Jonas Gahr Støre Worried About Increased Tension in the Arctic

Labor leader Jonas Gahr Støre describes the Arctic summit in St. Petersburg in April as a good framework for political dialogue with Russia. He also says it is about time Prime Minister Erna Solberg goes to Russia. (Photo: Pål Laukli)

Labor leader Jonas Gahr Støre says he is worried about increased tension between major powers in the Arctic and argues that Norway holds a key conflict-preventing role.

- There is no conflict between upholding a sanction regime while at the same time having good political contact with Russia. Because even in times with increasing global tension, there is room for initiatives to new cooperation projects, Støre says to High North News.

Five years since the annexation of the Crimea

Five years have passed since the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula, when Russia used military force to annex a part of another European country in times of peace.

The international response to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine was resolute and unanimous. A more or less unified western alliance headed by the EU and the USA agreed on strict economic sanctions and political contacts were frozen.

The Russian response, in turn, was to deny imports to a series of western farm and fisheries products, which a.o. hit Norwegian fisheries export and the Finnish dairy sector hard.

The Crimean annexation became a new watermark in international politics.

The relationship between Moscow and Washington has been strained for a long time, and earlier this winter it became clear that both the USA and Russia are withdrawing from the INF agreement – an agreement signed by the Soviet Union and the USA in 1987 to remove intermediate range missiles with nuclear warheads.

The USA is now openly stating that the country will contain larger Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

oreign Minister Mike Pompeo will attend the Arctic Council meeting in Rovniemi, Finland in May, while the American navy is planning to send several surface vessels through Arctic waters this summer, amongst others.

The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Louis S. St-Laurent meets the icebreaker Healy in Arctic waters along the Canadian coast. (Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley/Canadian Coast Guard)

Fears the Arctic may turn less peaceful

It was Støre who during his tenure as Foreign Minister managed to find a solution to the demarcation line issue in the Barents Sea, an issue Norway and Russia had negotiated about for 40 years.

And the Arctic has long been highlighted as a part of the world where the big powers manage to sit down around the same negotiating table.

The Labor leader says we now should be worried that the Arctic may also become a less peaceful place in the future. Støre is far from happy with how the current Norwegian government has managed its relationship to Russia over the past few years.

- Where big powers meet, increased tension is likely to ensue. Throughout human history, it has never before happened that a shared interest in resources and transport routes has not led to increased tension, and it is up to the states themselves to prevent this. We cannot rely on disorder and conflict to arise in this region, on the contrary! Our goal, alongside with our neighbors, should be to live up to the goal about “High North – low tension”, Støre says. He criticizes the current government for leading a far to passive policy towards Russia.

- Norway may be active in our bilateral relationship with Russia, even though that is demanding in the context of international politics. I have noted that Finland, which is a EU member and thus part of the sanctions regime, has a far more active dialogue with Russia than Norway does. I think the government has been passive and far too reticent in the neighborhood dimension, and that the High North has dropped on the list of prioritized strategies, Støre says.

- US Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo will come to Rovaniemi and the Arctic Council meeting in May. Washington says he goes to Finland to demonstrate that the Arctic is important to the USA. How do you interpret the ‘sudden’ US interest in the Arctic?

- I find it quite natural that the US Foreign Minister attends the Arctic Council meeting. It is more remarkable that he finds the need to actually state that. The USA is an Arctic state and borders on the Arctic Sea areas. It would be directly detrimental to the US’ interests to be absent from these meetings, Støre says.

The Ukrainian army conducting an anti-terror operation in the eastern parts of the country in May 2016. The soon-to-be five years old war between Ukrainian government forces and separatists backed by Russia has killed more than 10,000 people. (Photo: Vadim Kovalov)

Argues that sanctions should remain in place

Lately, a series of people have argued that the sanctions against Russia should be reconsidered.

Public international law expert Geir Ulfstein at the University of Oslo said to High North News last week that the sanctions have only had negative consequences, whereas former prime minister and Conservatives nestor Kåre Willoch wants an expiry date to the sanctions. [Norwegian only.]

Former Norwegian ambassador to Moscow Øyvind Nordsletten also says that Norway should lead a dialogue to look into how the sanctions regime may be lifted, with time.

Støre argues that a unified parliament (Stortinget) supports the government’s line of sanctioning Russia, and he warns that it would be ‘most unwise’ of Norway if it were to unilaterally lift sanctions.

- It has now been five years since the Russian annexation of the Crimea. The western sanctions that were introduced against Russia were to punish Putin for his violation of public international law. Have these sanctions worked according to plan?

- Sanctions are a well known and sometimes necessary tool between states. And it is a tool that is meant to serve as a negative signal. However, sanctions also have negative effects the other way around in their limiting trade and cooperation. Russia has responded with countermeasures. So these sanctions have significant economic and political consequences for both Russia and us.

