Experts speculate on Turku real estate firm's possible Russian intelligence links

International experts that Yle interviewed said the Airiston Helmi probe may have uncovered an operation with financial - and possibly military - goals in mind.

Last week Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said Finland's investigation into Turku-based real estate firm Airiston Helmi - reportedly run by a Russian billionaire - is an internal matter that Finland should deal with as it sees fit.

Medvedev spoke with reporters in Helsinki on Wednesday, during an official visit to Finland at a joint press conference with Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä.

Last weekend 17 properties owned by Airiston Helmi, the real estate firm at the centre of a major investigation, were raided last weekend in the Finnish archipelago. So far, investigators have reported that some three million euros in cash was seized during the raids and an unknown number of people involved with the firm are suspected of aggravated money laundering and tax evasion.

"Finland has been an independent country for a long time, investigate the things you want to," Medvedev said Wednesday.

"Money laundering is also a crime in Russia, and of course we will help if an official request arrives via the appropriate channels. Because it is a Russian citizen who's being accused, naturally we want him to receive consular assistance," he said.

Medvedev dismissed the notion that the real estate firm's properties, located on several islands in the archipelago, could be part of a move by Russia's military to establish strategic sites in the region.

Strategic area

However, UK-born Mark Galeotti, an expert in Russian security and politics - as well as organised crime - has been watching the Airiston Helmi case unfold with great interest.

In a telephone interview with Yle, Galeotti said he thinks that what took place in the Finnish archipelago was part of a Russian-led, multi-faceted operation that primarily involved tracking and surveillance, but also setting up a money laundering machine.

"The properties and the geography of the area allows [them] a relative freedom to operate undisturbed. It appears that there is now a place in your archipelago to which Russia can send its special forces," Galeotti said.

Galeotti noted that Finland's demilitarised and autonomous islands of Åland are also located nearby Airiston Helmi's properties, which are also near strategically-important sea routes.

"Civilian fishing vessels have been spotted in the area which were equipped with an unusual amount of electronic and technical gear," Galeotti said.

He also pointed out Finland's and Sweden's intensified cooperation with Nato , and the escalating global political situation has again made the region a point of interest of Russia's intelligence agency and its surveillance operations.

Last autumn the Finnish military refused to allow the Russian-flagged, four-masted military training vessel, the Kruzenshtern, to dock at Mariehamn, Åland.

Galeotti said he believes that the vessel could have been used for signals intelligence - the monitoring and interception of radio and radar signals - to collect important information.

The expert on Russian security matters said that he is not surprised that investigators in Finland are narrowing their probe into alleged tax evasion and money laundering crimes at Airiston Helmi.

"If the shell company can pay their taxes according to local laws, then no suspicion will be raised. But then, [notorious 20th century American gangster] Al Capone was also caught for committing tax crimes," Galeotti said.

He said that the goal of money laundering is to hide the origins of the money being laundered. To do this, several bank transactions need to be made. Depending on the complexity of the scheme, the number of transactions needed to launder money can reach in to the dozens.

Money out, money in

In Russian banks there is limited capital protection, so many rich Russians are known to put their legally-earned funds in foreign banks. Some of that money returns immediately to Russia in the form of foreign investment.

Welsh author and journalist Oliver Bullough - who's reported and written about the dealings of Russian oligarchs and billionaires - told Yle that foreign investments by Russians are better protected than they would be in Russia.

The country of Cyprus has become a favourite county in which wealthy Russians invest their money. The island nation receives about 30 percent of all of Russia's foreign investments.

In recent years there has been more investment money coming out of Russia than ever before. According to the Russian national bank, some 27 billion euros of Russian capital was invested in foreign countries last year. This year the pace is even greater.

In July 2018 the amount of Russian foreign investments amounted to more than 18 billion euros, Bullough explained.

"By its nature, money is international and countries compete for it, because that flow of money means jobs and bigger profits," Bullough said.

Grozovski: Russian officials "aware"

Boris Grozovski, an internationally-known journalist who has reported and investigated Russia's economic development for years. He said the Russian banking system is monitored by well-educated officials who are certainly capable of noticing when banks take part in money laundering.

He said Russian authorities are well aware that banks deal in such criminal activity, and while the police and intelligence communities do not participate in the crimes, they do protect the practice at their benefit.

Galeotti said that due to countless revolutions and government coups the country has endured, Russian citizens have a different mindset to those who live elsewhere.

"They see themselves living in a world where everything could change tomorrow," he said, noting that Airiston Helmi's land, buildings and money boxes filled with cash could be entirely above board.

But, he said if tensions are raised in the region, the scenario could quickly change.

"They could become military bases even though they were built for something else entirely," Galeotti said.

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