying that an unidentified submarine was spotted in the Stockholm archipelago this summer. Footage taken by children has been posted in the Swedish press and the Armed Forces have confirmed that they investigated the alleged incident, but wouldn’t say anything else. In 2014, a submarine that was believed to be Russian was also spotted off the coast and seen as a warning from Moscow to Sweden (and Finland) as they drift closer to NATO.

That’s all for now!

Best,
Reid

Northern Lights: The new cold front in Russia’s information war, Finland’s iron man, and NATO embraces “the cyber”


An unfolding spy saga between Oslo and Moscow has opened up old wounds in northern Norway and brought the information war between Russia and the West to the Arctic Circle.

This is the focus of a new piece I have out that was co-published by Coda Story and Foreign Policy magazine. In August, I went up to Kirkenes, near Norway’s Arctic border with Russia, to report on the fallout from the arrest of Frode Berg, a local Norwegian pensioner and former border guard, who was arrested in Moscow by the FSB in December 2017 and accused of espionage in an elaborate operation to acquire information about Russia’s Northern Fleet. While in prison, Berg admitted to working with Norwegian military intelligence as a courier. The admission re-opened old grievances in northern Norway about illegal surveillance and harassment conducted by the spy services during the Cold War and has become a rallying call for Norwegians who want Oslo to take a more friendly line towards Russia and roll back sanctions:

Ten months since his arrest, Berg remains detained in Moscow’s high-security Lefortovo prison, still not officially charged but facing the possibility of 20 years behind bars. Relations between Russia and Norway—a NATO member—have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War. But many suspect there’s another level to this Arctic spy drama and that Russia may have been just as interested in sowing distrust and divisions within its Nordic neighbor—prompted partly by a recent increase in U.S. troops in Norway and a planned NATO exercise—as shutting down any spying on its undersea activities.

Considering the national fallout from Berg’s arrest, Russia may be succeeding at just that. The case is making clear that the blurred battle lines of the information war between Russia and the West have now spread to the Arctic Circle—and even to a friendly place where the emphasis has long been on Norwegians and Russians working together.

It’s a longer piece that I’d encourage you all to read and share. The links are available here (https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/10/03/the-new-cold-front-in-russias-information-war-nato-norway/) and here (https://codastory.com/disinformation-crisis/information-war/new-cold-front-russia-information-war).

Good morning/good afternoon/good evening to everyone. If you’re new to this newsletter, pleasure to have you and as always, send me any feedback or tips by email or tweet (@ReidStan). Also, don’t forget to share this newsletter with anyone you think might be interested or add them to the mailing list. New people can subscribe by clicking this link and entering their email here –> (tinyletter.com/ReidStandish).

(A banner that reads “Help Frode Home!” hangs in the center of Kirkenes, Norway.)
WHAT I’M READING

1) This Buzzfeed article (link) is definitely worth reading. It’s an interesting story about defections and how espionage really works, and an important entry into the spy vs. spy saga as tensions between Moscow and Washington grow. “BuzzFeed News first started reporting on Poteyev last year for a series of articles on UK and US deaths that intelligence sources suspect were Russian hit jobs. After discovering that Poteyev was in fact still alive, the reporters approached the CIA for comment. Officials there requested that the information not be published, on the grounds that revealing his name or personal details would increase the threat to Poteyev’s life, and BuzzFeed News agreed.

2) The U.K. accused Russia today of carrying out a series of cyberattacks. This coincides with the ongoing fallout from the Skripal poisoning, but also comes as the United States is reportedly preparing to offer its formidable cyber capabilities to NATO allies. An announcement is expected in the coming days and the offer is meant to serve as a deterrent against other countries (mostly Russia, China, and Iran) that have launched cyber attacks of late.

3) Alexander Stubb, Finland’s prodigal son-turned-EU refugee, is running for European Commission president. He’s considered to be an underdog candidate, but still has a reasonable shot at contention. I thought this profile in POLITICO Europe of Stubb did a good job of capturing the up and down sides of him as a politician and person: “But the endurance test isn’t just for Stubb, who officially announced his candidacy at a news conference Tuesday in Strasbourg. It’s also for his colleagues in politics — and for European voters — who are being asked to endure a candidate who is so self-promotional and shamelessly aggrandizing that until recently his Twitter page featured a photo of him with arm outstretched to show off a well-sculpted bicep.

