Ukraine Conflict High North Expert: “The Norwegian-Russian Border Relationship will not Necessarily be Hard Hit”

Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen, Professor of High North Studies at the University of Tromsø (center). Here pictured at a roundtable conference on Arctic security in Stavanger in 2018, organized by the Munich security conference. (Photo: Kuhlmann, Munich Security Conference)

“I do not believe that what is happening in Ukraine right now will necessarily have a strong direct effect on the border relationship between Norway and Russia”, says High North Researcher Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen. At the same time, he points out that in a worst-case scenario, the conflict potential in the High North is large.

The Ukraine conflict has developed to a hot war through Russia’s invasion of the country. Increased spreading of military tension to other regions is currently a topical issue.

At the same time, there is still reason to believe that Russia will seek to keep the High North at a distance from the active conflict territory in East Europe, argues Professor of High North Studies at the University of Tromsø Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen.

“I do not believe that what is currently going on in Ukraine will necessarily have a strong direct affect on the border relationship between Norway and Russia. Moscow wants to keep the High North and the Arctic separate from the conflict with the West in Ukraine and the Black Sea region, as I see it”, he says and expands:

“Russia’s attack on Ukraine comes directly after Russian demands to NATO and the USA dating back to December, in which the key argument is that Ukraine never should become a NATO member. The West refused the many requirements without coming up with sufficient means with which to deter Russia against attacking Ukraine.”

“At present, the Russian project appears to be to disarm Ukraine and establish a new regime in the country”, the professor says and continues:

“At the same time, the Russian invasion of Ukraine perhaps goes slower and worse than expected, and the Western reaction is perhaps stronger than Russia expected. This, in turn, begs the question about whether there may potentially be further escalation from Russia in other areas.”

Moscow does not have similar security problems in the North as it does in East Europe  
Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen, Professor of High North Studies at the University of Tromsø, Norway

Potentially deflecting conditions

In the continuation, Bertelsen points to factors that may indicate that Russia looks differently on the northern areas, and that may indicate that the Norwegian-Russian border relationship may be kept at an arm’s distance from the tensions in and around Ukraine.

Unlike in the north, Russia has for years had specific military-strategic issues in the Black Sea region and the Caucasus. Preventing the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO has been on top of the Russian agenda and the country has been very transparent about this, the professor points out.

“Moscow does not have the same security challenges in the North as it does in East Europe. To my knowledge, nor has Russia expressed any demands to Norway or Finland when it comes to border conditions. Though the Russians have criticized American military presence in Norway”, he says.

“In addition, looking back at 2008 is quite relevant, when Russia entered Georgia with its military, and to 2014 when Russian forces took control over the Crimean Peninsula. These events affected the Norwegian-Russian relationship significantly in some areas, however, it did not completely derail.”

Yesterday, the Norwegian government announced that it as part of its support for Ukraine will donate military equipment to Ukrainian forces, such as helmets and protection vests.

“The fact that Norway now appears to not want to send arms or ammunition directly to Ukraine is worth noting. It probably is about how to avoid provoke a Russian response in the North. Finland is also hesitating sending arms to Ukraine”, Bertelsen comments.

Conflict potential in the North

With a potential further escalation of the current conflict between Russia and NATO, however, the High North is likely to turn into a hotspot, according to the professor.

“The High North and the Barents Sea will have major security policy and military-strategic significance if a larger war was to break out based on the Ukraine conflict. If and armed conflict were to spread to the High North, it would most likely happen through the Baltic states and the Baltic Sea”, Bertelsen says.

Connecting the High North and the Arctic with the Baltic Sea region in the currently tense security context is something also other Nordic researchers as well as politicians do.

The University of Troms professor believes the situation for the Baltic states will be very critical in the time ahead.

If taken to extremes, there may be ripple effects from the Ukraine conflict that involves the big powers’ nuclear weapon arsenals, and if so, our neighborhood will be strongly affected, the professor argues.

If Russia were to experience a strong threat in the North, the country would go to extremes to protect its nuclear weapons.  
Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen, Professor of High North Studies at the University of Tromsø, Norway

“The nuclear powers always think about whether conflicts can escalate to nuclear war. This is reflected in yesterday’s order from Putin to place Russian nuclear warms in a state of prepared for war as a warning to the USA”, he says and continues:

“If the current conflict escalates beyond control, and if Russia were to experience a strong threat against its nuclear striking capacity in the North, in particular from the USA and Great Britain, the country would go to extreme measures to protect its nuclear weapons.”

