US Researchers: Look to Norway for Insights on Managing the Relationship with Russia

Inspired by Norwegian clarity, the transatlantic community should draw clear boundaries vis-à-vis Russia and develop reactions against overstepping, among other things, with regard to naval exercises that entail a risk of and obstruction of civilian activity, suggests Michael Petersen. He is a professor and director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute, US Naval War College. (Photo: Astri Edvardsen)

Reykjavik (High North News): "We can obtain better security in the Arctic by looking to Norway," says Michael Peterson, referring to the Norwegian clarity and predictability vis-à-vis Russia. Peterson is a professor at the US Naval War College.

Norsk versjon.

How do we manage risk and relations with Russia in the Arctic?

This question framed a recent seminar under the auspices of the Polar Institute, Wilson Center, during the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland.

"We can achieve better security in the Arctic by looking to Norway, as I see it," says Michael Peterson to High North News.

Peterson is a professor and director at Russia Maritime Studies Institute, US Naval War College. He is also an advisor for the US Navy but clarifies that he is only speaking on his own behalf from a researcher's point of view.

Norway has long emphasized predictability, clarity, and transparency vis-à-vis Russia. This is something Petersen believes the transatlantic community should draw inspiration from.

"Sometimes, there is value in strategic ambiguity, but I don't think that is the case in the Arctic. Being more predictable, clear, and transparent can be the key to strengthening stability in the region," the professor points out.

His colleague at the US Naval College, Assistant Professor Emily Holland, believes that inspiration can also be found in Norway's ability to cooperate to a certain extent with the Russian side in the current situation.

Michael Petersen in a panel discussion with Elana Wilson Rowe (left), researcher at NUPI, and Emily Holland, Assistant Professor at the US Naval War College (third from left). The conversation was led by Rebecca Pincus (far right), director of the Polar Institute, Wilson Center. (Photo: Astri Edvardsen)

Clear lines

"Norway is very clear about what is accepted and what is not from the Russian side. The transatlantic community should also develop clear lines for which Russian activities in the Arctic we will not tolerate – and associated targeted punitive measures for specific violations," says Petersen.

"In the West, we talk a lot about Russia's violations of international law or unacceptable behavior but rarely go into what the specific violations or unacceptable actions are – and what the specific sanctions for these are. Right now, it is unstructured", he considers.

In which areas should the West develop clear positions and possible punitive measures towards Russia, as you see it?

"My primary concern is the operations of Russian naval vessels and the conduct of Russian military exercises in sea areas that are regularly used for civilian purposes, such as cargo shipping and fishing. This is a common tactic on the part of the Russian military. It endangers the safety of civilian seafarers and slows down the movement of goods in what is supposed to be a free and open maritime domain."

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Risky and troubling training activity

Although the Convention on the Law of the Sea does not prohibit military exercises in another state's exclusive economic zone, it includes provisions to protect human life at sea, Petersen points out.

"One must ask, for example, why Russia announces exercise closure areas in waters known to be frequented by Norwegian fishermen when it could very easily announce closure areas elsewhere."

He refers, among other things, to the Russian Northern Fleet's large naval exercise in the Barents Sea in August. Established danger areas for missile tests were located in the north of the Norwegian economic zone and to the south in the fishing protection zone at Svalbard – and the navigational warnings came abruptly on several fishing vessels that stayed there, wrote NRK.

Nordflåtens store øvelse i august 2023
A number of the Northern Fleet's warships, submarines, and support vessels were in action during the large exercise in the Barents Sea in mid-August. (Screenshot from the Russian Ministry of Defense's video from the exercise)

Similar Russian practices also affect American fishermen in the Bering Sea, says Petersen. In 2020, for example, fishing vessels in the US economic zone off the coast of Alaska suddenly received a radio warning of Russian missile firing and were told to get away, the New York Times reported.

Senior researcher Øystein Jensen at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute has also problematized Russian military exercise activity in the Barents Sea with regard to Norwegian fisheries.

"When conducting military exercises, according to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, due consideration must be given to the coastal state's fishing activity. It can thus be questioned whether Russia takes enough account of Norwegian interests, as there are reports of large areas of danger and short notice," Jensen told High North News.

Norway's maritime borders. In the economic zone, Norway has exclusive rights to the economic exploitation of resources. At the same time, other states have freedom of movement in this zone. The fisheries protection zone at Svalbard was established by Norway in 1977. The conservation provisions do not treat Norwegian and foreign fishermen differently. (Illustration: The Norwegian Mapping Authority)

Measures against illegal fisheries

Developing shared clear boundaries and reactions to Russian violations of fishing regulations is also relevant, Petersen believes.

"The protection of fisheries is critical in my eyes. Russian fishing vessels have been responsible for violations of both Norwegian and American fisheries regulations. We in the transatlantic community should draw clear lines around what the punitive measures for such violations will be. For example, the penalty for illegal fishing can be financial sanctions against the Russian fishing industry. Being more proactive than reactive in this context can be very helpful, I think."

"Until recently, Russia's relations with Norway, especially around fisheries protection, have been stable," the professor continues.

He points out that the last incident of illegal Russian fishing in the fisheries protection zone at Svalbard was in 2011. Previous cases were in 1998, 2001, and 2005.