(Frode Berg in a prison cell in Moscow.)
STRAY OBSERVATIONS

– To follow up on my story mentioned above, Norway will be hosting Trident Juncture later this month, a 40,000 personnel NATO military exercise, and Russia has said that it reserves the right to respond with “due countermeasures.” In the last few days, Russian nuclear submarines and frigates have been spotted exercising in the Barents Sea close to Norway, and on Wednesday, the Russian MoD announced the start of a tactical exercise involving long-range bombers in the area.

– Finland’s parliament voted on Wednesday to add new exceptions to a clause in the constitution that guarantees the right to privacy in order to pass an intelligence bill aimed at combating terrorism and spying by foreign governments. The bill has sparked plenty of debate in Finland, which has strong privacy laws, but the security services lobbied for the provision in order to better conduct online surveillance and monitoring and argued that it’s necessary given the heightened risk of terrorism and foreign interference.

– To end on a lighter note, I’m sure many of you saw the terribly awkward clip of British PM Theresa May walking out at the Conservative Party conference to ABBA’s Dancing Queen. Well, this Twitter account (link) has taken the clip and remixed it to different tracks. Some work better than others, but my favorite is this one.

That’s all for now!

Best,
Reid

Northern Lights: Welcome to the new Sweden, it’s war games season, and Putin and Xi toast each other


It wasn’t quite the populist surge that the experts predicted. But in Sweden’s election on Sunday, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats still managed to expand their influence, setting the stage for an uncertain government-formation process among the country’s eight political parties. After a tense and unusually divisive campaign focusing on immigration and crime, Sweden will now contend with a fractured landscape in which the center-right and center-left coalitions that have defined its politics for decades are deadlocked, and the populist party holds the balance of power in parliament. I had a piece out in The Atlantic on Monday looking back at the election and what comes next for Sweden after the establishment managed to hang on by its fingernails:

“Sunday’s vote kicked off a new era in Swedish politics, one of weak government and a fragmented legislature. Because of Sweden’s multiparty bloc system, government formation requires political compromises and coalition building. But the Sweden Democrats’ strong showing injects considerable uncertainty into what has long been one of the world’s most stable democracies.”

You can read the full article here. (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/09/sweden-democrats/569743/)

Good morning/good afternoon/good evening to everyone. Greetings from sunny California and welcome back after a summer break. If you’re new to this newsletter, pleasure to have you and as always, send me any feedback or tips by email or tweet (@ReidStan). Also, don’t forget to share this newsletter with anyone you think might be interested. New people can subscribe by clicking this link and entering their email here –> (tinyletter.com/ReidStandish).

WHAT I’M READING

1) Much of the talk in Sweden and elsewhere is about how the country managed to stave off a populist landslide. While this is true — most polls showed the Sweden Democrats coming in second place — the anti-immigration party still had their best-ever showing, while the Social Democrats (Sweden’s traditional ruling party) had its worst result since 1911, meaning that this election points to some deepening cracks in wider society that remain unsolved and still haven’t really been addressed. Paulina Neuding, who is a smart Swedish political columnist and editor, wrote a good piece for POLITICO Europe on this very topic: “Politically, Sweden will manage. Socially, however, the country is going through a tectonic shift, with deep-running divisions, tensions and resentment that will leave their mark.

2) Emily Schultheis, also writing for The Atlantic, had a good postmortem on the Social Democrats’ election result: “Exit polling Sunday night found a remarkable 41 percent of Swedish voters opted for a different party than they’d chosen in 2014. In other words, the trend lines have been worrying for the Social Democrats for a while—and, despite a generally strong economy, voters don’t seem to feel secure about their own fortunes and futures.” Read the piece here.

3) This election in Sweden was the first since the height of the refugee crisis, which already feels like such a long time ago. To fully grasp its impact, I think it’s worth re-reading this piece by James Traub in Foreign Policy from 2016 that really unpacks how profound it has been for the country..

