Opinion: NATO, Russia and Norway - New Cold War and prospects for peace

Storskog er den eneste landbaserte grenseovergangen mellom Norge og Russland. Forholdet til Russland oppleves ulikt fra Finnmark til Oslo, skriver Hedda Langemyr. (Foto: Arne O. Holm)
The peace movement in Norway has its hands full. So do all of you. We are at a risky and uncertain point in the history of the High North - a dangerous one, even. But there are opportunities and brighter prospects, Hedda Langemyr states.

The peace movement in Norway has its hands full. So do all of you. We are at a risky and uncertain point in the history of the High North - a dangerous one, even. But there are opportunities and brighter prospects.

The fact that the north is gaining more international attention, does not only mean rising chances for tension and rivalry, but also the possibility of cooperation, trade, and the furthering of other common interests.

Cooperation is inevitable

This conference (Understanding peace in the Arctic) is a marvellous example of how peace activism should work. Through similar cooperations, the university (UiT - The Arctic University of Norway) has worked closely with the university in Arkhangelsk for decades, setting a standard for coexistence, which the Norwegian foreign minister Børge Brende lauded when he discussed it with Anne Husebekk and the deputy principal from Arkhangelsk in Russia this spring.

For Norway, cooperation is in many ways inevitable: Russians are now the largest group of people after Norwegians in Tromsø. For five years, we have had a visa-free zone between Kirkenes and Nikel. This arrangement is viewed with keen interest by the EU, which sees the potential for economic gains on both sides, as well as other benefits, such as greater stability. Further expansion of the arrangement between Kirkenes and Nikel has been discussed between Norwegian and Russian parliamentarians. It should be placed higher on the political agenda - every meeting between good neighbours gets us a step closer to lasting peace and prosperity in the high north.

The ways we work together

I want to highlight two things in this speech: I want to talk about some of the ways we are working together: the Barents cooperation and the Arctic Council. Then I want to address the growing tendencies of militarization of the High North, which coincides with other similar developments across Europe – primarily in the Baltics and the former Warsaw pact countries. 

The Barents cooperation is important. Next year, the program between Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway will be 25 years old. It was set in motion by the Norwegian foreign minister at that time, Thorvald Stoltenberg, and the program ranges over vast areas including commercial development, transport and communication, education and science, culture, environmental protection, security, and health. It has proven to be one of the most enduring and constructive multilateral cooperations in the north since the end of the cold war. 

The impact of the Barents cooperation

On Norway's part, the cooperation has laid the groundwork for a lot of regional development. It has meant opportunities in our northernmost provinces. I do not think we should underestimate the impact the Barents cooperation has had on ordinary people’s lives. It is the most obvious and important reason for continuing and strengthening the partnership in the future.

The Barents cooperation has had a major positive effect on the relations between our countries as well. Trade and cultural exchange between Norway and Russia has increased during this time. 

This has made it possible for Norway, one of the founding members of the NATO alliance, to have functioning and active relations with Russia – even in a time where the political climate in some countries finds the mere thought of talking to Russian officials suspicious. 

A remarkably good agreement

A few years ago, back in 2010, Norway and Russia surprised many by striking a remarkably good agreement over the fisheries in the Barents Sea. This was the result of years of attentive and impressive diplomatic work. In a less friendly and cooperative climate, it would have been harder - or even impossible - to reach a compromise of such importance for both countries.  This deal should tell us something about how important these give-and-take relations are on a general level between neighbours. We should use common ground to work towards an easing of tensions, not just in the High North – but also at a European and transatlantic level. 

The Barents cooperation is not the only facilitator of good relations between our countries. I must mention both the Barents secretariat and the Arctic council. The Barents secretariat has been crucial for the financing of joint projects between Russian and Norwegian enterprises, and is an important part of the commercial and cultural relations taking place between our countries. Last year over 35000 Russians and Norwegians were involved in projects supported by the Barents cooperation. That is significant and so important.

There is still work to be done

The Arctic council, on the other hand, is a multilateral forum for many other states as well. It should receive all possible praise for the work on the rights of indigenous people inhabiting the High North. There is still work to be done, and we should move faster.

There should be a demand, not just from the peace movement, but other political actors as well, for the strengthening of all these arenas of cooperation in the High North. If not, the polarization and increased distrust will probably continue and reach a much more severe and dangerous degree than we have seen so far, similar to what we have seen in other parts of the world.

The largest problem facing us is the militarization of the High North. With militarization, I among other things, mean the “missile shield” which is being planned by NATO. It is presented as a purely defensive initiative, only aimed at deterring and shielding us from attacks by so-called “rogue states”. The problem is that it will inevitably alter the nuclear balance in Europe to the advantage of NATO, and will thus force Russia and possibly other nations, to increase their spending on strategic capabilities, which is by all measures a new arms race.