However, Peterson sees a risk of unrest in the Barents Sea in light of Russia's threats to suspend the 2023 and 2024 fisheries agreements with Norway – if new restrictions are introduced to Russian fishing vessels' access to Norwegian ports. 

"I believe that Russian threats to withdraw from the fisheries agreements could increase the possibility of destabilization of the region. While Russia has an economic interest in maintaining the 2024 agreement, the past two years have shown that this is not a country that makes decisions solely on the basis of economic advantage. We should not discount that."

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For discussion

With his proposals, Petersen thus encourages discussions between the western Arctic countries, which he believes can be advantageously conducted both bilaterally and multilateral. 

"Discussions about this can, for example, take place between Norway and the USA or Canada and the USA – and in the EU, NATO or other multilateral formats. They should not be limited to just one framework. After such discussions, a declaratory statement can be issued about which activities will not be tolerated – and what the consequences for violations will be."

"Of course, we can never cover all unwanted activities, and the Russians will find other ways to compete – legal or illegal. But the clearer we can be, the more we can strengthen stability – especially in the Arctic. And that is a critical point," he emphasizes.

"A third relevant area is intrusions by or destruction of subsea infrastructure. Although it can be very difficult to attribute such attacks, I think that the transatlantic community should develop specific punitive measures in this field," the professor points out.

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Too general deterrence

The West also pursues an overly general deterrence of Russia in the Arctic, the professor believes. 

"In recent years, we in the West have also not been very clear about why NATO countries have strengthened their presence in the Arctic region. "We must deter Russia from aggressive activities," it is often said. But what specifically are we supposed to deter the Russians from in the Arctic? Are we seeking to deter them from conducting military exercises in sea routes? From conducting nuclear exercises in high-risk areas? What are the concrete objectives?"

"It is up to policy communities to answer these questions and develop clear guidelines that military leaders can implement. But I think that we should be very specific about what our military presence is about and what it should consist of."

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Specified increased presence

At the US Naval War College, Petersen is researching precisely how deterrence can be specified and lead to more concrete military activities.

"In my eyes, there are good opportunities to improve the way we implement security policy in the Arctic," he says and continues:

"A good example is that we in the USA tend to only send military forces to various places to conduct broad, general deterrence. We send naval vessels to sail with allies, for example, in the Norwegian Sea. We send B-1 strategic bombers to practice with, for example, Norwegian and Swedish fighters."

"It would be interesting to articulate specific purposes for these activities. Russia will quickly interpret bomber operations in its immediate areas as aggressive behavior unless such are linked to concrete Russian illegal actions or overstepping."

With this, however, Petersen is not calling for less allied military presence.

"I believe it is very important for NATO to demonstrate a greater presence in the Arctic. It is perhaps a bit controversial to say as many are concerned about the militarization of the region. I strongly sympathize with such considerations, but this ship has sailed. The Arctic is militarized, and I struggle to remember a time when the region was not."

Amerikansk B-1B Lancer strategisk bombefly
In June, American B-1 strategic bombers and the USS Gerald R. Ford, America's largest aircraft carrier, trained with Norwegian forces in the High North. (Photo: Josiah Brown/US Air Force)

Room for interaction

Norway's way of relating to Russia is also emphasized by Assistant Professor Emily Holland, Petersen's colleague at the US Naval War College.

"Having limited scientific and technical cooperation with Russia should not be ruled out from a Western Arctic perspective. Michael's reference to Norway is very important. Norway is capable of conducting limited cooperation with Russia within very clear frameworks, such as joint fisheries management and cross-border cooperation," says Holland and elaborates:

"Over the past six months, we have seen that Russia is offering less resistance toward China's plans in the Arctic. When we are not working with Russia, we end up completely outside the conversation about how Russia will develop the Northern Sea Route. Not having input into what happens in the Arctic is a big risk in both the short and long term, as I see it. China's plans for the development of the Arctic do not align with many of the West’s interests."

"If we look back to the Cold War, there was some scientific and technical cooperation between West and East even in the worst periods. If we are serious about tackling climate change and regulating shipping in the Arctic, it requires some cooperation with Russia. This is work that is impossible to do without Russian scientific data and dialogue with the Russian side," she points out.

Emily Holland, Assistant Professor at the US Naval War College. (Photo: Arctic Circle)

Steady politics

The Norwegian diplomat Inga Nyhamar confirms on the Arctic Circle that Norway's approach in the north is fixed.

"We do our best to maintain an orderly relationship with Russia. The Arctic is not some distant security theater but our home. A third of Norway lies in the region, and around 483,000 people live there," says Nyhamar and continues:

"You cannot escape from geography – and we have an almost 200-kilometer-long border with Russia. Norwegian High North policy remains the same even in today's tense situation: To maintain and strengthen respect for international law, to be predictable, clear, and visible."

"Perhaps these guidelines, applied over several decades, are more important than ever – be it with regard to violations of fisheries regulations or military activity."

Norwegian diplomat Inga Nyhamar (left) in a panel discussion on security and defense at the Arctic Circle. Here, together with Sweden's Arctic Ambassador Louise Calais (center) and Iris Ferguson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Arctic and Global Resilience. (Photo: Arctic Circle)

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