For Norway, the risk of conflict in the Arctic has increased
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The Norwegian Navy frigate KNM Thor Heyerdahl on her annual visit to Svalbard in 2022. Photo: Forsvaret
One of the central questions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been how it will affect security policy in the High North, that is, the European parts of the Arctic. The sabotage of gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea has brought this issue to the forefront of Norwegian security concerns.
The problem is often that factors like melting ice, resource extraction, grand power plays, symbolic politics, and submarines are mixed together in a spicy stew of simple causation. As you move from general to substantial, however, details emerge. One solution is to distinguish between immediate, short-term and long-term threats in the Arctic.
Immediate: Norway goes to war
The immediate threat to Norway, particularly in the North, is simple: Norway’s “High North” will play a central role in the NATO-Russia conflict, as Russia has positioned its strategic forces there, directed against the United States and NATO. Therefore, Russia continues to hold military exercises outside Norway‘s living room door to warn Norway, NATO and the United States to stay away. The message is clear: “If you approach our strategic forces (read submarines and missiles), we will take control of the areas north of Lofoten in Norway.”
This type of threat is not new, as Norway found itself in a similar situation during the Cold War. However, Russia is now a different and increasingly unpredictable player. The danger of NATO and Russia going to war over possible Russian interventions in the Baltics, Poland or Finland is real – so Norway will not only be implicated through Article 5 of NATO, but it will also become a target in the broader Russian defense strategy. As Norway’s defense chief recently pointed out: “The relative importance of nuclear deterrence [in the North] for Russia with the ongoing war in Ukraine has increased.
Short term: Conflict escalation
That Russia wants to assert its military supremacy in the North is nothing new. However, in recent decades, security policy considerations have been balanced by Russia’s desire for economic development in its Arctic regions.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions regime imposed by “the West”, it is clear that several Russian economic projects in the Arctic cannot be implemented or expanded. Cooperation in various fora, such as the Arctic Council and the Barents Council, has also been suspended.
It may seem that the Russian calculation in the North has evolved in favor of security interests and in opposition to the desire to keep the Arctic in a zone of low tension. So, more worrying that the Arctic could be drawn into a larger conflict, Russia might also wish to challenge Norwegian sovereignty to test Norway’s military capabilities, NATO cohesion in the North, or both.
This is the short term threat to Norway in the Arctic. Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago with a Russian colony, is particularly vulnerable. There, Russia has laid the groundwork to challenge Norwegian sovereignty – if it chooses – through protests and statements over several decades. In the sea areas around the archipelago, Russian fishing boats and research vessels operate, sometimes with unclear intentions.
The sabotage of gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea also provides a clue as to what Russian covert action in the North might look like. The cutting of one of the two fiber optic cables connecting Svalbard to the world in January 2022 was another chilling example of the vulnerability of Arctic infrastructure. The infrastructure of the Far North is both more vulnerable and more extensive than that of southern Norway.
Long term: Geoeconomics and China
To be clear: melting ice or resources located in the Arctic do not cause the immediate or short-term threats described here, nor do shipping routes in the North or oil/mineral extraction cause the dynamics of security policies.
However, this does not mean that the potential for resource extraction or shipping routes is unrealistic or could not have consequences for security policy. Here it is important to distinguish between Russia as a military actor in the North and, above all, China as a global superpower with both political and economic interests.
Geoeconomic policy, that is, the use of economic instruments to achieve geopolitical goals, is China’s comprehensive approach. The question is whether, in the long term, we will have to deal with an increasingly assertive China that challenges Norwegian interests related to resource management, research or local development also in the North.
How to avoid a conflict in the Far North?
While we want to isolate and punish the Russian regime in the Kreml, international politics is complex, made up of many levels and varied interests. Norway has chosen to maintain cooperation with Russia in certain areas, including nuclear security, fisheries management and search and rescue.
The need to maintain collaboration in these areas relates to several factors. In the past, Norwegian decision-makers believed that it was possible to change Russian perceptions and encourage both the local population of the Murmansk region and the leaders of Moscow to be friendlier to Norway through cooperation in local level. Unfortunately, it has become clear that such low-level cooperation is not enough to change the Putin regime’s aggressive behavior and prevent further escalation in the Arctic.
An alternative approach has been to appeal to Russian economic interests and convince Russia to want to keep tension low in the region, as noted above. Cooperation can tie Russia to the mast so that decision makers in Moscow refrain from directing security policy north. Unfortunately, it seems that our notions of rationality no longer apply to Putin’s regime, where the “struggle against the West” eclipses everything, also in the Arctic.
If it is not possible to change Russia’s perceptions or its calculations of interests, at least we can secure our own interests. Norway does not benefit from an accident with Russian nuclear waste along the Norwegian coast, nor from Russian fishermen overfishing the cod stock in their economic zone, or from a conflict in Svalbard, where Russia can claim that Norway violates the Svalbard Treaty and then “protects” its citizens and interests.
Despite the desire to punish Russia and cut contact in as many areas as possible, we must maintain a direct dialogue to avoid accidents, disagreements and escalations. The simplest way to avoid conflict in the North is to ensure that no incident, intentional or not, occurs.
The importance of the Arctic in terms of security issues was clear long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the invasion highlighted a number of challenges in the North. At the same time, we need to distinguish between different types of dangers and determine what we can do to avoid the escalation of conflict. The devil is in the details.
This comment was originally posted in Norwegian, by Altinget, on September 28, 2022.