Nordic Dilemma – balancing between independence and security
The hallmark of the Nordic countries’ approach to conflict is the pursuit of a diplomatic solution while upholding their own interests and security needs. However, escalating military tensions and geopolitical rivalries necessitate military guarantees to ensure security and sovereignty. This recognition compels the Nordic countries to seek proactive measures that can address immediate challenges, safeguard their own independence and bolster their position in an increasingly uncertain world.
Formidable Shield 2023 is an allied naval exercise scheduled to take place from May 8th to May 12th in the waters near Andøya, Northern Norway. The naval exercise will be led by the US Sixth Fleet in cooperation with NATO. Participation in these joint maneuvers demonstrates the commitment of the Nordic countries and their allies to maintain a strong defense posture in the region and aims to strengthen cooperation and situational awareness among the participating nations. The Nordic countries are actively engaging in various broad initiatives, exercises, and forums to enhance their defense capabilities, promote regional stability, and safeguard their interests in the Arctic. These collaborative efforts and partnerships among Nordic countries and their allies exist in the face of on-going geopolitical tensions and challenges.
Norway and Russia share a 198-kilometer-long border above the polar circle, located in the Finnmark region. Approximately two-thirds of this border follows rivers and waterways. Despite traditional political tensions, Norway and Russia have managed to cooperate regarding border management, fishery management, and search and rescue operations.
However, the presence of Russian strategic bombers identified by the Norwegian Air Force near the Finnmark region highlights the complex security environment in the High North. Norway recognizes the need to continuously surveil Russia’s activities in the Arctic and in particular to protect the development of their underwater structures in the region. Allied navies aid the Norwegians in this task. There is broad agreement among the Nordic countries and their allies that the need to maintain situational awareness underscores the importance of their cooperation and coordination.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg stated that aside from traditional threats, Norway closely monitors intelligence and hybrid threats. For example, the Norwegian government recently expelled 15 individuals from the Russian Embassy in Norway who were suspected of operating as intelligence officers under diplomatic cover. Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stated that these individuals were not genuine diplomats.
Moreover, the progress made in the construction and commissioning of projects like Novatek’s Arctic LNG 2 project showcases the economic and energy-related dimensions of cooperation in the region. In the wake of the war in Ukraine, economic sanctions, changing partnerships, and procurement challenges have impacted the project, indicating the hurdles to cooperation efforts.
In the near future, Norway will replace Russia as chair of the Arctic Council. It is likely that Norway will use this opportunity to keep the diplomatic track alive and demonstrate its overall commitment to cooperation in the Arctic. Despite tensions with Russia, Norway acknowledges the importance of involving Russia in Arctic cooperation, particularly in areas such as climate and environmental data.
However, Finland joining NATO, there are concerns about the weakening role of multilateral cooperation formats like the Arctic Council. Russia’s Arctic Ambassador has stated that there can be no cooperation in the Council because the Nordic countries and NATO are boycotting Russia. Norway may look toward a diplomatic track but the odds are against it. De facto, Russians are out of any discussions in the Council.
Due to Finland’s extended border with Russia stretching approximately 130 miles along its Eastern side, Finland’s recent NATO membership disrupted the established nature of operations between the Arctic countries established after World War II. For example, prior to Finland’s entrance into NATO, even Russia and Norway had developed the ability to negotiate certain matters. However, President Putin expressed concerns that Finnish NATO membership would escalate tensions in border regions, essentially turning the Baltic Sea into an area where the Russians would face significant constraints. Thus, Russian’s deep disquiet creates a number of security challenges for Norway.
These challenges suggest that cooperation in the region faces serious, long term obstacles. The Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR) will be put at risk. Serving as a platform for military leaders from Arctic countries and observer states to promote regional understanding and strengthen multilateral security cooperation, ASFR’s focus on mitigating the risks of unintended escalation highlights the dangers peace and stability in the High North.
The deployment of fifth-generation F-35 fighters in the Arctic by countries like Norway, Denmark, and potentially Finland and Canada, reflects the increasing strategic significance of the region. The Arctic is not only a potential area of proximity between U.S. and Russian forces but is also gaining attention from China as an area of strategic importance. These developments necessitate enhanced defense capabilities, cooperation, and coordination among the Nordic countries and their partners, including the EU.
The EU Commission and Naalakkersuisut, the government of Greenland, organized the EU Arctic Forum and Indigenous People’s Dialogue on February 8-9, 2023. Denmark acts as a liaison between the interests of the EU and the people of Greenland and as a mediator in negotiations around their various economic and strategic interests. Denmark’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Prime Minister of Denmark Lars Løkke Rasmussen was present at the Forum and joined in a panel discussion on future international collaborations. The event primarily focused on the future of international cooperation in the Arctic, the EU’s involvement in the region, and promoting sustainable and inclusive economic development. Løkke Rasmussen also held separate discussions with Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries, regarding further cooperation between the EU and the Arctic region.
The involvement of Denmark’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in discussions with Greenlandic and Faroese colleagues, as well as participation in the EU Arctic Forum, indicates Denmark’s multi-dimensional ambitions in the High North.
While there are expected successes in defense capabilities, regional forums, economic projects, and diplomatic engagements, challenges such as geopolitical tensions, weakening multilateral formats, and changing partnerships pose obstacles to cooperation. Despite the fears of a turbulent region and the shadow of darkness overhanging the High North, the Nordic countries remain committed to promoting stability and security in the Arctic through ongoing cooperation efforts.
The region has been witnessing increased military activities and geopolitical rivalries, which have raised concerns about security and stability. While the Nordic countries seek military guarantees, they also understand the significance of exploring avenues that do not limit their future possibilities. They recognize that closing all doors and solely relying on a militaristic approach may hinder their ability to adapt to evolving geopolitical dynamics. Any international initiatives will need to be well calculated with an eye toward future consequences. Therefore, they aim to find a “golden path” that enables them to preserve their political autonomy while remaining open to different scenarios and options.
In light of these challenges, the Nordic countries realize that relying solely on external military support may compromise their sovereignty and hinder their ability to address their unique political requirements. Hence, they strive to strike a delicate balance between the need for military assurances and the preservation of their independent decision-making processes.