Prime Minister Erna Solberg traveled straight from the NATO summit in Wales to a local political meeting in Northern Norway over the weekend, and arrived with a serious message: Norway’s Arctic areas must prepare for an economic chill with higher unemployment until freezing relations with Russia begin to melt.
“It’s easy to think that a NATO meeting in Wales doesn’t have much to do with a local government conference in Tromsø,” Solberg told Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “But the new security situation (with NATO concerns about Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine) affects us in Norway, and it has greater effect on Northern Norway.”
The region has been enjoying its biggest upswing in years, given new cross-border initiatives with Russia and joint offshore oil and gas projects in the Barents Sea. Now the future of energy cooperation and new shipping routes in the area are at risk because of the tension that many are calling the beginning of a new Cold War.
“The link between the NATO summit and the northern areas is strong,” Solberg told DN. “Russia’s unacceptable acts (from the annexation of Crimea to the support for Ukraine separatists) don’t only hurt Ukrainians but are also a violation of principles and values that serve Norway and are important to us. That affects us here in the north.”
As late as last week, just before leaving for Wales, Solberg said she still considered Russia as a partner, but her tone toughened after arriving for the NATO summit. Norway has adopted sanctions against Russia and went along with plans to toughen them further.
“Many of the projects and investment planned for Northern Norway depended on having Russia as a partner,” Solberg noted. “There’s no doubt it will be tougher for business and the energy sector now. And Russia’s participation in Northern Norway will be less this year and onwards. Russia’s answer to the international sanctions is already hitting employment in Northern Norway and will probably hit harder when the sanctions are toughened.”
She saw for herself the immediate effects of Russia’s response to the sanctions when she visited Lofoten recently. Russia’s swift decision to ban imports of Norwegian salmon and other seafood meant that several Norwegian companies’ most important market disappeared overnight. “We will find new markets, but the new situation is being felt,” Solberg said.
She claimed Norway has no desire to contribute towards escalating tensions. “This is not a bilateral conflict between Norway and Russia,” she noted. “We want constructive and predictable relations with Russia, but they have to want the same. We’re therefore maintaining important cooperation on management of fishing stocks, for example.”
For now, though, Norway’s “partnership” with Russia is being put to the test. Asked whether Norway will be boosting its military operations in Northern Norway, she replied that the most important deterrent to Russian aggression is Norway’s membership in NATO. “We have (military) presence in the north both at sea and in the air,” she added. “Our visibility and cooperation with our other allies is important.”