Norwegian media have been full of stories this week about how Russia is allegedly trying to intimidate and create problems for their much smaller Scandinavian neighbour. One defense expert claims it’s all part of efforts by Russia to “bully” Norway as relations sink to the freezing point.
First a Russian hacker group claimed responsibility for disrupting a long string of Norwegian websites. Then some Russian officials claimed Norway was violating the Svalbard Treaty for allegedly not letting them send supplies to their Arctic enclave of Barentsburg. It peaked when the foreign relations committee of Russia’s national assembly (the Duma) let it be known that they wanted to “re-evaluate” the border between Russia and Norway in the Barents Sea that took 40 years to negotiate. Suddenly the so-called delelinje that former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev initiated is no longer the fair deal that even Medvedev thought it was.
Russian news bureau RIA claimed that Norway “got 175,000 square kilometers of the Barents Sea … and now we see that Norway is hindering supplies of food to our settlement on Svalbard,” according to Duma member Mikhail Matvejev. He complained that the Barents border was supposed to improve cooperation between the two countries.
‘The goal is to frighten…’
Karen-Anna Eggen, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Studies at Norway’s military college (Forsvarets høgskole), told newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday that the Russians’ goal is to scare the Norwegians. “They’re showing that they can bully us,” Eggen told Aftenposten. “The goal is to frighten the public and put pressure on politicians.”
Another goal may be to create conflict and friction where there’s no reason for either. Russia, for example, accused Norway earlier in the week of violating the Svalbard Treaty by refusing to allow Russian trucks full of goods bound for Barentsburg to cross the Russian-Norwegian border at Storskog and drive them to a harbour for shipment up to Svalbard. Sanctions against Russia prohibit that, but Norway’s foreign ministry announced Wednesday that the Russians’ containers can simply be transported with Norwegian trucks and ships instead.
“It was never our intention to halt the shipment of goods,” Ane Lunde of the foreign ministry told Aftenposten. “They chose one of the solutions that we’d proposed all along.” The other would simply have been for the Russians to send the goods by ship or air from Russia itself. Asked whether she thought Russia was indeed intentionally trying to create problems, Lunde merely responded that “we are glad we now have found a good solution for this in dialogue with the Russia side.”
The ministry hasn’t complained, either, that Russian hackers depicted Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt as a witch out of a Disney cartoon on social media. It should also be noted that Russia and the former Soviet Union regularly complain about how Norway administers the Svalbard Treaty. The Arctic archipelago is Norwegian territory but a treaty dating back to 1920 allows other countries to have a presence there, with Russia continuing to operate a coal mine at Barentsburg and maintaining a population of several hundred in the isolated village only reachable by ship or helicopter.
Norway and Russia have generally been good neighbours over the centuries, also when Russia was the base of the former Soviet Union and during the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, however, changed all that, with Norway condemning the invasion along with most all other European countries and strongly supporting Ukraine.
Some think the recent sabre-rattling by Russia also reflects how a string of Norwegian top politicians have been visiting Ukraine. Not only have Russian launched a PR campaign against Norway, some foreign policy experts think the warnings about the Barents border are an “emotional” reaction from Russia.
“I would be very surprised if Russia wants to put this entire region in play,” Karsten Friis, senior researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, told. “And they know that they can freely transport supplies to Barentsburg. I think this is mostly an emotional outburst because of the sanctions and the situation they’ve landed in (through the war in Ukraine).” He doesn’t think it’s a serious call for new policy, noting that Russia still relies on cooperation with Norway both on Svalbard and fishing policy.
“It also shows that Norway is quite pragmatic regarding the Russian population in Barentsburg,” Friis said. “It’s important to be both firm on principles and be pragmatic and not let politics take over.”