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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Norway both scolds and negotiates with Russia at the same time

Norway has heightened security around all critical infrastructure and harbours, and called the Russian ambassador in on the carpet in Oslo. At the same time, however, Norwegian officials invited Russian counterparts to renegotiate fishing rights in the Barents Sea, and the two sides will meet later this month.

Some of Norway’s new F35 fighter jets have been sent out on surveillance missions around offshore oil and gas platforms, to ward off a threat of Russian sabotage. At the same time, Norwegian and Russian fisheries officials have agreed to meet for talks on fishing quotas. PHOTO: Forsvaret

“We can’t avoid noting that this is a quite unusual development given the current situation,” Professor Geir Hønneland at Fridtjof Nansens Institute told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday. “It’s a seldom bit of normality in how the world relates to Russia.”

The Norwegian government has repeatedly condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and gone along with the EU and US sanctions against Russia. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and his government coalition, however, have controversially chosen to shield management of fishing stocks in Arctic waters from the sanctions.

The two countries have cooperated on fishing quotas for the past 50 years, even during the Cold War, and around 500,000 tons of cod that researchers believe can be caught is now up for negotiation. Russia and Norway have usually split the quota equally.

Norway’s government ministry in charge of fisheries confirmed to NRK that new negotiations between Norway and Russia are planned to take place in two weeks. “We received confirmation just before last weekend from the Russian side that they’d accepted our proposal,” Halvard Wensel of the ministry told NRK. He said the meeting will be conducted digitally, with several high-level government representatives on both sides taking part.

Støre, a career diplomat himself, has made it clear all along that he would still prefer dialogue with Russia. He recently acknowledged to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that he realizes that’s not possible now, with the exception of the fishing quota negotiations.

These two Russian trawlers are examples of the vessels still allowed to berth in Norwegian ports, like here in the northern city of Harstad in May. PHOTO: NewsinEnglish.no/Morten Møst

Pressure has been building on that, too, not least because Norway has also continued to allow Russian fishing vessels and even oligarchs’ yachts to sail in Norwegian waters and berth in Norwegian harbours. That’s led to concerns the Russian vessels are, and have been, able to spy on Norway, possibly chart its sea floors and, in a worst case scenario, sabotage underwater infrastructure like Russia’s own gas pipelines in the Baltic that were subject to explosions last week.

Several opposition Members of Parliament have asked the government to reevaluate its sanctions exemption against Russian vessels in Norway harbours, while several critics both Norwegian and foreign have suggested that Norwegian officials have been naive in allowing all the Russian maritime activity off its coast. British-American investor Bill Browder, one of Putin’s biggest critics, says he can’t understand why Norway allows it.

“If there’s any country that can afford sanctions against Russia, it’s Norway,” Browder told DN this week. Støre has claimed that because Norway has such a long coastline and also cooperates with Russia on search and rescue operations, it’s important that vessels have access to unload fish or seek help in an emergency.

Browder objects mightily: “That’s the thinnest argument I’ve heard for a long time, because all experience shows that dialog with Russia is impossible.” He thinks any talks over fisheries management “must simply wait in a situation where Ukrainians are dying every single day in Putin’s war.”

Fisheries Minister Bjørnar Skjæran, photographed here on a recent visit to the large fishing port of Myre in Vesterålen. PHOTO: NFD

Støre and his fisheries minister, Bjørnar Skjæran of the Labour Party, counter that “sustainable management” of Norway’s huge fishing resources and seafood industry is “fundamental” to the government. Skjæran pointed to the collapse of the herring industry in the 1960s and a cod crisis in the 1980s. Both Russia and Norway have long viewed sustainable management as being in both countries’ interests, despite their political differences.

Browder, meanwhile, thinks the sanctions against Russia should become even tougher. He wants Norway to ban Russian vessels from all Norwegian harbours and waters, including fishing vessels, cargo ships and pleasure craft or yachts. He also wants Norway to deny entry to all Russian citizens except verified dissidents opposing Putin’s regime. He also wants Norway to keep producing as much gas and oil as possible to help Europe contain its energy crisis. Only the latter demand is being met.

Støre has faced other criticism as well, not least over Norway’s lack of security around important energy installations that only now are under patrol, perhaps too late. Norway’s commercial oil and gas industry has also been accused of being poorly prepared for either physical or cyber attacks.

“Norway’s understanding of security needs has been inadequate,” wrote Anders Romarheim, leader of the Center for International Security (FHS/IFS), in newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend. Norway has long concentrated on safety at its oil and gas installations, but not security. Robert Mood, a retired general who led some of Norway’s special forces and served as a UN envoy, is convinced drones have been used to chart Norwegian infrastructure, and that they’ve put Norway “in a frighteningly exposed position.” He thinks Norwegian politicians have forsaken public safety, telling newspaper Dagsavisen that “it’s more popular to open new roads and clip ribbons than to make long-term preparedness a priority.”

There’s been a rush towards more security in the past week, though, since the pipeline explosions in the Baltic. Not only have naval forces been sent out to patrol waters around offshore oil and gas platforms, some are also being buzzed by F35 fighter jets and this week, thousands of home guard troops were being mobilized to guard onshore oil and gas facilities and various other power stations. Many others have been called in for training, for example at Bergenhus Fortress.

Troops from the Norwegian Home Guard (Heimevernet) are shown here during an earlier training exercise. Now they’re being put in place at critical infrastructure all over the country to guard against sabotage. PHOTO: Forsvaret

“Folks are taking this very seriously,” Sgt Jakob Stuland Songstad, on duty in Bergen, told NRK on Monday. Troops are also in place outside Equinor’s facilities at Mongstad and Kollsnes, after local police called for assistance. The F35s based at Ørland have been sent out to watch over oil and gas installations and patrol the coast.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stated in a press release on Tuesday that her ministry carried out a “conversation” with Russia’s ambassador to Norway. “We called in the ambassador to again make Norway’s view on the decision to include four Ukrainian regions into Russia clear. That is a clear violation of the rule of law. Fictitious public referenda didn’t change that.”

Huitfeldt also said Norway would continue its political, economic and military support for Ukraine, in close cooperation with its NATO allies. “We support Ukraine’s sovereignty, its right to decide over its own borders and its right to defend itself.”

Several other EU countries have been calling in Russian ambassadors. It hasn’t been revealed how the ambassadors have responded.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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