MILAN — As Finns get ready to head to the polls, over a dozen Finnish companies have been reported to have evaded sanctions by exporting dual-use goods to Russia, a challenge which experts say will be a key issue to tackle by the next leadership.

The upcoming Finnish presidential election will take place on Jan 28., marking the end of President Sauli Niinistö's time in office after 12 years.

Nicknamed a “Putin whisperer” by the media for his enduring contacts with the Kremlin before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Niinistö played an important part in the process leading up to Finland gaining its official NATO membership in April 2023.

Experts note that running candidates appear to have put up a more united front than in previous elections on crucial topics, including maintaining aid to Ukraine.

“As Finland shares the longest border of any NATO member with Russia, it has been necessary to at least have a composed relationship [amongst candidates] to some degree, while being firm on where Finland stands as an EU and NATO member,” Robert Eklund, chair of the board at the Finnish security policy think tank Elisabeth Rehn – Bank of Ideas, said.

“All candidates running have been unwavering in their support for Ukraine, and that is one of the key things they have in common – a resolve to support Ukraine for as long as it needs it,” he added.

Alexander Stubb, a former Finnish prime minister and front runner in the upcoming election, pledged unconditional support to Kyiv during an interview with Reuters earlier this month, calling on Moscow to end its assault.

Most contenders have publicly expressed no willingness to engage with Moscow until its leadership ends the full-scale war it is waging against Kyiv. The Finnish presidential election will prove all the more important as it comes ahead of the Russian one, scheduled for mid-March.

Sanctions evasion

Two weeks prior to the elections, public broadcasting media company Yle, reported that over 20 Finnish companies with a Russian background had been found to have exported various dual-use items to Moscow.

According to customs data obtained by Yle, one of the involved firms operating in southeast Finland would have sent sensors, diesel engines, fuel pumps and transmission equipment to Russia.

Analysts say that while this incident is relatively unsurprising, as other similar ones have previously been reported, the number of companies involved this time around is unusual.

“It is not surprising there are companies which ship these kinds of products to Russia, as in September for instance, there was also news that the CEO of two Finnish companies, Siberica and Luminor, was detained on charges of having violated Russian sanctions,” Kari Paasonen, fellow at the Finnish peace and security think-tank SaferGlobe, said.

“However, the number of companies the report reveals is remarkably high. Over the years, there have also been other cases of illegal shipments of arms through Finland reported,” Paasonen added.

In this high-profile case, the two listed companies are currently under investigation by the Finnish customs authorities as they are believed to have exported around 3,500 drones as well as other electronic components to Russia.

Firms circumventing Russian sanctions is a thorny problem that other European countries have also struggled with, and one that has proven increasingly difficult to manage.

“In many cases, these goods are not sold directly from the manufacturer to the user, but rather they are traded through local dealer networks, which makes it difficult for Western companies wanting to abide to the sanctions regime, to control where their products end up,” Robin Häggblom, independent Finnish defense analyst, said.

While the Yle report highlights an important issue, experts said that it is unlikely to influence the election directly, as the consensus about adhering to Russian export bans is widely shared.

“There will unlikely be any fallout. That said, preventing sanctions evasion in my view will be a top priority for [upcoming] Finnish foreign policy,” Matti Pesu, leading researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said.

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.

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