A disturbing development

Another disturbing development is the establishing of foreign military bases, the implementing of large military exercises close to other nations borders, and the rising levels of defense spending on both sides. This autumn, Norway sent 200 military troops to the Baltics, together with other NATO-countries, as part of broader initiatives by the alliance with the aim of showing strength to maintain credible deterrence. 

It is not like 200 Norwegian troops in the Baltics, and 300 US marines stationed in central Norway, resembles a national threat to Russia’s existence. The point is that these actions are not considered as totally separate and isolated incidents. In fact, they are parts of a larger military build-up, ranging all over the Eurasian continent. In such an environment it is my, and the Norwegian peace movements firm belief, that Norway, as well as the other countries of the High North, should proceed with caution. We should work to maintain the High North as a haven of non-militarization. 

The peaceful border

The border between Russia and Norway has been peaceful for centuries. That is special, and it should stand as a reminder of the historical responsibility our politicians have to do everything in their power to make sure it continues. Even as a NATO-country, Norway has been able to pursue wise and farsighted strategies, which have been most welcomed, also by Moscow. Our relationship with Russia needs to be peaceful in order to be useful, both to the NATO-powers and to Russia. 

There is a huge unanswered question at the heart of the recent developments in Norwegian foreign policy: how does it end? The Norwegian government is offering several dissatisfying and mutually exclusive answers at once: on the one hand, this situation cannot last. It is going to return to a more normal state of affairs at some point in the future. It just has to. On the other hand, they say that our relationship with Russia has reached a point of no return, which necessitates the drastic measures we have seen, a closer integration between Norwegian and American military strategy. 

Consensus cannot be compulsory

In Oslo, members of the government are taking a pretty hard line towards Russia, loudly condemning the regime, drawing lines between Us and Them. Speaking in, or to, the northern parts of Norway, the tone from Norwegian ministers is different. They claim that the cooperation between the two countries is almost unharmed by the tension. But all of these things cannot be true at once. The political elite should own up to that. We have a tradition of broad political consensus when it comes to foreign policy in Norway, and there is a lot of sense in that, obviously. But the consensus cannot be compulsory. It should be reached through vigorous and open debate. The inconsistencies in the official rhetoric should be obvious vantage points, not drawing the line for the debate. 

In retrospect, it is easy to see that allowing former republics of the Soviet Union into NATO was not among the wisest of decisions. But what is done is done – complaining about unwise decisions in the past is not constructive. We must deal with current circumstances in the best way possible. None of us has any interest in making the High North another area of great power-rivalry. 

Sanctions are doing more harm than good

A clear obstacle to this, as we see it, is the US- and EU-initiated political and economic sanctions against Russia. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, these sanctions have not just made it harder for business to invest and prosper across our borders, but they have also halted the military cooperation that used to take place between our countries. 

We do not condone Russia’s action in Ukraine and Crimea - on the contrary, they are clear breaches of international law and we have said so repeatedly. But we must at the same time admit that the sanctions are doing more harm than good, both in terms of the economy, cultural exchange, the security and our bilateral relations on a general level. What’s more, the results on domestic Russian politics have been disheartening, to say the least - there is more extremism, more chauvinism and more paranoia. 

Russia has also been responding in a grave manner to the rising tensions the last year. Civil society in Russia, even those that not necessarily agree with agendas of “regime change” or similar supposedly western initiatives, are facing more severe state-control and harsher limitations on their funding. From a Norwegian, and I would also guess other Nordic nations perspective, this is perceived as unnecessary authoritarian measures to challenges every country in the modern era faces in one degree or another. 

Russian policies have taken a negative direction

Apart from the restraints on civil society, Russian policies have taken a negative direction elsewhere as well. The last 20 years Russia has experienced a huge increase in military spending and a thorough modernization of equipment and capacities. This buildup has been met with insecurity by many of their neighbors, including other Nordic countries that have moved towards closer cooperation with NATO. It may be understandable that Russia, as other nations, care about their own security and wants to lessen the gap between them and NATO. But it would also be sad for all of us if this makes peaceful neighbors insecure, and thus more accepting towards greater military spending on their part. This should not be ignored in terms of Russia.

Western policies have of course also been central in damaging the east/west-relations. We have opposed the stationing of permanent NATO-troops on Norwegian ground. It is also our firm stance that Norway should not join the planned missile defense-system, as it would surely provoke a new arms race in the High North. 