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

– China is conducting a “mass, systematic campaign of human rights violations against Turkic Muslims” in its Xinjiang region bordering Central Asia, says a damning report released by Human Rights Watch. This is a massive story that is not receiving the attention it deserves. It is deeply worrying and only set to expand to other groups the Chinese government wants to control.

-It is Fall, which means it’s war games season. Last year there was the Aurora military exercises in Sweden and the Russia’s Zapad exercises taken place around the same time. This year there will be NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise, which will involve about 40,000 personnel, in Norway, while Russia just kicked off a new series of war games in its far east, this time with Chinese forces in tow. The joint maneuvers are certainly a sign that military ties — and the Moscow-Beijing relationship at large — is getting closer and seems to be partly motivated by a shared desire rival American power in the world. There are still plenty of hiccups to the China-Russia relationship, but the exercises are an important development.

– Here is a photo from today where Putin and Xi are toasting each other in Vladivostok after making pancakes.


That’s all for now!

Best,
Reid

Northern Lights: Figuring out U.S.-Russia policy in the Trump-era, spies in the Valley, and Russian mercs in Africa

It’s been a strange summer for the U.S.-Russia relationship, full of upheaval, confusion, and surprises. With disinformation campaigns and hacking attempts, Russia’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. political system are ongoing. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump’s unorthodox approach to diplomacy and praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin have left analysts and officials alike scrambling to answer basic questions about Washington’s stance on Russia. To understand how these contradictions are being viewed by U.S. allies on Russia’s frontline, I interviewed Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, for Foreign Policy:

“I’ve always believed that when it comes to foreign policy, it’s what you do, not necessarily what you say. Most of the time, people say more than they do. But in this case, we see that there is a fairly strong and long continuity in terms of the policy from the [Pentagon] regarding defense for the Baltic countries and Poland. A lot of the speculation is based on off the cuff remarks that haven’t actually translated into policy in any way.” – Toomas Hendrik Ilves

You can read the entire conversation here: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/03/europe-should-look-to-what-the-united-states-does-not-what-trump-says-russia-toomas-hendrik-ilves/

Good morning/good afternoon/good evening to everyone. Welcome back! And if you’re new to this newsletter, pleasure to have you. As always, send me any feedback or tips by email or tweet (@ReidStan). Also, don’t forget to share this newsletter with anyone you think might be interested. New people can subscribe by clicking this link and entering their email here –> (tinyletter.com/ReidStandish).

WHAT I’M READING

1) An important and overlooked story happened last week. Three Russian journalists were killed in the Central African Republic while looking into the activities of a Russian private military outfit. The murder of the journalists, which are still unsolved, has turned a spotlight on what looks like a big Kremlin play for influence and resources in Africa. The mercenary company that the journalists were investigating is funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin was also one of the 12 people indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. This Bloomberg piece does a good job of explaining the Kremlin’s push into Africa.

2) Amid all the focus in the United States at the moment about Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. politics in Washington, it’s important to remember that Moscow isn’t the only game in town. Not only are the Chinese upping their espionage game, but Silicon Valley has also become a hotbed for foreign spies. This Politico article is full of interesting details.

3) This is a really interesting Wall Street Journal article about a British “fixer” who laundered offshore money, mostly from Russian oligarchs and Kremlin-connected people, into the U.K. financial system. Read it here.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

– The U.S. Coast Guard desperately needs to replace its icebreakers if the United States is going to be competitive in the Arctic of tomorrow. But it looks like that can is being kicked down the road. The Department of Homeland Security has instead decided to reallocate the $750 million that had been earmarked for a polar icebreaker towards the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

– I’m in Norway at the moment and have spent the entire day talking Russia, NATO, and defense policy with various people in Oslo. It’s interesting how similar conversations about defense and Russia that are happening in Helsinki are also happening here in Oslo. But I also find it curious how little conversation seems to be happening between the Finns and Norwegians on this front. It seems that both countries have lots to share with one another and are dealing with similar security dilemmas in regards to Moscow.

– I’m heading to Kirkenes, near the Norway-Russia border, tomorrow morning. If anyone has any tips or introductions for me, please send a note! I’ll have a story from this trip coming out later.

-I recently uploaded some photos from a trip up to the Arctic this summer. Here’s a photo from the top of Norway at 1am to see you all off!

That’s all for now.

Best,
Reid