Little Contact between Norwegian and Russian Defense Authorities

Russlands utenriksminister Sergej Lavrov og Norges utenriksminister Ine Eriksen Søreide i Kirkenes.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide in Kirkenes 2019, on the occasion of the commemoration of the Soviet liberation of eastern parts of Finnmark in October 1944. (Photo: Jonas Karlsbakk, the Barents Secretariat)

While political contact between Norway and Russia in some areas has increased since 2017, there is still little military and defense-political contact between the two countries.

Up until 2014, Norway had extensive military cooperation with Russia. In 2013, the Norwegian MFA announced that the two countries had some 20 different joint efforts annually, with activities in all defense areas.

Today, however, the situation is different. Since 2014 and Russia’s actions in the Ukraine, Norway has – like NATO – suspended its bilateral military cooperation with Russia.

Agreements exempt from this suspension include coast guard and border control collaboration, both in which annual protocol meetings still take place. Cooperation about search and rescue is maintained, as is the direct line between the Norwegian Joint Headquarters and Russia’s Northern Fleet.

The areas of contact on the political side have been reduced too. In a recent radio show, Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen explained that he does not speak with people on his own level in Russia due to political reasons and measures taken after the Crimea crisis.

“We do not talk enough, but as much as possible. And we try to do more”, the defense minister said.

We do not talk enough, but as much as possible. And we try to do more  
Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen

Talks on bureaucratic office level

Statssekretær Tone Skogen (H) i Forsvarsdepartementet. (Foto: Sjøwall/Utenriksdepartementet).
State Secretary Tone Skogen (Conservatives) of the Norwegian Ministry of Defense (Photo: Sjøwall/MFA)

State Secretary Tone Skogen (Conservatives) of the Norwegian Ministry of Defense writes in an email to High North News that the government considers dialogue with Russia important and necessary in the current security policy situation, and that there thus are regular talks on bureaucratic office level with the Russian MoD.

Office level consultations between the Norwegian and Russian MoD’s have thus been resumed in recent years. Nevertheless, there were no such meetings in 2020. The last meeting was held nearly two years ago.

State Secretary Skogen says the last meeting, which was held in Oslo in March 2019, was important for exchanging views on military exercise and training activity.

Agreement about communication channel

The MoD further states that the parties discussed questions related to Russian and Norwegian armed forces’ military activity in the High North, bilateral relations as well as measures to prevent incidents.

“There was also agreement about proceeding with the establishing of a communication channel between Oslo and Moscow”, Skogen writes.

According to the Norwegian government’s recent High North white paper, the communication channel between the defense leaderships in Oslo and Moscow, respectively, will be able to contribute to preventing misunderstandings and unwanted incidents related to military activity. “Such further development of bilateral contact in the defense area is particularly important in the current situation”, the white paper reads.

However, High North News has not been able to verify whether or not such a communication channel has been established.

“The pandemic has led to our not having as much contact with Russia defense authorities as before, however, we expect this to increase again. A resumption of the entire range of the military cooperation between Norway and Russia depends on further Russian actions as well as the general relationship between Russia and the West”, Skogen adds.

Russian Border Commissioner Colonel Vladimir Nikolayevitch Bobrov and his Norwegian counterpart Colonel Ivar Magne Sakserud during an exchange of experiences between Norwegian and Russian border guards in 2010. Annual protocol meetings between Norwegian and Russian border guards are maintained. (Photo: Norwegian Armed Forces)

Increase in number of political conversations since 2017

Even though there is still rather little defense-political contact between Norway and Russia, State Secretary Audun Halvorsen (Conservatives) of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs explains that the frequency of political conversations and consultations with Russia have increased in recent years.

“Following an immediate cooling in 2014 and 2015, political contact has picked up, and the number of political conversations and consultations has increased since 2017”, State Secretary Halvorsen says to High North News. He adds that there was nevertheless a drop in the number of political meetings in 2020, mostly related to practical challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the last years before the pandemic, there were a two-digit number of meetings on political level and a series of ministers and state secretaries from various parties held meetings with their respective counterparts, Halvorsen explains.

In 2019, Prime Minister Erna Solberg met Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. The last political top level meeting took place when Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide had a digital meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in January.

Norwegian PM Erna Solberg met Russia’s President Vladimir Putting for talks in St. Petersburg during the International Arctic Forum 2019. It was the first meeting between the two since 2014. (Photo: Amund Trellevik)

Demanding development in security politics

Statssekretær Audun Halvorsen, Utenriksdepartementet, under Kirkenes-konferansen 2020. Foto: Jonas Karlsbakk, Barentssekretariatet
“In many areas, Norway has a well-functioning dialogue with Russia”, says State Secretary Audun Halvorsen of the Norwegian MFA. (Photo: Jonas Karlsbakk/the Barents Secretariat)

Halvorsen says the Norwegian-Russian commissions that meet annually also are an important part of the political dialogue.

Cooperation through bilateral commissions is related to nuclear safety, fisheries management, trade and economy, as well as environment. They are mainly led from the political level by a Minister or a State Secretary, while some are led from higher bureaucratic office level. Responsibilities lie with the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries; the Ministry of Climate and Energy; and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At the same time, the State Secretary admits that the security policy dialogue has become more challenging after 2014.

“That is particularly related to security policy developments in our neighborhood, in Europe and globally. We have seen a far more assertive and forward-leaning Russia. Even though this is not primarily about the bilateral relationship between Norway and Russia, Russia’s relations to the world around it and to the West nevertheless has consequences for this too.”

“However, we are neighbors, we have practical cooperation, and we will continue our dialogue about issues of joint interest, even about the more challenging issues”, Halvorsen says in closing.

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Security dilemma in the Arctic

“Norway has not granted itself much freedom to maintain security policy contact with Russia following NATO’s cutting military contact with the country through the NATO-Russia Council in 2014. Norway is so strongly attached to NATO that there is no solo play from the Norwegian side in this area”, says Senior Researcher Julie Wilhelmsen at NUPI (The Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs) to High North News.

She warrants a stronger security policy dialogue between actors in the High North in a time when great powers increase their military presence in the Arctic.

“Contact in the area of security politics is where it is urgent as tensions increase dramatically in the High North”, the senior researcher says.

The West and Russia have far fewer security policy contact areas today than they did prior to 2014. Military and civilian cooperation through the NATO-Russia council was suspended in 2014. Similarily, the parties no longer meet through forums facilitating security dialogue in the High North, such as the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Forum and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable.

“The way it is today, deterrence and military posturing are more or less the only signaling that takes place in the Arctic. That may lead to an accelerating security policy challenge in the future. Right now, there is a security dilemma in the Arctic. The Arctic states are increasingly acknowledging this”, Professor Lars Saunes at the US Naval War College said to High North News in a previous interview.

A US Naval War College report, with contributions from Saunes as well as a series of other researchers in security politics, argues that a resumption of forums like the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Forum could be a mechanism used by Arctic states to resume dialogue on a strategic military level, increase transparency and build confidence in order to alleviate security challenges stemming from misunderstandings.

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