Arne O. Holm says Sanctioning Friendship Is a Bad Idea

Gunnar Wilhelmsen
Tromsø municipality and Mayor Gunnar Wilhelmsen (Labor) encourage breaking friendship agreements with Russian cities and municipalities. (Photo: Ellen Victoria Jenssen)

(Commentary) Putting friendship with the Russian people on the list of sanctions against Russia is both naïve and short-sighted. Instead, friendship agreements between Norwegian and Russian cities should be used to show that we, as democracies, are capable of distinguishing between the despot Vladimir Putin and his people.

Tromsø Municipality in Northern Norway has, almost without discussion, decided to break its friendship agreements with three Russian cities. They do it, says Mayor Gunnar Wilhelmsen, to mark the gravity of the situation. At the same time, he encourages other Northern Norwegian cities to do the same.

While the collective Western sanctions against Russia has the overarching aim of affecting the regime, Northern Norwegian municipalities are stepping forward to mark their distance to what is first and foremost people-to-people cooperation between Norway and Russia.

Meant to affect the regime

There is obviously an honest and fair need to demonstrate distance to Russia and to support the Ukrainian people behind the break between Tromsø municipality and their former friends in Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, and Nadym.

However, before more Northern Norwegian municipalities are inspired by Tromsø, they should look at how the Western sanctions regime is trying to distinguish between the people in power and the Russian people. 

The cooperation between educational and cultural institutions is sanctioned, but the cooperation between researchers and artists is maintained. There is a clear divide that allows us to support Russian oppositionists while simultaneously giving us the opportunity, as democracies, to argue for our values in the meeting with a censored and nationalist reality on the other side of the border. 

How to best assert our values?

The nuances, if you will, also contribute to maintaining the dignity and integrity of Russians settled outside of Russia, such as in Norway. Conversely, the stigmatization of Russians as a people will contribute to validating Vladimir Putin’s narrative of a West that hates the Russian people.

Demanding exercise

It is a difficult and demanding exercise because such a view is to be combined with massive and unwavering support for the Ukrainian people, both personally, but also through sanctions and with the help of weapons. 

One of the most tired narratives of Northern Norwegians after Russia’s attack on Ukraine is the narrative of our naivety. It is repeated in the discussion of memorials. It is utilized when alleged spies are arrested in Tromsø, when ports are being closed, or, as now, when our friendship cities in Russia are to be dealt with.

We should be allowed to turn the claim back around.

We must stand in that discussion, including when it is being told by people filled with the clarity of hindsight. 

However, we should be allowed to turn the claim back around, when breaking friendship agreements with the Russian people is showcased as an example of us finally realizing the gravity of Putin’s brutal regime.

The friendship agreements between Norwegians and Russians were put on hold already in 2014. There, the agreement sat comfortably, also as a political demonstration. It is naïve to think that retrieving them from the freezer to throw them out with the garbage will make an impression on Putin.

 A censored and nationalist reality.

Open channels

Perhaps the friendship agreements instead could be used as a channel to succinctly express our resistance to the war and our support for what exists of visible and invisible opposition to the regime, a regime in which the most important goal is to remove its people’s access to correct information about the war. 

Every municipality is of course free to choose sanctions that are different or go further than the national restrictions. However, in line with our democratic ideals, they should come as a result of thorough discussions about how best to assert our values into an increasingly isolated dictatorship.

Not least because Norway will still share a border with Russia the day the war ends.

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This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.