“Then we are in the field of the Russian bastion defense, which will extend to Northern Norway [and is based on denying other states’ forces access, journ.note]. This is, however, the final stage on the escalation ladder and comes just before nuclear war”, Bertelsen points out.

In a High North News interview, Professor Katarzyna Zysk at the [Norwegian] Institute for Defense Studies voices a similar view on what Russia may be thinking about the High North given the current situation, and what they country might end up doing in the North should there be an escalation with NATO.

Tight knot around Cold Response 2022

Following on from all this, the upcoming Norwegian-led military exercise Cold Response is highly relevant. The exercise commences on 10 March and will go on until 8 April, involving some 35,000 soldiers.

The largest share of the allied forces come from the USA and Great Britain. The majority of the exercise activity will take place in Northern Norway.

In the current situation, the exercise offers a difficult consideration, Bertelsen argues.

“On the one had, Norway and NATO cannot back out. On the other hand, conducting such a big military exercise in Northern Norway now, in light of the horrible situation in Eastern Europe, is rather risky”, he says and continues:

“Yes, Norway has informed about the exercise and Russia will probably send observers. However, Russia is very much afraid of having American and British forces too close to its strategic nuclear forces in the North.”

“Norway and the allied probably cannot do anything but show themselves firm and execute the exercise. At the same time, reassuring the Russians is crucial so that they do not panic and believe the exercise will lead up to an attack on them”, the professor says and stresses:

“It will be extremely important to avoid misunderstandings, accidents and clashes in air or at sea between NATO and Russian planes and vessels, which could spin out of control. Communication lines between the Russian Northern Fleet and the Joint Operation Headquarters near Bodø will be of decisive importance.”

Conducting such a large military exercise in Northern Norway now is very risky.  
Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen, Professor of High North Studies at the University of Tromsø, Norway

Important focus on hybrid threats

In the currently tense security situation following from the Russian attack on Ukraine, Bertelsen believes Norwegian authorities will have a strong focus on hybrid threats.

“I imagine that all the Norwegian bodies in intelligence, surveillance and security are very aware of potential hybrid threats against Norway”, he says.

Hybrid threats are mixed security threats in the grey zone between peace and war. Examples of tools used in this grey zone would be disinformation and cyber attacks on infrastructure.

“If Russia were to decided to activate its bastion defense, I assume it would involved hybrid elements against Northern Norway, Northern Finland and also Northern Sweden. Being aware of tools in the hybrid spectrum is important”, the professor stresses.

Norwegian-Russian cooperation in the North should not fall victim to an attempt to create protection against hybrid threats  
Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen, Professor of High North Studies at the University of Tromsø, Norway

Still important balancing act

The war images from Ukraine make a strong impression and characterize the security political debate in Norway. Given the current circumstances it is still important to hold on to the old Norwegian Russian policy that has a twofold base; deterrence and reassurance, Bertelsen argues.

“In this situation I would stress the importance of having two thoughts in the head at the same time. Norway should both deter Russia and also protect itself against hybrid threats, and at the same time provide cross-border reassurance and cooperation”, he says and continues:

“Norwegian-Russian cooperation in the North should not fall victim to an attempt to create protection against hybrid threats, or as symbol politics in a heated moment. I believe we will see a heavy pressure against cooperative forces, in particular those in the High North. This should be countered with clear expressions about the importance of holding on to this two-track thinking.

Having a long-term perspective on the relationship with Russia is important now too  
Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen, Professor of High North Studies at the University of Tromsø, Norway

The professor says he has noticed that some prominent voices in the south have raised their voices against the Barents cooperation recently.

“This demonstrates a lacking ability to have more than one thought in mind at one and the same time. In the North, we are fully aware that we have a big power neighbor with vast military capacity, however, with this neighbor one can both deter in the military area while also cooperating in other areas”, Bertelsen stresses.

He also stresses the future perspective on the Norwegian-Russian relationship.

“Shutting down for instance kid and youth cooperation with Russia in the Barents region will not help Ukraine, nor will it bring us any advantages. On the contrary, it will be advantageous for us to lay the foundation for children and youth on both sides of the border, young people who in 10-20-30 years’ time will be adult citizens and perhaps even decisionmakers in Norway and Russia, to know each other and have knowledge about each other’s countries.”

“Having a long-term perspective on the relationship with Russia is important now too”, the professor of High North studies points out.

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This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.