Norway is re-thinking its Russian relations


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Ulf Sverdrup
Ulf Sverdrup

Dealing with Russia is now among Europe’s most pressing questions. Norway is pondering this from its position inside NATO and close to the EU, for Russia is its very large neighbour both on land and at sea.

What are the Norwegian lessons so far? During the last 15 years, Norway has had a good relationship with Russia. Co-operation has successfully promoted the joint management of fisheries in the Barents Sea and prospective co-operation on Arctic energy. There have been major joint exercises, and formal and informal military communication channels have reduced military tensions and increased safety measures against accidents and misunderstandings. The peak of bi-lateral Norway-Russia co-operation was the 2010 agreement on the maritime limits, signed by Norway’s prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, now NATO’s Secretary General, and Dmitri Medvedev, then Russia’s President. This agreement in essence divided neatly into halves an area of the Barents Sea that both Norway and Russia had claimed for many years.

In general, it seems fair to say that Norway’s overriding interests remain unchanged. Norway wants to continue peaceful co-operation and pursue good governance initiatives relating to shared border areas, and the broader land and marine ecosystems around them. This is the so-called ‘policy of interest-based engagement’. The institutional framework for civilian and environmental co-operation is also unchanged, although several military co-operation forums in the Arctic have now been put on ice.

But in Norway, as elsewhere in Europe, conditions for fruitful co-operation are now changing at the levels of both policy and public opinion. Norway’s previously close co-operation with Russia makes this change appear more radical than in elsewhere, and a number of factors are likely to further influence Norwegian policies.

Many Norwegians had viewed Russia as a modernising and democratising country, even if slowly and with some setbacks. That’s changing, and many see Russians as having endorsed centralisation and authoritarian nationalism. They also believe that Russia now opposes Western values and governance models. A recent Gallup poll suggested that Norwegians are among those most distrustful of Putin, even if some political and media voices still argue for a more nuanced policy towards Russia.

The Ukraine crisis has changed security policy discussions in Norway. The direct effects of the annexation of Crimea and conflict in eastern Ukraine were at first seen as fairly limited, but a year on, uncertainties have grown about keeping the High North as an area of low tension and co-operation.

The gallery of Norwegian actors shaping policy towards Russia has changed. The priority of earlier governments had been driven by the potential of future co-operation in energy, transport, fishing, local development, research and the environment. Now, with the lower oil prices, sanctions and the changing security situation, the prospects for energy co-operation are being reduced, and defence and security policy actors are playing a more prominent role.

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