Finland has accused Russia of handing out bicycles and foot-scooters to migrants to help them cross into Finland as part of a plan to destabilise Europe.
Antti Häkkänen, the Finnish defence minister, also accused the Kremlin of dipping into its “playbook” on hybrid war by encouraging migrants to cross its borders without the correct documents.
“Russia has directed unspecified interference at the border,” he said. “We know what Russia is doing.”
Helsinki has now ordered four of its eight road crossings with Russia to be closed and the European Commission has promised to send its border control unit to Finland.
Finnish officials said that the timing of the migrant surge from Russia was not a coincidence. Finland joined Nato this year, angering the Kremlin, and will host its first major naval exercise as a member of the Western military alliance on Monday.
Finnish media reported that 300 migrants, mainly young men from Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Somalia, have crossed into Finland from Russia this week, up from near-zero in a normal week.
Most of the migrant routes to Europe are via the Mediterranean Sea or Central Europe and not through more remote and inhospitable northern areas that border Russia.
Finnish officials said that Russian officials have been handing out cheap bicycles and scooters to migrants because people are banned from walking between the Russian and Finnish border checkpoints.
Video showed migrants arriving in groups of four or five at cold and dark Finnish border crossings, riding or pushing their bicycles or scooters.
At one checkpoint Finnish police used tear gas to push back a crowd of migrants who were initially denied entry. Photos showed the police and the migrants, still holding their bicycles, arguing and jostling.
“We had to let these people into Finland because Russia would not take them back,” Captain Jouko Kinnunen, head of the border station, told Finnish channel MTV.
Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia. Three of the four Finnish road border crossings with Russia still open lie inside the Arctic Circle but Finnish media reported that migrants switched to using these border crossings as soon as the more accessible checkpoints in south-east Finland were closed.
The Finnish government has threatened to close all its crossings with Russia to block the migrants, although rights activists in the country have said that it has an obligation to take in asylum seekers.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, said that Finland was now defending the EU.
“Russia’s instrumentalisation of migrants is shameful. I thank the Finnish border guards for protecting our European borders,” she said.
Analysts have warned that the Kremlin is feeling increasingly confident since resisting a Nato-backed Ukrainian counter-offensive and is testing Europe and Nato for weaknesses.
It has identified migration as a key issue.
In 2022, Italian intelligence reports said that Wagner Group, the Kremlin’s former mercenary unit, organised boats of migrants to set off from Libya. In 2021, Belarus flew in thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan and funnelled them towards Poland and Lithuania.
The Kremlin has also tested the Finnish reaction to migration in 2015 and 2016 when it pushed about 1,800 migrants towards the country.
The Russian military doctrine takes a wider hybrid approach to war than Nato. Analysts said that this includes spreading misinformation, crippling civilian infrastructure and using migrants as a weapon to destabilise its enemies.
Tension is rising in the Arctic region with Russia increasing the size of its military bases and testing more ballistic missiles in the region after Finland joined Nato.
Russian media have denied Finnish accusations that the Kremlin orchestrated the migrant surge and said the migrants were in Russia legally, mainly on student visas, and that private businessmen had helped them to travel to the border and given them bicycles.