Reviews Russia, Norway and the Arctic. Challenges to security policies

Geir Hønneland, Russia and the Arctic. Environment, Identity and Security political challenges. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016, 205 pages; Tormod Heier og Anders Kjølberg (red.). Norge og Russland. Sikkerhets-politiske utfordringer i nordom-rådene. [Norway and Russia. Security Polices in the Northern Areas], Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2015, 208 pages.

Published on on November 10, 2017

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Even if it is rarely mentioned on these pages, the Arctic region, especially the part called the Barents region, certainly belongs to the “Baltic worlds” and has many connections with the Baltic Sea region.1 Needless to say, the former influences the climate and weather in the latter region. Most Nordic states and Russia are part of both regions, and all are members of the Council of Baltic Sea States (CBSS), the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC) and the Arctic Council with their overlapping agendas.2 While, for example, Sweden mainly faces the Baltic Sea region, Norway is more concerned with the Barents Sea and its border with Russia. It is therefore only natural that Norwegians and Norwegian institutes are among the most prominent in research concerning that region. This is amply shown by the two books at hand.

Hønneland is director of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo and author of several books on Russia, Norway and the Arctic, with special focus on fishing issues. This book, which he has long wished to write, presents a wide range of theories on narrative, identity and foreign policy, whereas environment as mentioned in the book title is less evident.3 It partly builds on previously-used material, Russian newspapers, official statements and personal interviews from the 2000s.

Mostly relying on the renowned British historian E.H. Carr’s Time, Narrative and History (1986), Hønneland sees narratives (stories), a sub-category of discourse, as constituting identities, but also entailing certain actions. He refers to the Swedish historian Erik Ringmar, who argues that stories of selves are preconditions for stories about interests and that recognition is important for one’s identity. In the narratives, Ringmar discerns four types of ‘plot’ derived from literature, namely romance, where a hero saves the world, tragedy, where the hero is defeated, comedy, where the twists of fate find a happy ending, and satire, which takes an ironic distance.4 Hønneland applies these to Russian views on four interrelated policy issues: the scramble for the Arctic, the Barents Sea delimitation, management of marine resources and regional identity building.

After reviewing Western International relation research on the Arctic since the 1980s, Hønneland starts with an overview of literature on Russian identity and foreign policy as it has evolved — from Westernism and Slavophilism in the 19th century (as analyzed by Iver B. Neumann) and anti-Western Communism, to Atlanticism under Gorbachev/ Yeltsin and great power statism with a Eurasian bent under Putin5 (A. Tsygankov). The ‘North’ (including Siberia!) was viewed as the land of freedom and bounty or, by some, as a prison. Russia came to identify itself more and more with the North, considering winter as the most Russian time of the year. The Soviets saw the North as a great resource; Solzhenitsyn saw it as Russia’s salvation. Latter-day nationalists regard the Arctic as a compensation for the hegemony lost with the demise of the Soviet Union. Russia is associated with boundless space, a wide soul and disdain of a plain, dull life.6

In the chapter on the scramble for the Arctic, which was regulated through the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)7, Hønneland analyzes the Russian race to the North Pole, the planting of the Russian flag there in 2007, and the Russian debate in the following years. The government press above all presents the Arctic as a Russian domain, which it peacefully guards, whereas Canada, which also has an Arctic identity, is singled out as the main villain in militarizing the region (!). (Canada in fact opposed NATO activities in the Arctic.8) But Hønneland also extensively quotes and analyzes an article in a liberal newspaper that openly ridiculed the Russian claims and efforts in the Arctic as bluff and pretense. The dominant plot structure lies between romance, where the hero fights to save the Arctic for itself, and tragedy, where the West is looming. But he also finds satire in tales about Russia’s never-failing ability to ruin everything that is good.


The chapter on the delimitation of the Barents Sea between Russia and Norway presents the long negotiations on fishing rights, the median line, and Svalbard, which led to the famous compromise in 2010, as well as the concomitant discussion. Hønneland shows that the agreement was opposed and delayed by the former Soviet deputy fisheries minister V. Zilanov, the fishing industry, and the Murmansk Duma. It was argued that the Russian delegation, implicitly President Medvedev, had forfeited historic rights and was letting Norway squeeze out the Russian fishermen from rich waters (although the opposite was true). However, on the day the deal was announced, the Murmansk governor Yevdokimov wrote that the Barents Sea in fact was Russia’s and Norway’s common ‘kitchen garden’, adding that Norway could offer Russia advanced extraction technology on the shelf. After pressure from Moscow, the Murmansk Duma soon changed its mind and instead praised the agreement as a platform for cooperation. According to Hønneland, Zilanov saw Russia as a tragic hero, who lost the fight against shrewd Westerners, thus with more internal ‘othering’ than of blame on others. The winning side instead saw a comedy/satire, where misunderstandings are cleared up and everything is fine.

