Day 3 – Side event: Russia, our neighbour in the Arctic

By Hilma Salonen

The Policy part of the conference being over and done with, there was an opportunity to hear how the views of the Science panel compared with the general message of the talks of previous days (to sum up, that ‘the Arctic is a region of peaceful cooperation’) The panelists were Dr. Bobo Lo from Chatham House, Dr. Arkady Moshes from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Dr. Dmitry Tulupov from the School of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University, Dr. Katarzyna Zysk, from Norwegian Defence University College and Dr. Geir Hønneland from Fridtjof Nansen Institute, with Helge Blakkisrud, from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, hosting the event.

AF event_photo

Photo: Hilma Salonen

From the beginning it was clear that unlike in the opening speeches of the conference, optimism would be a rare commodity during these presentations. According to Dr. Lo, Russia and the US or Europe have drifted so far apart from each other that the Russian-American relations are best described as ‘mutually assured non-cooperation’. Even though Moscow’s bullish tactics in the sphere of foreign relations have much deteriorated the country’s international position since 2012, they are likely to continue since the Russian public opinion still considers them as effective. However, for Europe cooperation with Russia remains vital in some issues, including trade, and vice versa. Therefore, Dr. Lo’s message is that Europe needs to both act more determinant regarding its own security issues and settle for small, concrete steps when cooperating in the High North, for example.


The presentation of Dr. Moshes continues logically in the same traces, asking where do Europe and Russia go from this point. Similarly, he describes the European-Russian partnership in the coming years as disintegrated and conflictual. His message is that the crisis in Ukraine and the following sanctions have actually brought upon very little change: these two players have not been on the same page for a long while, and Russia sees Europe as a characteristically weak, un-trustworthy and un-friendly companion. As a way forward, Dr. Moshes introduces the term of ‘compartmentalisation’, also suggesting that cooperation should be concentrated on small, concrete matters such as trade issues. He also calls for the EU to regain its position as a soft power.

Following these views, Dr. Tulupov presents a more concrete example of a problem stemming from the lack of cooperation, in this case from point of view of Russia. In order for Russia to ensure its energy security, it is vital for it to develop the Western part of the Russian Arctic and especially its hydrocarbon sources. Unfortunately for these goals, he states that Russia failed to do so during the ‘friendly period’ of 2003 — 2013. At the moment, Russia is still 80% dependent of orders from its Western energy customers, but not able to develop its own deposits without eg. its Norwegian partners, who have left the scene after the Ukrainian crisis.

The fourth speaker, Dr. Zysk, illustrated what is meant by Russia ‘gearing up’ in the Arctic. The year 2012 is again seen as a watershed: since then, the military build-up in the Russian Arctic has been extensive and new permanent military basis have been built eg. in Murmansk and the Arctic islands. The number of Arctic military exercises has also been increasing. Dr. Zysk puts the possible threats as viewed by Russia into three categories. The first one is regional and simply linked to the increased human activity in the region, and the need to monitor it. The second one is both global and regional and connected to possible competition over energy sources. These two possible threats present the Arctic as a possible source of conflict. The third one, for its part, presents the Arctic as not the source but the arena for conflict and is connected to the use of the nuclear deterrent. Dr. Zysk finishes by stating that despite these matters, the attempts to ‘insulate’ the Arctic region and return to the ‘business as usual’ way of thinking are still strong — however, the region is bound to be linked to various security threats in international politics.

Interestingly, the last speaker, Dr. Hønneland presents an example of Russian-Norwegian cooperation that is based on pragmatism and compromise: the case of the Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission. The history of this cooperation platform has, in his view, been successful and despite some criticism presented in the Russian media, is even likely to remain so. Indeed, it seems clear that in this field, cooperation has potential to be so fruitful that there are serious attempts to ‘protect’ it from political conflicts such as the Ukrainian crisis.

After the presentations, there is a pleasingly lively panel discussion and a lot of interaction with the audience. A firm message is delivered to the EU in its Russian relations, which could be summarised as follows: 1) When cooperating in trade, concentrate on trade, not geopolitics. 2) Commodities need to be de-politisised. 3) Harbour no illusions about a quick fix to the situation!

The event has been very thought-provoking and of this I thank all the participants


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