ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 5/2021. In Russian expert debate on Northern Europe policy, there has been a shift from a collaborative focus to an emphasis on security issues. In the 1990s and early 2000s, liberal experts still played a dominant role in framing the regional issues in Northern Europe. However, they gradually lost their position until 2014, when realpolitik supporters gained a dominant position in the expert community as the crisis in Ukraine begun. A similar trend can be seen in Russia’s main official strategies, the content of which was updated shortly after the start of the crisis in Ukraine in response to the worsening situation.
We have analysed the changes in the debate as part of a joint research project by the Finnish institute of International Affairs, the Aleksanteri Institute and the National Defence University. The project focuses on Russia’s foreign and security policy in Northern Europe. Monitoring the debate on this area will allow us to better understand Russia’s foreign policy priorities. For example, experts may discuss in more detail ideas that are expressed in very concise form in official documents. In addition, decision-makers may rely on expert opinions to justify their own objective setting. In Northern European issues, this is rare, however.
Liberal experts used to highlight the work of organisations such as the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, as well as the importance of policy issues such as trade, environment and people-to-people contacts. The Russian Government did the same as cooperation mechanisms helped to solve common problems and supported the socioeconomic development of Russia’s Arctic regions. One example of this cooperation approach is the agreement between Norway and Russia on the Barents maritime border, which was concluded in 2010 as the result of a four-decade process.
Realpolitik supporters, on the other hand, tend to see all Northern European issues from a security perspective — be they environmental issues, fishery, indigenous peoples’ rights, territorial disputes or the management of maritime routes. They regard the United States and NATO as the main threats to Russian security, often interpreting their military and diplomatic activities in Northern Europe as offensive. There is more appetite for these views in Russia now. Russia’s main security strategies have also started to focus on the possibility of conflict, and this threat scenario also applies to Northern Europe. Whereas in the 2009 version of the Russian national security strategy, the approach of NATO military infrastructure towards Russia’s borders was considered unacceptable, the 2015 version indicates that the NATO infrastructure’s approach is an on-going process and poses a threat to Russian security. The current version of 2021 no longer speaks of the infrastructure approaching, but rather of it increasing. In Northern Europe, these accounts relate in particular to the US military presence and NATO exercises in the Arctic. The strategy updates reflect Russia’s overall view of the situation in the region and the priorities of its bilateral relations with all the Nordic countries.
These changes in the key documents do not mean that Russia would not value the regional cooperation mechanisms established previously. However, Russia’s attitude towards the status of the region is also influenced by its interpretation of its global environment, in which the perceived threats are greater than in the past.
Alexander Sergunin is a Professor of the Department of International Relations of the St. Petersburg State University.
Jyri Lavikainen is a doctoral student in Aleksanteri Institute and a Research Fellow in the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.