On 22 September the Finnish National Bureau for Investigation (NBI) launched a series of raids on property owned by the company Airiston Helmi. Seventeen premises in the Turku region of south-west Finland were searched. The NBI directed raids were supported by the police, coastguard, and army. The raids involved over a 100 members of the NBI and 300 members of the other services. A no-fly zone was declared over the Turku region during the course of the searches of the Airiston Helmi properties. The raids also involved amphibious landings close to the targeted properties. The joint operation was the largest launched in peacetime by the Finnish law-enforcement and security services.
The official reason given by the authorities for the launching of this operation was the investigation of financial crimes. Airiston Helmi was founded in 2007. It is owned by a Russian with Maltese citizenship. Airiston Helmi describes itself as being a company specialising in real estate, accommodation and tourism. Its activities, however, appear to have been focussed on acquiring land in potentially strategic locations on the coast and close to the Aland islands. The company is also known to have purchased a number of boats, including two which were decommissioned former Finnish naval vessels.
Airiston Helmi’s land-buying activities began to be of concern to the Finnish government and politicians after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Some observers suggested that they might be seeking to create a base for hybrid warfare ‘little green men’ style operations. The Finnish security services have reportedly been monitoring Airiston Helmi activities since 2016. Airiston Helmi has also been the subject of attention for the media in Finland. Planning by the NBI for the operation began in February 2018. Kai Mykkanen, the Minister of Interior, has stated that ‘extraordinary discussions’ took place before the intervention against Airiston Helmi was set in motion. Sauli Niinisto, the Finnish President was informed of the forthcoming operation in June 2018. After the raids had taken place Niiisto commented from New York, where he was attending the United Nations General Assembly, stating that the operation ‘does not effect Finnish-Russian relations.’
During the raids cash valued at around three million euros, in a number of different currencies, was found in the Airiston Helmi premises. The Finnish authorities also retrieved large quantities of documentation which it has been stated will take until the spring of 2019 to be examined and analyzed.
Seven individuals were questioned during the raids, and two were subsequently detained. These two individuals have been identified in the Finnish media as Gleb Eremin, a Russian, and Boris Iljitsov,an Estonian citizen. Gleb Eremin is reported to be an oceanographer, specialising in the study of sea-lanes. Although Boris Iljitsov is an Estonian citizen he was originally from Ukraine, and had moved to Finland some years previously.
On 26 September Dmitry Medvedev the Russian Prime Minister, speaking at a press conference, dismissed the idea that Russia had been engaged in any sort of subversive activities at the Airiston Helmi sites as ‘paranoia.’ He went on to state that Russia law enforcement agencies would be ready to co-operate with their Finnish counter-parts in the investigation of any financial crimes which had taken place at Airiston Helmi. The previous day had seen a violation of Finnish airspace by two Russian Tu-160 bombers. There had also been a significant cyber attack on Finnish state institutions.
The investigation into the activities at the Airiston Helmi properties is at an early stage. As has been indicated by the Finnish authorities it may be some time before it is possible to have a clearer understanding of what was going on at Airiston Helmi The high level response by the Finnish state strongly suggests, however, that this is more than simply an investigation into financial crime. The Airiston Helmi case has highlighted wider concerns in Finland regarding the acquisition of property and land by Russian financial interests. On 26 September Juss Niinijsto, the Finnish Defence Minister announced that new legislation would be introduced into parliament in November allowing the state to intervene in property transactions where it was judged that they threatened national security.