Norway’s Arctic Questions

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre discusses northern development policies at UiT – Tromsø last week [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Marc Lanteigne

Last week, as a precursor to the drawing up of a new ‘roadmap’ for the further development of the Norwegian Arctic, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre spoke publicly about his government’s policy priorities for the country’s far north. His speech [in Norwegian], delivered at UiT: The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø) last week, placed a heavy focus on plans to improve many socio-economic conditions in northern Norway, reflecting the region’s status as ‘unikt fortrinn’, a unique advantage, for the country. 

Prime Minister Støre, who assumed office in October 2021, is the latest Norwegian leader to attempt to engage with the often-thorny politics of the north, including in matters such as declining local populations, the need to improve local economic conditions and opportunities, addressing north / south political divides, and the perpetual question of developing better northern transportation options. The country’s main rail system only extends as far north as Bodø, leaving many Arctic communities, (including Tromsø), dependent upon either road or air transport options for any sort of long distance travel. While the debate continues about the merits of a northern railway, especially as Arctic maritime trading routes continue to open, there exists no set timetable for any such project. 

As outlined in the Norwegian leader’s ‘pre-roadmap’ speech at UiT, Oslo’s updated northern development strategies included five policy priorities. The first of these was a concentration on the promotion of sustainable and green energy options. This issue was omnipresent in the runup to the country’s 2021 parliamentary elections, as early polling indicated an increase in popularity for two parties staunchly opposed to further fossil fuel development in Norway, namely the Greens (Miljøpartiet de Grønne) and the Socialist Left (Sosialistisk Venstreparti)Speculation, including internationally, about Norway’s ‘climate change election’ rotated around the question of whether there would be a significant policy shift away from the domestic petroleum industry, which has dominated the Norwegian economy ever since offshore oil was discovered in the 1960s. 

UiT Campus – Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

Ultimately, however, neither party entered the current coalition government, which is instead composed of a minority, moderate left partnership between Mr Støre’s Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) and the Centre Party (Senterpartiet), both of which have been supportive of Norway’s oil industry. Current policies now try to maintain a balance between overseeing further oil drilling activities, (especially as global fuel prices began to approach the US$90 per barrel mark since the year began, suggesting that the previous trauma in the industry caused by the pandemic may be over), and demonstrating its environmental credentials in the face of greater domestic and international scrutiny.

Three other aspects of the Norwegian government’s emerging northern strategy cited by the Prime Minister were the improvement of local welfare services, and the building of a stronger northern knowledge base, as well as improved regional infrastructure, (there was little reference to the rail question however). These points have been connected to the pressing issue of depopulation [in Norwegian] in Norway’s northern regions, as well as improving economic opportunities there for the overall benefit of the country. As Mr Støre noted in previous comments, there cannot be ‘an empty void on the border to Russia and the Arctic’.

Finally, there was an emphasis in the Prime Minister’s Tromsø speech on the Norwegian North as ‘a most important peace project’ (viktigste fredsprosjekt), an integral addition to the policy discussion given the rapidly changing security situation facing the Nordic-Arctic region over the past year. This addition reflected the Norwegian government difficult talk in simultaneously attempting to hold open the possibility of engagement with Russia, while also standing with allies, including the United States, to counter Moscow’s aggressive military actions in Europe. As was noted in the speech, Oslo still wishes to see Norway’s Arctic lands as reflecting ‘high north, low tension’. 

Norway’s northernmost (and easternmost) county, Troms og Finnmark, shares a 196-kilometre border with Russia at Sør-Varanger, and so the Norwegian Arctic is very much in the middle of the deteriorated security situation between Moscow and Washington, including due to Norway’s status as a NATO member. With the ongoing build-up of Russian military forces on its border with Ukraine since late last year, there has been much debate about what changes Russia may also make to its Arctic strategies, including from a military viewpoint. 

The Ukraine crisis has produced aftershocks radiating northward. There are now heightened security concerns in the Baltic region, the intensification of the debates in Finland and Sweden, Norway’s eastern neighbours, over whether to alter their security policies to allow for joining NATO, and whether future Nordic dialogues with Russia, which is currently holding the chair of the Arctic Council, on northern affairs will deteriorate, especially if Moscow does go ahead with military actions in Ukraine. 

Oslo itself has also been concerned of late with Russian cyberattacks on Norwegian institutions, policy pushback from Moscow over Norwegian policies in Svalbard, incidents of radio jamming on the border, and an uptick in Russian military activities in its Arctic lands. As a further example of spillover from the Ukraine situation, reports surfaced last week of interceptions by Norwegian and allied planes of Russian fighter jets in the Barents Sea.

As the Arctic continues to grow as a strategic and economic priority for the Vladimir Putin government, northern Norway will continue to be considered a front-line actor. As well, a wild card in Russia’s Arctic security policies may have recently  been added in the wake of a new agreement announced during a summit in Beijing by President Putin and his counterpart in China, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics which opened in the Chinese capital last week.

Approaching the Russian border in Kirkenes, Norway [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

joint statement between the two leaders not only reflects mutual opposition to NATO policies, (including further expansion), in Europe but also called for a deepening of bilateral Arctic cooperation, including in scientific cooperation, infrastructure building, and the continuing development of the Polar Silk Road. Both leaders expressed hopes that the PSR will eventually emerge as an Arctic maritime trade corridor connecting Northeast Asia to Europe via the Siberian coast, and although the timing remains uncertain, northern Norway may see increased numbers of cargo vessels making use of the emerging route in the coming years. However, this may also mean that the stage is being set for closer Sino-Russian cooperation in Arctic military affairs as well, including as a response to growing Arctic Ocean sea traffic from both powers. 

With Russia expanding its northern military activities, NATO has responded by also turning to the Arctic and deepening cooperation with the Norwegian military. These moves included a controversial agreement which, as of last year, would allow NATO nuclear-powered submarines to dock and operate in Tromsø. Norway will also be hosting a NATO exercise, Cold Response 2002 [in Norwegian], beginning next month. 

With the new roadmap, the Norwegian government appears to be preparing the northern section of the country to play many roles, including as a source of economic and environmental innovation, but also as a potential island of stability as Arctic affairs become more complicated and riskier. As comments from attendees following the Tromsø speech suggested however, there remains a noteworthy gap between what has been previously promised by Oslo regarding far northern affairs, and what can be and actually has been done. It is certain that the new Arctic plan by the Støre government will thus be studied very carefully upon its release.