Sanctions and counter-sanctions

News coverage of relations with Russia this week was dominated on Tuesday and the first half of Wednesday by rumours that Russia could close its airspace to foreign airlines, making them add thousands of kilometres to their flight paths to Asia.

Although the original Vedomosti article was based on unnamed sources ‘close to the ministries’ in question, it provoked a minor media storm here, with tabloids not missing out on the chance to blow up Putin’s face on their covers. Undoubtedly, such a move would be disastrous for Finnair, whose Asian routes are almost the only profitable ones. But the interesting thing about this story was how the press coverage seemed to conflate Putin’s personality with this rumoured initiative: cue headlines along the lines of “Putin plans revenge sanctions”.

On Wednesday, prime minister Alexander Stubb came back from his holidays and gave a press conference devoted to the effects on Finland on the latest round of anti-Russian sanctions. In brief: Finland has to implement these sanctions along with the rest of the EU because Finland cannot be in a “grey zone”. He started his speech with a mini-lecture on liberal democracy and how it had failed to spread as desired around the world in the past decade or so. I found this very interesting: the message seemed to be that even though Finland could suffer economically by sanctioning Russia, the country has a political and maybe even ideological obligation to do so.

That was all eclipsed by the biggest news of the week: Russia is stopping imports of EU, US, and other countries’ food and drink products for a year. This has dominated the news here yesterday and today, and very understandably so. Finland exported €400m worth of foodstuffs to Russia last year, and some companies like Valio (dairy products) are dependent on Russian exports. The news coverage has progressed from focusing on the direct financial impact for Finland on Thursday and Friday to a curious ‘wrap the blue-and-white flag round me’ atmosphere in today’s papers.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much coverage Helsingin Sanomat, the country’s main paper, gave the issue on Friday. Five pages of relatively solid news and background were a welcome relief from their usual light-touch approach to the news. One of their reporters interviewed residents of St Petersburg, and the answers were mixed: support for sanctions in principle, but disappointment and not being able to buy, for example, Valio butter that they had got used to.

Today was different. HS ran with the headline “Import ban can lower food prices in Finland”. Hmm, really? The article itself gives no figures. One estimate I heard on the radio said prices could drop by 1%. The paper’s editorial was keen to stress the limited, relative effect of the embargo. An article on public opinion in Russia bears the headline “Russians support trade sanctions”. Yes, but which Russians and which sanctions? The article is based on a Levada Centre survey done on 1-4 August, before the import ban, and the question asked was “Should Russia sanction foreign companies in response to western sanctions against Russia?” Almost three-quarters said yes. No mention of trade! The headline contradicts the article.

In other papers the tone was similar: “Sanctions to push down prices” (Hufvudstadsbladet); “Does Finland want to be part of the west or a grey area?” (Iltalehti editorial); “PM Stubb and finance minister Rinne’s medicine against Russia’s sanctions is moderation and positivity” (Ilta-Sanomat).

Is it just me or does this all smack of groupthink? Are readers supposed to feel that this madness of sanctions and counter-sanctions (which will lead nowhere, in my opinion) has to be endured for the sake of Finland having a clear, western position? And, what’s more, that it will all be fine, because groceries are going to get cheaper?

Finnish press coverage of Russia often frustrates me because there are some basic things it fails to do. One is distinguishing between closely related but distinct issues, as the survey article and the flight ban stories did. It also often fails to resist the temptation to spin the news in such a way that it easily panders to embedded Finnish fears of Russia as a big bad enemy in which everyone loves Putin and approves his every move. Finnish readers deserve more nuanced and analytical coverage. I doubt they’re going to get it any time soon, at least from the main papers.

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