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.
For Norway, cooperation is in many ways inevitable: Russians are now the largest group of people after Norwegians in Tromsø, for example. 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.
It should be placed even higher on the political agenda – every meeting between good neighbours gets us a step closer to lasting peace and prosperity in the high north.
I want to highlight two things in this piece: some of the ways in which we work together, and the growing trend towards militarisation in the High North, which coincides with other similar developments across Europe – primarily in the Baltics and the former Warsaw pact countries.
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Next year, the Barents cooperation, a programme between Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway, will be 25 years old. It 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.
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.
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.
Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev (2nd from L) and then-Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg meet at the two countries' border in 2013. File photo: Cornelius Poppe/NTB scanpix
There is still work to be done, and we should move faster.
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The largest problem facing us is the militarisation of the High North. By militarisation, I mean -among other things – the “missile shield” which is being planned by Nato.
This 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.
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 defence 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 deterrence.
200 Norwegian troops in the Baltics, and 300 US marines stationed in central Norway do not represent a national threat to Russia’s existence. The point is that these actions are not considered as totally separate and isolated incidents.
A Norwegian F-16 parked in a hangar in Lithuania. File photo: Henrik Skolt/NTB scanpix
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 movement’s, 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-militarisation.
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.
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.
A clear obstacle to this 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.
Norway's prime minister Erna Solberg visits Kiev in November 2014. File photo: Håkon Mosvold Larsen/NTB scanpix
We do not condone Russia’s action in Ukraine and Crimea – on the contrary, they are clear breaches of international law.
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.
Furthermore, the last 20 years has seen a huge increase in Russian military spending and a thorough modernisation of equipment and capacities.
It may be understandable that Russia, as other nations, cares about its own security and wants to lessen the gap between itself and Nato. It would also be sad for all of us if this makes peaceful neighbours insecure, and thus more accepting towards greater military spending on their own part.
But Western policies have also been central in damaging the East-West relations.
The Norwegian Peace Council opposes the stationing of permanent Nato-troops on Norwegian ground. It is also our firm stance that Norway should not join the planned missile defence system, as it would surely provoke a new arms race in the High North.
We believe that Norway should explore the possibilities for more Nordic cooperation in matters concerning security and defence. 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.
Whatever the answer is, a strengthened Nordic cooperation would heighten our defensive capabilities without being projected as unnecessary aggression.
I must also 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.
A lot of this is perfectly sensible, but there is a large part that is just lazy peddling of rumours 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 its actions – but we need to acknowledge that it is there in order to have a meaningful discussion about our foreign policy.
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.
There is no reason to be too pessimistic. But we are convinced that the sanctions 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.
If our goal of a peaceful and open High North is not achieved by dialogue, trade and cooperation, then by what?
Hedda Langemyr is leader of The Norwegian Peace Council. This text is an edited excerpt from her lecture at the Conference “Understanding peace in the Arctic”, at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway, on June 15th 2017.