"Security Interests Trump Several Important Considerations, Such As Cooperation On Environmental Challenges"

Julie Wilhelmsen ved Nupi
Senior Researcher Julie Wilhelmsen from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (Nupi) during the Kirkenes Conference 2023. (Photo: Hilde Bye/High North News)

Kirkenes: Russia has changed its Arctic policy and is now putting less emphasis on cooperation with other states in the region. "The disconnect is happening from both sides and is perhaps necessary at the moment. However, the risk of undermining own interests and future cooperation is great if disconnect becomes the vision for relations in the Barents area long-term," says Nupi researcher.

"Ever since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, one has feared that the tension that has affected the relationship between Russia and the West would move upwards to the Arctic. It did do so gradually and the development seems to be moving towards total disconnect after Russia invaded Ukraine."

That is pointed out by Senior Researcher Julie Wilhelsem at Nupi when High North News meets her during the Kirkenes Conference.

In the time after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, it was generally possible to keep issues around Ukraine at arm's length from the interaction in the Arctic region, and thereby maintain the Barents cooperation and interaction within the Arctic Council. However, the divide between the two spheres has more or less been blurred out after the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine in 2022; the main theme is that security interests and distrust have taken over.

"Now we clearly see that the disconnect is taking place from both sides. From the Western side, there is good reason to continue this disconnection. We must, however, acknowledge that there is no longer a distinction between Ukraine and the Arctic. Security interests trump almost all other considerations, such as the very important cooperation on environmental challenges that will be necessary."

Changes in Russian Arctic policy

Earlier in February, Kreml announced that Russia has revised its Arctic policy in which they emphasize the need to prioritize Russian Arctic interests.

As High North News has previously reported, the updated document places greater emphasis on Russian national interests in the region, on Russian self-reliance, and also removes specific mentions of the frameworks for multilateral regional cooperation formats, such as the Arctic Council.

While the original policy, published in March 2020, called for the “strengthening of good neighborly relations with the Arctic states” in the fields of economic, scientific, cultural and cross-border cooperation the amended version removes the above section and instead calls for the “development of relations with foreign states on a bilateral basis, […] taking into account the national interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic.”

Julie Wilhelmsen at Nupi says it is hard to judge whether the changes in the strategy is a response to the US' recent statements that it has become impossible to cooperate with Russia in the Arctic.

"Russia's need to exploit and use the Arctic as its own personal treasure trove is not a new strategy. That Russia wants to utilize more resources in the Arctic in order to serve its own national interests has been in the cards for a long time. Kreml has also signalized that Russia will focus more on self-reliance."

Does this mean that Russia is moving more towards China when it comes to Arctic issues and cooperation?

"After the outbreak of the war, Russia has cooperated more closely with China and is exporting more there, among other things. Yet I believe that when it comes to the Arctic, we will see a combination of Russia holding the door open for China, while also making sure they do not let China too far into the region. The interesting thing in the Arctic document is that this is about Russia's national interests. China's interests are not necessarily Russia's national interests," she points out.

"We need to have a debate"

During the Kirkenes Conference, Wilhelmsen emphasized in her presentation that it is necessary to have a debate about whether it will be possible to cooperate with Russia again and in which fields.

What leeway do the small Arctic states have now, who do not want great power rivalry to dominate everything, to protect some areas in which limited pragmatic cooperation can be achieved, asks the senior researcher.

"A question that must be asked going forward, especially if this is a war that draws out, or ends with an outcome we highly disagree with, is how long the strategy of isolating and cutting off all cooperation with Russia should remain, and when the cooperation, for example on environmental issues, will be resumed."

"The deafening consensus that I see emerging now is not useful," she said.

Wilhelmsen believes that it is dangerous that security interests may come to trump many important considerations, even in areas where there has been prior pragmatic cooperation.

"Disconnect might be necessary at the moment and will most likely last, but it cannot be a desired future condition. The risk of undermining own interests, good values, and future Barents cooperation, is great if the disconnect is the vision for relations in the Barents region and with Russia long-term. I believe that it is necessary to make cooperation work in specific fields, even in this time of war. People must be rescued from the sea and some of the fishery cooperation should continue," she pointed out.

At the conference, Norwegian Chief of Defense Eirik Kristoffersen pointed to areas in which dialogue is continued with Russia in order to avoid misunderstanding and curb escalation.

"We still keep an open line between the Northern Fleet and the Norwegian Joint Headquarters. We continue the meetings between the countries' border guards and the search and rescue cooperation. We do this to ensure that people at sea are as safe as possible. These things work and the meetings we have had with Russia have been professional, also after the invasion," said Kristoffersen.

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