The first, we consider to be an outright breach of what have earlier, by all parts of the political spectrum, been regarded as a rational and wise sovereign and balanced defense policy. The second will in no way make anyone more safe – and will surely provoke greater spending on nuclear deterrents from the Russia. In worst case – a missile shield in the size which is expected, can increase the chances of a nuclear first strike in a tense international situation. Every sane human being should fiercely endeavor to oppose such development.

Heightened tension in our area 

We believe that Norway, along with other countries represented at this conference, should explore the possibilities for more Nordic cooperation in matters concerning security and defense. This is of course a well-known refrain in discussions in these countries - almost no one recommends less cooperation. But the situation has gotten more precarious - we have a reasonable expectation for heightened tension in our area of the world.

This tendency is strengthened by the closer integration of Norwegian and American strategy, but also by the way in which Sweden and Finland have grown closer to NATO in recent years. It happens in a time where we are experiencing America as a more volatile and unpredictable world power than ever before in the history of NATO. NATO itself has an uncertain future. The German chancellor Angela Merkel has pointed out that we cannot necessarily trust old partnerships anymore. What this entails is still unclear - the election of Donald Trump might be a whole new reality, or it might just have pointed the spotlight towards longer tendencies that so far has not been underlined in a similar fashion. Whatever the answer is, a strengthened Nordic cooperation would make us less dependent on American policy. It would heighten our defensive capabilities without being projected as unnecessary aggression.

Make a joint statement of solidarity! 

This, of course is not easy - but as a few starting points, Norway and the other Nordic countries should make a joint statement of solidarity promising to help each others in a crisis. We should cooperate more towards keeping international law and preserving international institutions - these things are more important for small countries such as our own. We should also work towards keeping the Nordic countries a nuclear free zone, and cooperate towards a global nuclear ban. Lastly, we should coordinate our efforts in military operations in a much larger degree than before. 

Finally, I must touch upon the way this conflict is depicted in the media. Russia is often depicted as solely an aggressive revanchist power, aiming for control and hegemony, while NATO is a force entirely of good and peaceful mechanisms - or at least with logical intentions.

NATO's involvement in Libya was, if we are to believe a lot of the stories revolving in the media around that time, based almost entirely on idealism. It is easier to find criticism of Russian motives. A lot of it is perfectly sensible, but there is a large part that is just lazy peddling of rumors and speculation. It serves to mystify Russia and prevents us from seeing it as what it is - a country with very real motives and very real problems. We don’t need to condone any of their actions - but we need to acknowledge that it is there in order to have a meaningful discussion about our foreign policy.

Keep the debate in the high north sane

As a small country, Norwegian public debate is vulnerable to groupthink - as I mentioned, “consensus” is the be-all and end-all of our debate on security matters. But even in much larger countries, trying to maintain a nuanced position towards Russia can be a difficult task, a task met with suspicion. The result which we are seeing in Norway, and which I am sure you will recognize in other countries as well, is that fairly sensible positions get lumped together with more extreme and conspiratorial takes on world matters, both from the far right and the far left of the political spectrum.

Today, Russia serves as a beacon for a lot of fringe positions, drawn together by the contempt for western political elites and so called globalism and a skeptical view towards the official narrative put forth by what they call the mainstream media. This should concern those elites tasked with keeping the consensus healthy.   

An important job if we are to keep the debate about our neighborhood in the high north sane, is to present news and perspectives about our countries that are not just about military matters and high politics. Civil society and the lives of ordinary people are necessary to keep in mind. There is more to our respective countries than our ability to wage war and cause destruction, and the power centres in Oslo and Moscow need to be reminded of that. The complex reality of the relationship needs to be kept fresh in mind.

We should rethink our current strategy 

One issue, which illustrates this, is the current lack of knowledge here in Norway, but probably also on the other side of the border, about affairs in our own neighborhood. There are currently only two, I repeat – two, correspondents from the larger Norwegian media houses, employed in Russia. All other information Norwegians get from Russia is either by smaller alternative media outlets, or international ones, which rarely try to put events in a northern perspective.

Lack of balanced information is always a source of fear if fear-mongers succeed with their aims. If we are to achieve a better mutual understanding between our two countries, we should definitely aim for a better coverage than we have now. We should expect more – especially by state-funded media outlets.

Judging by what we have heard up till now by other guests, there is no reason to be too pessimistic. We are convinced that the sanctions-regime imposed on Russia is of great hindrance to a healthy and peaceful climate in the High North. These sanctions have their reasons – both Russian and NATO-actions are to blame. The important conclusion is then that we, as Nordic countries, should rethink our current strategy, and consider weighting a stable and cooperative climate in the High North concerning events which took place already years ago. If our goal of a peaceful and open High North is not achieved by dialog, trade and cooperation, then by what?