A related chapter deals with the disputes over how to manage the rich common fish stocks in the Barents Sea and Norway’s fishery protection zone around Svalbard, disputes that resulted in incidents in the 2000s but were largely resolved in good faith. On this topic, Hønneland finds two related forms of Russian identity, both resulting in tragedy. This stems either from perceived Western malice or from Russia’s eternal inability to maintain order, or both. The Norwegian side is depicted either as crafty Vikings aiming to break Russia’s neck on NATO’s behalf, or as a civilized country, safeguarding the fish stocks in a manner beyond Russian comprehension. Here Hønneland also finds an element of comedy.


The next chapter on region building and identity formation contains in-depth interviews conducted several years ago with Kola inhabitants, showing that they see themselves as different from both weak southern Russians and soulless, affluent Scandinavians. However, when it comes to environmental protection they trust the latter more than Russian authorities. Here Hønneland discerns a mix of comedy and satire. On the institutional level, he presents the Norwegian initiative to form a common Barents region and council with Russia, building on the tradition of Pomor trade along the coast, ideas that first met some response in the Russian Arctic. However, the Pomor concept was soon discarded as a Norwegian-American trick to destroy the Russian ethnos. Ivan Moiseev, director of a Pomor institute in Arkhangelsk, was accused and found guilty of inciting hatred in 2013.9 Here Hønneland finds a NATO-inspired tragedy with some satire.

From these four cases, Hønneland concludes that tragedy is the most forceful narrative, while romance, comedy and satire are less prevalent. In all cases, Russia defines itself in relation to the West and NATO, but this can be modified and differentiated with Norway being seen as rather friendly and Canada as more aggressive. There is also internal ‘othering’ in the blame put on Moscow, past mistakes and general Russian incompetence with ‘fools and bad roads’. In Hønneland’s view, Russia in the Arctic has so far opted for openness to the world, accommodation with Norway, and adherence to international law as advocated by the Foreign Ministry.

However, the scales can easily tip. Hønneland notices that the power structures have been rewarded by more investments in the Arctic and that a Ukrainian crisis started in 2014. Narratives can change, they do not offer a full explanation of foreign policy behavior and they need to be complemented by a study of internal power struggles. Indeed, since Putin’s re-election in 2012 Russia has become more repressive, nationalistic and anti-Western, and the militarization of the Russian Arctic has intensified. Russia has tested the limits of Norwegian sovereignty on Svalbard with visits by a sanctions-listed minister and military units en route to exercises near the Pole. Tragic, self-critical and satirical views on Russian identity and foreign policy vis-à-vis the West are probably yielding ground to stories about Russia as a hero.

Hønneland’s sophisticated and theory-oriented, yet very informative, book is well supplemented by Heier & Kjølberg’s more empirical anthology. This looks at Russia from a Norwegian security perspective, written as it is mostly by researchers and officers at the Defence Research Institute (FFI) and other military institutions. It is also more up-to-date, even though it was published slightly earlier, and it provides special chapters on external events and internal Norwegian conditions.

In the introduction, the editors pose the question of which security political challenges (N.B. not threats) Norway is facing in view of Russia’s military actions in Ukraine. True, Russia is no longer a superpower and inferior to NATO, but it opposes the Western conception of a world order built on common liberal values, instead proposing spheres of interest and Westphalian state sovereignty. It has taken surprising military steps to achieve its goals. Russia can now be seen as a revisionist state aiming to restore its former status.10 The country is particularly interested in the Arctic because of its economic potential, and it has considerably boosted its military power since the 2000s.

In the first chapter on Norwegian-Russian relations in the High North (as Norwegians call their Arctic neighborhood), Anders Kjølberg observes that for 600 years Russia has never fought a war with Norway (unlike, for example, Sweden) but on the contrary helped to liberate Finnmark from Nazi troops in 1944. True, Soviet leaders soon raised demands concerning Svalbard and later Sovietized Eastern Europe, as a reaction to which Norway joined NATO in 1949. But Norway also adopted a dual policy of ‘deterrence and reassurance’ (avskrekking og beroligelse) (J.J. Holst) vis-à-vis Russia, as well as ‘integration and screening’ (R. Tamnes) with regard to NATO, which meant self-defined limitations concerning NATO bases, nuclear weapons and exercises in Norway.11 After the Cold War, the restrictions on NATO exercises were relaxed, but military contacts with Russia were also established. After Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, it is now the Baltic states and Finnmark that need reassurance by NATO, according to Kjølberg.

In a historical survey of how Russia views the West, the second editor Tormod Heier notes that even though Russia was one of the dominant European powers in the 19th century, the Tsars that feared the West would undermine their autocratic regime and saw Russia as the guardian of the true Europe — just like today. The Communist regime also saw Russia as a champion for Europe, but a proletarian one.12 Heier rightly sees a Westernizing trend under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but considers the August coup in 1991 as the start of Russian national patriotism rather than a Soviet backlash. Moreover, Yeltsin’s 1993 constitution is called a step away from liberal values on account of the strong powers accorded to the president. In Putin’s presidencies, Heier views a return to the old Russian spiritual tradition, where stability is more important than democracy. He seems to agree with D. Trenin’s and A.Tsygankov’s views that this development is also a result of Western disrespect for Russian security interests as manifested by NATO enlargement, support for revolutions in, for example, Ukraine and its interventions in Kosovo and elsewhere.13 Heier ends with the strange question of whether a too liberal interpretation of democratic values might not lead to dissolution of the state and Western hegemony in Russian society.