- Proceeding is a job for diplomats. I am skeptical of those who argue that Norway should unilaterally lift the sanctions. It would be an irresponsible behavior from a country that is neighbor to Russia and that needs confidence and predictability from our allies. However, Norway may be a voice in the debate how to move on from here.

- Public international law expert Geir Ulfstein says we have only seen negative consequences of these sanctions?

- That is the inherent logic of sanctions. Nobody believes that sanctions lead to less tension. The government has the full support of the Stortinget for this policy line. It is not just about the Crimea, but there is a war going on in eastern Ukraine, where thousands of people are killed and where Russia provides substantial military backing of the rebels.

- This has to be solved politically, because that is the only way in which we can turn tensions down. The current situation does not bode well; there should be a unified political attitude and understanding between the USA and the EU when it comes to their approach towards Russia.

- What do you mean by that?

- The American administration is divided in its view on Russia. President Trump speaks warmly of Putin and has talks with him, the contents of which is not clear at all. At the same time, there is Congress, which has introduced tough sanctions against Russia, sanctions going far beyond those introduced by the EU and Norway. The development is going in the wrong direction.

- What can be done to bring developments back on track again?

- That will be a long and winding road, and it must be about diplomacy. Politicians and diplomats should meet, and we should start taking confidence-building measures. The road out of such deadlocked situations rarely comes as breaking news from one day to the next, it is rather the responsibility of diplomacy, and the Norwegian government’s responsibility through the channels that remain open – through the Barents cooperation and the Arctic Council.

The Demarcation Agreement Norway – Russia

The Demarcation Agreement between Norway and Russia, or the "Treaty between the Kingdom of Norway and the Russian Federation concerning Maritime Delimitation and Cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean" was signed in Murmansk on 15 September, 2010.

The Agreement was later ratified by both countries at Akershus Castle in Oslo on 7 June 2011.

The negotiations about the maritime demarcation line between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean went on for 40 years.

The Agreement clarifies the demarcation line between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

Source: Norwegian government/

- The cold winds don’t blow from the North

- When the going gets tough in the High North, it is hardly ever about the relationship between Norway and Russia. The cold northern winds do not come from the North, but from other places. Today, they come from the Ukraine. At the same time, the fact that Russia has moved towards an increasingly authoritarian regime is difficult, a regime in which human rights are violated and where there is a crackdown on civil society.

- Could one argue that your job as foreign minister from 2005 was far easier, and that Russia appears far more unpredictable and aggressive today than what she did when you were managing that relationship?

- It was no walk in the park back then either. It took a lot of effort, analysis, preparations and confidence-building. However, it is quite right that we at that time had what we call a window of opportunity in international politics, as we call it. Russia was then pointing towards more transparency, however, today there is a downward spiral with far less contact and cooperation.

Jonas Gahr Støre og Sergej Lavrov
Then-foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre visited Moscow on 3 February, 2010 for political talks with Russias foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. (Photo: Jan Tjernsli/Norwegian Embassy in Moscow)

- There were tensions during my tenure too. The war in Georgia broke out right in the final stages of the demarcation line negotiations, and that obviously led to some tension. Keep in mind that back in August 2008, Russia was in a conventional war with one of its neighboring countries, a country of only some fore million inhabitants. 18 months later, Russia entered into one of the most modern public international law agreements, with a different yet equally small neighbor, Norway, where we together managed to arrive at a joint demarcation line in the Barents Sea, a solution in which we in practice shared the contested ocean areas 50/50. Russia demonstrated its two faces there.

- What would Norwegian Russia policy look like if your party was in government?

- That is a hypothetical question and one that I will refrain from answering out of respect for the distribution of responsibility between the government and Parliament. The government holds the full picture here. However, Norway can have an active profile in bilateral meetings with a neighbor, also in a time of international tension. This is where I will argue that the government could have done more, bilaterally as well as within the frame of Barents cooperation and the Arctic.

- There is something durable in Norwegian Russia policy; the combination of being a neighbor that will always remain just that, with shared borders and shared ownership over marine resources. Another aspect has to do with our belonging to the NATO alliance and our security being tied to our Nordic, European and trans-Atlantic allies which, I believe, is a necessity given that we are neighboring on a big power. The craft of politics is about a good combination of the two.

- How do you interpret the fact that both Prime Minister Erna Solberg and the Foreign Minister will go to the Arctic summit in St. Petersburg in April?

- This is one of the few meeting places in Russia where politicians from the East and the West can get together. There are not many places like this. I believe it is important to have more political meeting places with Russia, not just bilaterally. This will provide a good framework for political dialogue with Russia.

- Is it about time that Solberg goes to Russia now?

- Yes, Støre says.