Russia Should Be Invited Back to Arctic Security Forums, New Report Suggests

Russian and Norwegian vessels during the Pomor 2012 exercise. Military cooperation with Russia was halted in 2014. (Photo: The Norwegian Armed Forces)

“When 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," says former Chief of the Royal Norwegian Navy, Lars Saunes. In a report from the U.S. Naval War College, he looks at measures to improve security dialogue in the High North.

Professor og Distinguished International Fellow Lars Saunes ved U.S. Naval War College. Kontreadmiralen var sjef for Sjøforsvaret fra 2014 til 2017. 
Lars Saunes is Professor and Distinguished International Fellow at the U.S. Naval War College, where he is also the Co-Lead for Newport Arctic Scholars Initiative. The retired Rear Admiral was Chief of the Royal Norwegian Navy from 2014 to 2017. (Photo: U.S. Naval War College).

“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 U.S. Naval War College says in an interview with High North News.

Russia is strengthening its military capacity in the Arctic. Allied warships and planes operate further north than in many years. The Arctic is increasingly characterized by military buildup and presence, amongst others as a manifestation of great power competition between the USA and Russia.

At the same time, the security dialogue and cooperation between the West and Russia in the region is limited.

“Previously, it was very important to maintain a good security policy dialogue through the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Forum and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, as well as there being a dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council. However, one hardly sees any dialogue on these levels anymore”, Saunes says.

Limited security dialogue

Together with Associate Professor Walter Berbrick at the U.S. Naval War College, Saunes has published a report which looks into conflict prevention and existing frameworks for security cooperation in the Arctic.

The report from the Newport Arctic Scholars Initiative builds on contributions from several national security scholars and brings a series of recommendations about reinforcing and restoring multilateral frameworks. 

The entire document can be accessed here.

There is consensus that NATO is not the appropriate venue for leading security dialogue and cooperation that is lacking in the Arctic. Pursuing an increased political role for NATO in the Arctic would most likely nurture Russian distrust and reinforce existing Russian perceptions about NATO’s expansion and encirclement, they write.

The authors of the report rather suggest that meetings with Russia through the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Forum should be restarted. The annual meetings allow the top Arctic military leaders to call for discussions regarding security-related topics that intersects Arctic issues.

“The forum offers an opportunity for dialogue to help prevent misunderstandings and unintended security escalation,” they write. The meetings are currently suspended following military-to-military cooperation with Russia being halted in 2014.

According to the report, a reconvening of the forum would be a mechanism Arctic states could use to re-open dialogue on the strategic-military level, increase transparency and build trust to militgate security challenges stemming from misperceptions or misunderstandings.

As recently reported by High North News, the Russian Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Nikolay Korchunov wants to resume meetings between Chiefs of Defense in the Arctic.

“Russia supports resuming the annual meetings of the Chiefs of the Armed Forces in the Arctic states in order to prevent deterioration of the military policy situation in the Arctic. That would be an effective measure to build trust and security in the region”, says the Ambassador for the Arctic.

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May promote increased Arctic security

The report further recommends updating the membership of the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable. The American initiative provides space for discussing relevant Arctic security issues between regional stakeholders, however, Western sanctions against Russia exclude Russian participation.

“In order to facilitate a comprehensive approach toward regional security, the ASFR should consider re-inviting Russia to its annual meetings”, the report reads.

The report points out that these actions “will require strong political will and an exemption from current sanctions policy, an admittedly difficult task based on the frozen state of Western and Russian diplomacy. However, doing so might foster greater Arctic security”.

The security dynamics and at the same time limited security dialogue with Russia in the Arctic matters a great deal for Norway as a coastal state.  
Lars Saunes, Professor at the U.S. Naval War College and former Chief of Royal Norwegian Navy

Russian perspectives important

The researchers further argue that the US government, working through the Navy and the U.S. Naval War College, should invite the Russian Federation Navy and Coast Guard to the U.S. Naval War College International Seapower Symposium (ISS). The ISS is one of the largest and most influential maritime leadership forums inviting leaders from several countries’ navies and coast guards to cooperate on joint maritime security issues.

The Russian Navy has not attended the three latest ISS meetings as a consequence of regulations preventing a Russian invitation and participation in collaborative security forums and events like the ISS, following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, according to the report.

“Given the importance of dialogue and transparency, the U.S. Naval War College should request a policy waiver to allow an invitation to be extended to the Head of the Russian Federation Navy. Russian attendance at ISS would allow for more robust maritime security discussions, more transparency, and potential cooperation within the Arctic region. It would also allow the opportunity for all Arctic nations to meet and collaborate with non-Arctic maritime leaders on Arctic issues,” the researchers write.

According to the report, the Russian Federation Navy and leading Russian Arctic academics should also be invited to the Newport Arctic Scholars Initiative.

“Russian perspectives are critical to any Arctic discussions. Russian attendance at NASI would allow for the broadest view of Arctic security issues, including research, dialogue, publication, and recommendation opportunities to shape senior governmental and military officials’ thinking on Arctic policies”, they add.

Great power politics and hard security issues are not part of the mandate of the Arctic Council. Pictured here; Sergey Lavrov and Mike Pompeo, Foreign Ministers of Russia and the USA, respectively, at the time, during the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland in 2019. (Photo: Siri Gulliksen Tømmerbakke).

Important for Norway

Read Admiral Saunes at the U.S. Naval War College argues that it will be important to see if the new US administration is politically willing to achieve a better and more open security policy dialogue in the Arctic in order to reduce the security dilemma.

Do you see any opportunities for better security policy dialogue with Russia with the new Biden administration?

“Hard to tell. Given the current security policy situation in Europe there is, on the one hand, both in the USA and in Europe an interest in maintaining pressure on Russia following the Ukraine conflict. On the other hand, this pressure leads to Russia’s having limitations with regards to security policy dialogue in the High North.”

“In the short term, it is hard to envision a radical change in existing policies. In a longer-term perspective, this may be possible. Even during the Cold War, it was possible to have dialogue, and I believe Arctic states would consider it important. Norway has been a proponent for dialogue rather than confrontation, as that is something that would serve Norway and its wishes. Security dynamics and the simultaneously limited security dialogue with Russia in the Arctic matters a great deal for Norway as a coastal state in the region”, Saunes says in closing.

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