Finnish diplomats turn to ‘sauna diplomacy’ to evade Russian spies

A man relaxes in a sauna
The relaxing facilities are a useful tool for holding discreet conversations - Alexander Farnsworth

Finnish diplomats have revived the naked art of “sauna diplomacy” as Nato allies explore creative ways to evade Russian hackers and spies.

Kai Sauer, the Finnish ambassador to Germany, said the sauna had long been a “safe place” to have sensitive discussions on a level playing field - everyone is quite literally stripped bare.

In an interview with the Telegraph, he said: “It has many features, many dimensions. It can be promoting the sauna itself as a well-being concept. But then it can also be a place, a safe place, where you have confidential discussions or it can be a place where you build relationships.

“You are not even dressed when you are in the sauna. So it’s hard to carry any devices.”

He added: “But I would go deeper than that. When we look at our families, I think the most confidential discussions, more trusted discussions with your father or mother or siblings, friends, have been held in the sauna.”

Kai Sauer, the Finnish ambassador to Germany
Kai Sauer says the sauna is a "safe place" to have sensitive discussions

The ambassador said that the requirement to be naked removed all signs of rank, allowing completely frank discussions.

“You can discuss concepts and ideas and things which you might not necessarily discuss in your office,” he said.

The sauna is a source of immense national pride in Finland, where some three million of the facilities are used by its relatively small population of 5.5 million. Finnish officials often jokingly point out that there are more saunas than cars in Finland, where it is listed as a Unesco world heritage item.

But more recently, in the face of increased attempts by Russia to spy on Western diplomats, they are also becoming a useful tool for holding discreet and sensitive conversations away from prying eyes and listening devices.

As Finnish sauna users do not even wear towels to hide their modesty, there is no chance of bringing in a compromised phone or other device that could be at risk of hacking by Russia.

Mr Sauer advised against bringing secret documents to the sauna, not least due to copious amounts of steam.

Recent brush with Russian spies

The ambassador did not comment on Germany’s own recent brush with Russian spies, where a sensitive discussion about the delivery of Taurus missiles was intercepted by Moscow as some air force officers involved had dialled into the call on insecure lines.

Germany has launched an investigation into the so-called Luftwaffe leaks, but stresses it was an isolated incident and that no secure German conference call software had been compromised or hacked.

Even so, officials in Germany - a nation also fond of steam saunas - might be feeling tempted to take up the technique to help avoid further security breaches.

Sauna diplomacy is also being used as a tool for soft power by Finland, with a special exhibition and “sauna festival” due to be hosted by the embassy in Berlin in April. The embassy also has a “sauna diplomatic society” which introduces Germans to a more laid-back style of sauna enjoyment and networking.

Nato’s headquarters recently installed its own sauna, a welcoming gesture to mark Finland’s entry into the alliance in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

‘Sign of trust’

In Finland itself, the relaxing facilities are installed in all government buildings as well as in consulates and embassies overseas.

The practice of sauna diplomacy is not entirely without controversy in Finland, with one official being accused in 2012 of holding male-only sauna briefings with journalists. Those days are over now, Finnish officials say, pointing out that nearly 50 per cent of the Finnish parliament is now female.

“The invitation to the sauna is a sign of trust,” Mr Sauer said. “And I think you somehow have a joint experience with colleagues or friends, they take it as a special experience, and they appreciate it as such. We use it of course, as part of our public diplomacy as well.”

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