Were discussions on Russia at the Arctic Frontiers conference balanced?

by Lukas Allemann

This blog entry takes as a starting point two events about Russia at the last Arctic Frontiers conference in order to describe how dichotomies are constructed and one-sidedness sometimes concealed.

At the last Arctic Frontiers conference I visited two side events related to Russia and its policies in the Arctic. For me it was out of question that such a topic would somehow reflect the general current tensions between Russia and the West. However, I was very interested in what way that would happen, especially as I saw quite some Russian names among the participants of these discussion panels.

The first event was called “Russia, our neighbor in the Arctic”, a panel in which some experts were to discuss Russia’s foreign policy in the High North. The second discussion I attended was in the framework of the Open Arctic, a series of side events open not only to conference participants but also to the local population. The panel was called “Barents co-operation: today and tomorrow”, and I attended the armchair talk about nuclear cooperation in the region.

“Russia, our neighbor in the Arctic” featured the experts Bobo Lo, Arkady Moshes, Katarzyna Zysk, Geir Hønneland and Dmitry Tulupov. For me it was no surprise that the discussion quite quickly shifted from the Arctic context to the Ukrainian context. However, the abstract of the event was concluding on a positive note stating: “We look back on 20 years of successful and peaceful cooperation in the Arctic – what is to be expected in the next 20 years?” Considering this, I was surprised how categorical in their dooming views some participants of that discussion were. One could hear statements like: (A) “Things will get worse before they get better”, making responsible for this solely Russia’s bullish stances, or (B) “Russia is not interested in cooperation for its own sake. It has such an interest only if there will be a direct benefit” (both Bobo Lo). The most radical statement was (C) that if the Central European counties were not NATO members the conflict between the West and Russia would probably not take place in Ukraine but in Poland, and it may be armed (Arkady Moshes).


Panel discussion “Russia, our neighbor in the Arctic” with Geir Hønneland, Arkady Moshes, Katarzyna Zysk, Dmitry Tulupov and Bobo Lo (Photo: Pernille Ingebrigtsen/Arctic Frontiers 2016)

Just a short comment on these statements. Statement A ignores that in Eastern Europe during the last 25 years there has been at least one other bullish actor, the USA, influencing politics through all kinds of foundations (Ukraine is no exception) and dominating the NATO in Europe (note that as a rule the supreme NATO commander in Europe is always an American citizen). Statement B puts an obvious principle of foreign politics of all big powers as if it was something peculiar to Russian politics. And statement C is such a blatant speculation that I was outraged to hear it in a supposedly academic discussion.

Although I personally do not agree with the described stances and “it is crucial to refuse all reductionist diagnoses of the current situation” (Yurchak 2014, an article worth reading about the Ukraine crisis, written by the well-known Russian-American social anthropologist Alexei Yurchak), my main point here is not to contest such views. Rather I would like to point out that, although some statements were extremely polemic and at the same time superficial, there were no voices in the panels contesting such views, or they were too weak to be heard. At the end of the panel discussion “Russia, our neighbor in the Arctic”, when we were walking out of the lecture hall, I was talking to some colleagues and we were wondering who were actually these people in the panel, some having Russian sounding names, who were giving so pejorative one-sided characterization of the situation. We didn’t pursue that question anymore because, as usual in such conferences, the programe was very tight, meaning that there is a huge amount of information to be absorbed but no time to properly process it. The question later came back to my mind, and I wanted to investigate more exactly the backgrounds of the participants of that panel which at a first glance looked quite balanced in its composition. After some research I compiled the following table:

Name Affiliation Background (based on CV)
Katarzyna Zysk Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies Norwegian Armed Forces; NATO
Bobo Lo Chatham House Think Tank Organizations promoting Atlanticism
Arkady Moshes Finnish Institute of International Affairs, till 2015: Chatham House Organisations promoting Atlanticism
Geir Hønneland Fridtjof Nansen Institute rather independent
Dmitry Tulupov Russian International Affairs Council; St. Petersburg State University Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ministry of Education and Science

The analysis of the backgrounds of the panelists reveals that, if we accept that we are living in times of a deep split between Russia and the West (and that is the main message the panelists were conveying), this split was not represented in a quantitatively balanced way. The only person representing the Russian perspective was Dmitry Tulupov. He was not only quantitatively inferior, but, with his quiet manner and his statements not going beyond the Arctic context, he was too academic to drown out the heightened rhetoric of the atlanticists in the panel.

The more regionally oriented armchair discussion on nuclear security in the Barents Region revealed a similar pattern, at least in quantitative terms: One representative of the Russian standpoint against four representatives of the Nordic perspective, as you can see in the following table.

Johnny Almestad Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Per Strand Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority
Nils Bøhmer Bellona
Timme Ellingsjord Nature and Youth
Gennady Matishov Murmansk Marine Biological Institute

However, in this discussion, the Russian viewpoint couldn’t be taken seriously enough not because it was too silent but too loud. Matishov, probably both due to his personality and due to the fact that he felt insecure in his “minority status”, started shouting around, being too bold and irrational in his reasoning, causing some embarrassment among the audience and the organizers and thus losing credibility.


A Soviet propaganda poster about American presence in Europe stating “Phrases and… bases”; from Scott Thoe’s presentation during the Young Scientist Forum PhD seminar. Photo: Lukas Allemann

All in all, both panels gave me the impression that the organizers of the Arctic Frontiers conference did not take enough care about creating a platform of true exchange of opinions on equal terms, and thus missed their goal of being a truly cosmopolitan conference. They rather repeated the behavior of most mainstream media, which, when it comes to discussing the relationship between the West and Russia, do not rely on a broad enough range of experts. They rather seek advice from a limited pool of specialists from the “regular go-to places … when seeking expert opinion and analysis”, as Crosston (2015) fittingly put it. I conclude my blog entry with a strong recommendation to take your time and read Crosston’s sharp-minded meta-analysis of Russian-Western relationship analyses. You will certainly look with more critical eyes on information you will be served by well-established experts in discussion panels and newspaper articles about Russia and the West. In addition, I would like to thank the organizers of the Young Scientists Forum PhD seminar for not repeating the mistakes of the Arctic Frontiers organizers. The seminar was not at all about mainstream thinking, but through its unique kaleidoscope of presenters and participants it encouraged us all to look beyond our disciplines, and beyond our cultures. In the context of the problems between the West and Russia I especially appreciated Scott Thoe’s presentation, in which he encouraged us with the help of art to see in “the Russians” smart and rational, ingenious and quick-witted people and not only gloomy and menacing statesmen suffering from an inferiority complex, as suggested by certain scholars.


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