A large Russian cargo plane took an lengthy, unexpected and unexplained route over central and southern Finland on Saturday night, passing over Finland's Air Force headquarters and a military intelligence unit.
According to military and security experts interviewed by Yle, the reason for the flight's detour may have been either a protest by Russia or an intelligence-gathering mission as political tensions in the Baltic region continue to escalate.
The cargo plane took off from Moscow at about 7.26pm Finnish time on Saturday evening and flew towards the city of Murmansk in northwestern Russia. However, the flight turned over the White Sea, a southern inlet of the Barents Sea, at roughly the latitude of the city of Oulu and instead flew to the German city of Leipzig.
The plane's route therefore took it over Finland from Suomussalmi in the east to Turku in the southwest, passing Tikkakoski near the city of Jyväskylä, where the Finnish Air Force headquarters and part of the Finnish Defense Forces' intelligence department are located. The cargo plane also passed close to the Halli military airport in Jämsä, Central Finland.
The route and flight details of the aircraft are displayed on Flightradar24, an online global flight tracking service. The civilian plane was licensed for the route and flew at normal cruising altitudes, or at about 8,500 metres over Finland.
One security specialist interviewed by Yle could not come up with any conventional explanation for the surprising change of route.
"I can't think of one. It was such an exceptional route," the security specialist said.
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One of two military experts interviewed by Yle agreed.
"There is no denying the idea that the reaction of the Finnish authorities to an emergency situation was being tested here, when a route along which there are sensitive destinations was used," the expert said.
Flights from Moscow to Leipzig normally run south of the Baltic region.
Finnish Air Force: Flight route known in advance
Both the security specialist and the two military experts interviewed by Yle only agreed to comment on the case if they could do so anonymously, due to their status and the sensitive nature of the situation.
The Boeing 747-8HV(F) cargo plane at the centre of the incident belongs to the fleet of AirBridgeCargo Airlines, itself part of the Volga-Dnepr Group, and Russia's largest air cargo carrier. The company's office in Leipzig did not respond to Yle's request for comment.
Finland is not currently part of the company's route network, but the same aircraft has previously landed at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport.
The Finnish security specialist interviewed by Yle pointed out that the aircraft was, however, an ordinary cargo plane with no antennas or sensors normally evident on reconnaissance aircraft.
However, if they had been added for the flight, they would likely have been detected as exceptional flight routes are usually identified and photographed by a Hornet fighter jet, the specialist added.
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The Finnish Air Force did not comment on whether a fighter jet was scrambled to identify the cargo plane.
Yle's interview request was answered by email only, with Air Force Chief of Public Affairs Joni Malkamäki stating that "the Air Force monitors and guards Finnish airspace 24/7".
However, in a press statement released on Tuesday afternoon, the Air Force confirmed that a Russian cargo plane flew over Finland on Saturday evening in accordance with an approved flight plan. The statement added that the Air Force does not speculate on the purpose of non-military flights or their routes.
Cargo flight may have been Russian "protest" or reconnaissance
The safety specialist interviewed by Yle considered it possible that the purpose of the flight was to cause a furore.
"It could be a protest. Russia may have wanted to pull such a trick in order to raise some hairs on the other [Finnish] side," the expert said.
The route may also have been about gathering intelligence, as Finland's response to an exceptional situation such as this one could provide Russia with information on both Finland's equipment and preparedness.
“It creates a catalyst, and it can show how the reaction would be, or how the Air Force reacts to it,” the specialist explained.
According to the military expert, it is possible that the purpose of the flight was to obtain information about the operations of the Finnish Air Force's fighter jets - for example from where the fighter jet took off or to where it returned.
The expert added that Hornet fighter jets are capable of flying so low when necessary that they are often not detected by Russian radars. However, if Russia had a plane with radar capabilities in the air, this would be detected in Finland.
Russia could now be interested in both the situation at Finnish air bases and the exercises of the ground forces, the expert said, but the cargo plane would be unlikely to gather significantly better intelligence than the information Russia already receives via its satellites.
A second military expert interviewed by Yle considered the gathering of intelligence to be a very possible explanation for the flight route because the digital systems needed are so light these days. However, the expert believed a political "test" was the more likely explanation.
"So the first thing that comes to mind is some political-psychological test," the expert said, adding that Russia has flown other similar mystery flights over Finland in the past.
However, according to the security specialist, the flight detour can be considered part of Russia's various actions related to the tense political situation in Europe and especially in Ukraine.
"The situation is such that there may be an attempt to confuse the whole picture," the specialist said.
The incident is the latest in a long list of recent activities that have not been fully explained, including Russian landing craft in the Baltic Sea, unexplained drone sightings over Swedish nuclear power plants, Russia's own military exercises and Russia's flight restrictions.
"This is another attempt to make it more difficult to interpret the overall situation," the specialist added.
EDIT 18.1.2022 at 3:49pm: Details of Finnish Air Force press release added to the article.