Geir Hønneland and Anne-Kristin Jørgensen then step in to analyze the compromise culture that has prevailed in Russian-Norwegian fishery relations since the 1970s despite changing political ups-and-downs, including the Ukraine crisis. There is a standing joint commission, the 2010 delimitation deal was a compromise, and Russia too needs to avoid overfishing.

Turning then to the chapters on factors external to the strictly bilateral relations, Katarzyna Zysk scrutinizes Russia’s military assets in the Arctic and their development in recent years despite economic stagnation. She identifies three types of threats as seen in Russia, including threats from the USA, threats to Russia’s economic interests in the Arctic, and non-military threats to its transport lanes, for instance, US claims that the Northern Sea Route should be internationalized.

Further, Tor Bukvoll and Kristian Åtland examine Russia’s wars in Georgia and Ukraine and their consequences and lessons for Norway, concluding that NATO membership is a key factor. Jo G. Gade and Paal Sigurd Hilde examine NATO’s policy in the High North and its growing importance. Finally, four chapters on internal factors in Norway describe Norway’s military posture and interests in the Far North.

In the concluding remarks, the editors note that NATO has become more important for Norway in recent years. They highlight the risk that a more nationalist Russia might want to revise agreements with Norway in order to strengthen its legitimacy and avert attention from domestic problems. US foreign policy is said to be so ideological that a change to a more pro-Russian policy is unlikely. However, after the book was published, the election of Donald Trump as US President for a time raised that possibility, which was probably promoted and then hailed by Russia. Indeed, things change.

Clearly, Hønneland’s book and Heier & Kjølberg’s anthology offer a lot of factual information and theoretical insights concerning Russian-Norwegian relations in the Arctic from different perspectives, which sometimes overlap. They show that the topics and the region are important and worthy of scholarly study also in the neighboring Baltic Sea states. ≈



The Arctic is here loosely defined as the area north of the Polar Circle, and the Barents region is defined as the area around the Barents Sea, including Svalbard. See also Thomas Lundén, “Cross-over contacts in the subarctic peripheries”, Baltic Worlds, no. 4, 2016, 95—96.

Ingmar Oldberg, ”Rysslands roll i Östersjörådet, Barentsrådet och Arktiska rådet” [Russia’s role in the Council of Baltic Sea states, the Barents and Artic councils], Nordisk Østforum no. 1, 2014, 9—20.

Environment is the focus of discourse analysis in Hönneland’s Russia and the West. Environmental cooperation and conflict (London and New York: Routledge, 2003).

Erik Ringmar, “Intertextual relations: The quarrel over the Iraq war as conflict between narrative types”, Cooperation and Conflict, no. 41 (2006) 403—421.

Iver B. Neumann, Russia and the Idea of Europe. A Study in Identity and International relations, London: Routledge, 1995, Andrei P. Tsygankov, Russia’s Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

Here references are made e.g., to Elena Hellberg-Hirn, Soil and Soul. The Symbolic World of Russianness (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998).

According to UNCLOS, economic zones may only reach 200 nautical miles from the shoreline, but claims on continental shelves of another 150 nautical miles based on geological evidence may be presented to a UN commission of experts. These, however, only give a judgment for the states to negotiate on.

See Gade and Hilde, p. 99 in Heier & Kjölberg (red.) as reviewed here, and Niklas Granholm, Delar av ett nytt Arktis [Parts of a new Arctic] (Stockholm: Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut, 2009) 31 ff.

Moiseev turned to the European Court of Human Rights, apparently to no avail so far.

See also my paper “Is Russia a status quo power?” UI Papers no. 1, 2016 (Stockholm: Swedish Institute of International Affairs).

Johan J. Holst, Norsk sikkerhetspolitikk i strategisk perspektiv [Norwegian Security Policy in a Strategic Perspective] (Oslo:NUPI, 1967), Rolf Tamnes, Integration and Screening — The Two Faces of Norwegian Alliance Policy, 1945—1986 (Oslo: FFI, 1987).

Heier here refers to Neumann (1996) op.cit.

Tsygankov, op.cit, Dmitrii Trenin, “Russia Leaves the West” Foreign Affairs, no. 4, 2006, 87.


  • by Ingmar Oldberg

    Research associate at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) since 2009, member of its Russia and Eurasia programme, formerly Deputy Director of Research at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).

  • all contributors

Geir Hønneland, Russia and the Arctic. Environment, Identity and Security political challenges. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016, 205 pages; Tormod Heier og Anders Kjølberg (red.). Norge og Russland. Sikkerhets-politiske utfordringer i nordom-rådene. [Norway and Russia. Security Polices in the Northern Areas], Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2015, 208 pages.